5th October

Steven Agnew speaking at Stormont

Here is Steven Agnew, last Tuesday, presenting his Children’s Bill at the Northern Ireland Assembly.  The screenshot is from the Stormont Today coverage of the Bill, which you can watch again (for a while) on BBC iPlayer here (beginning around seven minutes in).

It is ironic, as was pointed out, that this Bill, which is all about co-operation between departments and agencies for the benefit of Northern Ireland’s children, should have been debated in the midst of so much non-co-operation, gamesplaying and petty point-scoring on the part of the Executive parties.  As I write, yet another week of talks is beginning, with the same items on the agenda.  As Peter McBride said on Sunday Politics yesterday (48 mins in), the problem isn’t so much the issues with which they are struggling, but how they are going about it, the mechanisms and behaviours that ‘shock the public’.

As Steven has been saying, it is time for a new civic conversation, time for the wider society in Northern Ireland and the individuals which it comprises to bring their own experience, good sense and wisdom to bear upon the vital questions of our political future. The continuation and transformation of our devolved government and assembly, the right of people in Northern Ireland to take charge of their own destiny, these are too important to be entrusted entirely to squabbling old enemies.  It is our children, and theirs in turn, who will bear the burden of decisions made now, and for their sake we should be demanding more.

11th September

6Well, of my three possible options yesterday, none of them precisely happened.  As the world and his dog now knows, Peter Robinson decided not to resign, but to ‘stand aside’, leaving Arlene Foster as both Finance Minister and Acting First Minister, or, as she herself described it on The View last night, ‘Gatekeeper’.  Quite where that leaves us, the world doesn’t know, and his dog isn’t telling.

Off to the corporation tax events today, I haven’t time to write in detail, but fortunately Steven Agnew has issued a wise and thoughtful statement:

“I am bitterly disappointed at the outcome of today’s events at Stormont. The continuing instability of the institutions can leave nobody in any doubt that changes are needed as to how our political institutions operate. People voted for local democracy and power sharing in 1998. Since then, a series of behind closed doors deals and inter-party agreements have undermined the democratic legitimacy of the governance structures in Northern Ireland. We need to learn from the failures of the secretive Haass talks and the Stormont House Agreement and engage citizens in a civic conversation to decide the future of democracy in Northern Ireland. I call on the Secretary of State to establish a process that brings in voices of both political parties and wider society with the ultimate aim of bringing forward proposals to review, reform and revitalise the Good Friday Agreement. Any proposals which arise must be put to the people of Northern Ireland via a referendum. We cannot continue to have the future of democracy in Northern Ireland held to ransom by parties watching their back due to a fear of loss of votes.”

 

 

10th September

tax justice flyer

This is what I’m doing tomorrow – speaking at the Tax haven Ulster: Faith, justice and corporation tax in Northern Ireland event in Belfast, organised by Christians on the Left.  The main speaker is Richard Murphy, Quaker, Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London, author of the brilliant Tax Research UK blog and economic adviser to Jeremy Corbyn.  I will be talking about corporation tax and about why both I personally and the Green Party, are opposed to its reduction in Northern Ireland.  Richard has mentioned the event, and his own views, in his own blog post today.

The other speakers at the event, which begins at 7pm in the HUB, Elmwood Avenue, are Dave Thomas of Christian Aid, with whom I have worked on many campaigns and events over the years, Claire Hanna of the SDLP and the Jesuit theologian Brendan MacPartlin.

I’m also planning to go to another event featuring Richard Murphy tomorrow.  This is a workshop at Queen’s University, arranged by Professor (and Green Party Councillor) John Barry entitled Lowering Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland: A Smart Move or Dangerous Risk? I’m very much looking forward to both, to contributing and to learning more about this vital and much misrepresented topic. 

Meanwhile we are awaiting the next stage in the news from Stormont.  As the BBC reports, the DUP’s announcement yesterday seems to leave three options.

a. The business committee of Stormont, meeting this afternoon, would vote to adjourn the Assembly.  This would mean that the Executive Ministers (other than the UUP, which has already withdrawn) would remain in place and in power but the Assembly would not sit.

b. The government would suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, returning us to direct rule from Westminster.

c. If neither of the above events occur, Peter Robinson has said that he and the other DUP ministers would resign.  His resignation would trigger an early election, probably in November (the next Stormont elections are otherwise scheduled for next May).

As Steven Agnew has said, the people of Northern Ireland deserve better than to be thrust into this situation.  The prospect of the Executive governing for more than a short period with no legislative assembly is, I would suggest personally, contrary to the basic principles of constitutional law and of the separation of powers.  The people’s right to representation, as exercised by their choice of MLAs in democratic elections, is not a plaything of the First Minister, to be cast aside at his whim.  Similarly, the devolution of regional government is a real and vital part of our current constitutional settlement, not an ephemeral experiment or a new toy to be taken back by Westminster when the children begin to squabble. Try to imagine either of these scenarios occurring in Scotland – the Scottish government ruling without its Parliament, or Scottish devolution being suspended altogether …  not easy, is it?

And here, of course, there are also darker reasons to keep the Stormont settlement going.  As the Rev. Harold Good, former President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and a respected figure in the peace process, has said:

Many of us are fearful that all we have put into this and all that other people have worked for could get lost just too speedily, too swiftly. How difficult it would be to get it back. Let’s remember that and let’s think also about the vacuum that would be left, we could be back to square one. There are people out there waiting in the shadows, across our community, who would take advantage and exploit this opportunity for another agenda.”

None of this, of course, is to diminish the huge responsiblity which now falls upon Sinn Fein to answer very serious and deep-rooted questions about its nature and relationships.  These questions are made even more vital and more urgent by recent events. But Northern Ireland has faced worse times, worse dilemmas before, and has overcome them.  I hope and pray that those making decisions in the next few hours and days will find it in their hearts to do so with a little patience, a little humility and a little courage.  The people of Northern Ireland, who will bear the burden of failure, deserve at least this.

p.s. Since I drafted this, Steven Agnew has issued a further statement.  He says

“Whilst no evidence has been provided that should necessitate the Assembly to collapse, it appears we are faced with two options – either suspend or collapse the Assembly.  Neither of these options is ideal however the least worst option would be for the Business Committee to agree to a temporary suspension. However this must be on the condition that there is a deadline set for the Assembly to resume. This would allow time for calm and a period of negotiations. The alternative is a political vacuum which will undoubtedly increase tensions. We need to learn the lessons of the failures of past talks. Once the best compromised has been reached, no one party should have veto over the future of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. Any proposals should be put to the people of Northern Ireland. It is their future that hangs in the balance and they should have the final say.”

I entirely agree.

 

1st January

At the borehole site in August

What I’d really like to see in 2015:

1. Climate change being taken seriously.

We don’t have any more time to mess around.  We have to make real and substantial changes now, if our children and grandchildren, and the most vulnerable and blameless of the world’s people, are not to pay a terrible price for our stupidity and greed. The best piece of news recently is the anticipation of Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical. If he speaks out as trenchantly as we hope, it’s possible that millions of Catholics, the other Christians and people of other or no faith who respect his judgment, and global leaders both political and religious, will take notice and act. That is my first prayer and hope for our new year.

 

2. The departure of this cruel and duplicitous coalition government in the UK.

David Cameron and his cronies, facilitated by the spineless LibDems, have succeeded in overseeing a massive shift of resources from the poor to the rich, an increase in fear, suspicion and selfishness, the destruction of hopes for a sustainable future and the worsening of every measure of the common good.  Their friends in the media, fellow beneficiaries of the Tory Robin-Hood-in-reverse, have gone along with every step, setting up only the straw Farage as a pseudo-opposition.  My second hope, therefore, is that the people of the UK will come to their senses before May and choose a genuine alternative.

 

3. The Green surge continuing throughout the British Isles.

This isn’t mere party loyalty.  The growth in membership and support of the Green Party has been the only effective counterbalance to the media-fuelled rise of UKIP and will serve not only to bring more much-needed Green MPs into Parliament but also to remind parties such as Labour that there are people out there who respect principle, know that ‘aspiration’ means more than a fatter wallet and that our children’s futures are not to be gambled for a cheap soundbite.  Without the Greens, I fear we’d only have shades of blue.

 

4. Northern Irish politicians acknowledging their mistakes and seeking a wider vision.

Between Sinn Fein, whose wafer-thin progressive credentials were accidentally exposed by Gerry Adams this year, and the DUP, who increasingly glory in having none, politics in Northern Ireland is increasingly petty, bad-tempered and out of touch with external standards of behaviour.  The results aren’t just embarrassing; they’re positively retrograde and damaging to our hopes of a positive and prosperous future for this beautiful and gifted region.  It is no coincidence that Steven Agnew has won numerous independent awards for his integrity, professionalism and hard work as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  If other MLAs followed his example, our shared future would be a real prospect instead of a ragged hope.

 

5. An end to the threat of fracking in Fermanagh and beyond.

2014 has brought great successes to the frack-free movement both locally and worldwide, with Tamboran forced to postpone their plans for Belcoo, increasing evidence of the futility and destructive nature of the technique, and bans in the most unexpected places, including New York and the ‘fracking capital’ of Denton, Texas. It would be foolish, though, to think that we have won.  The UK government is more keen than ever to subsidise its friends in the fossil fuel industry, Tamboran are bringing judicial review proceedings to try to recover their licence, and more areas of Northern Ireland are under threat from the experimental process.  Nearly all of our politicians here in Northern Ireland, and especially those standing for election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, claim to be ‘anti-fracking’ but few, apart from the Green Party, have taken any action to stop it (1).  And with political funding still secret here (2), we have no way of knowing what might be in their interests during the months and years to come.

 

There are a few more things on my long wish list, including new brakes for my bike and the loss of the few pounds I’ve put on in mince pies, but these will do for a start.  Very best wishes to you all for a peaceful, happy and hopeful New Year.

 

 Notes:

(1)  At the recent vote on the government’s Infrastructure Bill, which will change the law of trespass to allow fracking under people’s homes against their will, only ten MPs voted No, including Caroline Lucas of the Green Party.  Sinn Fein MPs do not attend the House of Commons and so did not take part in the debate or the vote.

(2) The Green Party does not accept corporate donations, and publishes details of all donations over £500.

 

28th November

Doors into the Parliament Buildings, Stormont.
Doors into the Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

The second part of the BBC Spotlight investigation into MLA’s expenses, shown on Tuesday evening, caused less of a rumpus than the first, overshadowed perhaps, by the curried yoghurt and Trojan Horse spectacles. In this week’s race to the bottom, maybe Stormont’s dubious employment practices just don’t have the thrilling revulsion factor.

All the same, I was surprised to read in the Impartial Reporter this morning that Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott thinks there was ‘never any issue’ about his use of public money to employ ex-UUP chief executive and former deputy returning officer Alastair Patterson.  As the paper reports:

“Tuesday night’s BBC Spotlight investigation into MLA expenses revealed that, for six years, Tom Elliott claimed from his expenses under the heading ‘secretarial and research’. The programme found that £45,000 was paid to Lord Ken Maginnis, who, in turn, paid Alastair Patterson for constituency and Assembly work.

The former UUP Chief Executive Alastair Patterson was given a suspended jail sentence in 2005 after pleading guilty to 18 charges of corruption, theft and false accounting. He is still employed by Tom Elliott in his Dungannon constituency office.

Asked if it is acceptable that he paid a man convicted of dishonesty with public money for six years, Mr. Elliott tells The Impartial Reporter: “Well, I don’t think that [his conviction] has anything to do with his work. It’s been long known that Alastair Patterson remained in the Dungannon office ever since I became an MLA; there was never any issue around that.”

He continues: “That’s going back to 2003-2004 when there was no clarity about whether the Assembly would be up-and-running again or not. The arrangement gave me flexibility at the time because of that uncertainty.”

I’m very much in favour of people who’ve made a mistake being given a second chance; young people from difficult backgrounds who’ve fallen into bad company and found themselves on the wrong side of the law, people in desperate circumstances who’ve taken desperate remedies, people whose lives have been distorted by abuse, drugs and deprivation. But it’s very far from easy for most convicted criminals to find work again; they have to struggle to prove that they have learned their lessons and put the mistakes of the past behind them.  Organisations like PACT show how hard it can be.

And of course it’s clear why it’s difficult.  Employers want to be sure that the person will not be tempted to reoffend while in their new job, that their colleagues, customers and clients will be safe and their property secure.  In the case of the public sector, the employer has a broader duty still, to ensure that the interests of the wider community are protected.

That is why I’m surprised at Tom Elliott’s blithe dismissal of concerns about this issue.  It may well be the case that Mr Patterson is contrite, reformed and rehabilitated.  There may be no risk whatsoever from his employment.  But the nature of his offences: false accounting, theft and corruption, would not in other circumstances make his continued work in a position of public responsibility a matter of course.

The wider issue that this example illustrates, I think, is the deep-seated attitude of entitlement shown by mainstream politicans in Northern Ireland today.  They are public servants, and in their conduct, expenses and allocation of privileges, must be accountable to the public which they serve.  Arlene Foster, in her extraordinary outburst against the Spotlight programme, exhibited exactly the same delusion.  It may be that none of our politicians have done anything wrong, that all their expense arrangements are entirely legitimate.  But serious questions have been asked, need to be asked now and should be asked in the future.  It would be encouraging to hear a little more humility in the answers.

 

3rd November

1103a

 

To Stormont today, to meet a group of students from Enniskillen Collegiate and Mount Lourdes Grammar Schools and to talk to them about the Green Party.  Fortunately Translink’s Ramber bus ticket applied, so I was able to travel all the way to Stormont and back again for only £9.  I got up early, hoping to pack up the weekend’s post (my ‘day job’ is as an online bookseller at Crystal Bard Books) and to have some breakfast before I left to catch the bus.  But as the packing slips slid out of the front of the printer, M noticed that green ink was pouring out of the back, so the time slot allocated to peanut butter on toast was instead taken up with absorbent cloths and baby wipes. The fallback gastronomic option was brunch in the Stormont coffee shop, but there were more fracking developments to discuss, so that didn’t happen either.  I don’t think I introduced myself to the Enniskillen students by saying ‘My name is Tanya Jones and I’m really hungry”, but I can’t guarantee it. Whatever I said, it elicited some interesting questions, about the feasibility of a political career for women in Northern Ireland, the relationship between the economy and the environment, and the connections between faith and Green politics.

1103And food, when it finally materialised, sometime around half past three,  was worth waiting for, as I met Rory at the Common Grounds cafe on University Avenue.  Common Grounds is a non-profit business which serves fantastic fair trade coffee and wonderful food (the onion chutney sandwich today was absolute perfection) and gives away its profits (over £55,000 to date) to support humanitarian projects in the majority world and to raise awareness of issues that affect the global poor.  It was the venue earlier this year for the launch of the latest Green Party in Northern Ireland manifesto, and is a perfect illustration of the ways in which, as I had just said in Stormont, Green politics and Gospel values encapsulate the same vision: of care for creation, protection of the most vulnerable, redistribution of resources from the rich to the poor and the bringing about of peace and reconciliation.  I’m always delighted and humbled to be there, even when I’m not quite so hungry as today….