BBC BLOGS - The Devenport Diaries

Archives for June 2010

Caitriona under seige

Mark Devenport | 13:26 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Caitriona Ruane may have given Enda Kenny the run around during last weekend's mixed doubles match at Castlebar, County Mayo, but back at Stormont she's having to bat away opposition from several different directions. The minister is under pressure from schools who haven't got money for their proposed new buildings, and parents angered by cuts in funding for summer schemes for children attending special schools.

Then a short time ago some young people held a boisterous protest on the steps at Stormont against the minister's decision to cut her department's community relations budget by an estimated 70%. The protestors argue that allowing around 26 projects to go to the wall would be "foolish, untimely and would ultimately endorse a divided and sectarian society." The minister argues that she wants to reshape her department's community relations policy in order to be less dependent on external organisations, instead giving schools themselves a more important role to play. The protestors on the steps today, who were joined by a number of MLAs, weren't convinced.

Dog Fighting, Puppy Farms and Backbones

Mark Devenport | 12:12 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Back in 2007, the BBC Spotlight programme's investigation into dog fighting and the activities of gangs like the Tandragee based Farmers Boys captured the headlines. Today MLAs have been debating some changes to the law in response to the widespread concern about such cruelty to animals. The Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew says her bill will create a series of new offences connected with animal fighting and the maximum sentence for animal fighting will rise from 3 months to 2 years. MLAs raised concerns about cruelty in puppy farming. It also seems the politicains are being lobbied a fair bit over the proposed ban on docking dogs' tails. The details of what's under discussion can be found in the explanatory notes for the Animal Welfares Bill.

At one point the DUP's Jim Wells raised his concern about the cooking of lobsters - wasn't boiling them alive inherently cruel? The minister responded that current research points to animals without backbones not feeling pain. However she said that if the research changes, she had made provision for the bill to be extended to invertebrates in the future.

MLA Malapropisms

Mark Devenport | 15:56 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010


A colleague of mine who listens intently to Stormont proceedings has been compiling an end of term list of Assembly jargon. It's hard to keep track of the number of times we've heard about "holistic approaches", "executive synergies" and "cross cutting issues". But some of the best recent language included a contribution from Edwin Poots on 25th February, assuring his audience that what he was telling them was not "some cock and boom story", and another on June 1st asking members to "think outside the box rather than making a kneejerk reaction".

Basil McCrea's tongue also ran away with him on May 11th when he assured his audience that "this is not a time for gazel naving".

Tweets and Blogs

Mark Devenport | 15:03 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010


I've had a ghost tweet site on which I never made any entries for a while ( I started it in the mistaken assumption I needed a site of my own to read Eamon Mallie's latest thoughts). Now somewhat belatedly, I've decided to start tweeting in conjunction with this blog. Coincidentally my new Smart Phone has gone up in smoke so I might not tweet as regularly as I'd like to at first. But should you have the desire to keep across both sites you can find my tweets here.

Soldiers and Victims

Mark Devenport | 14:10 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010


In their final week before the Assembly's summer break, a couple of unionist MLAs are bringing forward private bills which might pose some problems for politicians on the opposite side of the house. Today David McNarry's Armed Forces and Veterans Bill had its first reading. This is a technical stage at which the bill's title is read out but no debate ensues. However you can read Mr McNarry's bill here. Ending any disadvantage to members of the armed forces may be an uncontroversial objective in Great Britain. But how will Sinn Fein ministers respond to the section of the bill requiring their departments to "appoint a co-ordinator who will take responsibility for identifying and addressing matters which affect members of the armed forces, veterans and their families"?

On Wednesday the DUP's Peter Weir is due to introduce his Victims and Survivors (Disqualification) Bill. There is no text up on the Assembly website yet, but I understand this is essentially the proposal previously unveiled by Jeffrey Donaldson seeking to ensure that the perpetrators of violence in the past are not defined as victims.

UPDATE Tuesday 29th June: The DUP's Peter Weir has told my colleague Jim Fitzpatrick that he will not be moving his Victims Bill on Wednesday. It has been put back until a later date.

Lisburn Lives On

Mark Devenport | 12:40 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010


Last Monday I attended a meeting of Lisburn council which replaced the outgoing mayor the DUP's Alan Ewart, with his party colleague Paul Porter. the SDLP's Brian Heading got the deputy's post. I wasn't there for the mayoral election in particular, but to witness Edwin Poots' last day as a councillor. Both the Environment Minister and the local MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, stood dwon as part of their committment to phase out double jobbing.

Mr Poots, however, will continue to have rather a lot to do with councils in his role as minister in charge of local government. As pointed out previously here, last week's Executive failure to move ahead with the streamlining of the 26 councils was rather lost in the inevitable focus on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. This week councils which might have assumed they were going to be merged with their neighbours are now planning for fresh elections and five more years of life.

At Lisburn I came across the veteran councillor Seamus Close decrying the failure to push ahead with the 11 council plan as a lost opportunity to provide the ratepayer with a better deal. Sinn Fein's Paul Butler refused to buy Mr Poots' arguments that the financial figures didn't add up - instead he insisted that DUP reservations about the proposed council boundaries and the model of power sharing envisaged for the new councils lay at the heart of the debacle.

The minister remains unrepentant, arguing that, without futher efficiencies provided by the collaboration of the councils in providing their business services, the shake up would have cost more than it would have saved. He claims Sinn Fein, not the DUP, has held up the proposals on sharing power in the council chamber.

So where now? Mr Poots maintains that the 11 council model isn't dead. Instead he wants to work towards its eventual implementation. He met local government representatives on Wednesday and asked them to come back to him within 2 weeks with their proposals for further collaboration and efficiency. Until then he is not knocking on the head any future funding for the so called Transition Committees on which councillors were meant to be charting a way forward.

The department also tells me that the minister still wants to give the councils powers over planning, but this will be subject to Executive approval. Sinn Fein, who remain annoyed about the failure to push ahead with the RPA, may have a problem with putting such potentially sensitive powers into the hands of councils which are not yet signed up to new governance rules.

So far as staff are concerned some may have been looking forward to pay offs but others will be relieved that the threat of mergers leading to redundancies has lifted. the department has lifted a freeze on recruitment which has been in place since October 2009.

Veteran councillors, however, look like missing out on the severance payments which could have given them £1000 for every year of their service. As Seamus Close joked with me, he may now have to go cap in hand to his bank manager to plead penury in these harsh economic times. Still at least he has the freedom of the city of Lisburn (recently granted to him, the UUP's Ivan Davis and Edwin Poots' father, DUP veteran Charles Poots) to give him some comfort.

Glasnost at Glastonbury

Mark Devenport | 12:05 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010


There's been a lot of fuss about the prospects for a Royal visit to the Republic before Mary McAleese finishes her Presidential term. But whilst republicans were expressing their opposition to a visit from the Queen ( or in their language "Mrs Windsor") the real spirit of glasnost seems to have been on display at Glastonbury where the Colonel in Chief of the Parachute Regiment had a chat with the architect of the ballot box and armalite strategy.

Music buff and writer Danny Morrison says he's "drawn a line under the past". But did Prince Charles know who he was chatting with?

P.S. On the topic of VIP visits to the France, there's speculation that President Obama could visit Cork to give a lecture in in honour of the anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass. A friend reckons this could happen as soon as the autumn, but so far the US authorities are staying mum on the matter. If so the President could be heading in one direction whilst our ministers are heading in the other as they are due in Washington for an investment conference hosted by Hillary Clinton in late October.

Guernsey Awayday

Mark Devenport | 17:44 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010


Five of our ministers are off to Guernsey for the 14th meeting of the British Irish council. the meeting is to be hosted at the rather nice looking four star Fermain Valley hotel. The BIC was brought in by the Good Friday Agreement as a political balance to the cross border bodies and the North South Ministerial Council. But given the tight economic times, the DUP's Simon Hamilton has just put out a statement questioning continued spending on quangoes, commissions and cross border bodies. Maybe both the north-south and the east- west trips should be replaced by less expensive, less time consuming conference calls.

Expenses stand off 2

Mark Devenport | 17:30 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010


The DUP insist there's nothing fishy about Stephen Moutray being moved off the Assembly Commission, just days after the party rejected the scheme for reforming expenses which had been drawn up during his time on the Commission. They point out that the Upper Bann MLA has been promoted a high profile job as chair of the Agriculture Committee, taking over from Ian Paisley Junior.

However Sinn Fein doesn't buy this version. Their Chief Whip Carál Ní Chuilín says "it is clear that there are divisions within the DUP about the approach to MLA expenses claims. For months Mr Moutray worked with other parties and came to agreement on the new transparent system. His Assembly colleagues obviously felt unable to live with such an open system and Mr Moutray has now paid the price with his removal from the Assembly Commission."

Whichever version you believe, you can peruse the Assembly Commission's aborted expenses proposals here, with the summary of recommendations on page 31.

Hares and Snares 2

Mark Devenport | 16:43 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010


Well I promised to keep you updated on the Wildlife and Environment Bill, but was off work yesterday. So for those who didn't catch it elsewhere, this piece from my colleague Martin Cassidy confirms that our MLAs banned hare coursing, but didn't give the animal extra protection.

For those asking about him Jim Shannon did indeed make a number of lengthy contributions to the debate, which can be read in full in the Official Report. For a taster, here's his thoughts on eradicating grey squirrels: "when Sammy Wilson was the Minister of the Environment, I tabled a couple of questions to see what he was going to do to eradicate the grey squirrels at Parliament Buildings and on the Stormont estate. There are a number of grey squirrels about, and I know people who are very keen to keep the numbers under control, but, at that time, the Minister was unwilling to give his permission for that to be done. The reason why we do it, going back to what Jim Wells said earlier, is that the red squirrel is the native species and the grey squirrel is causing a lot of hassle and disturbing the number of red squirrels."

So Jim knows some people who were very keen to take a pop at Stormont's squirrels, but Sammy saved them.

So far as snaring is concerned attempts to completely ban the practice failed. Instead the bill will regulate the use of such traps.

Hares and Snares

Mark Devenport | 17:54 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010


MLAs have spent much of the day discussing a Wildlife Bill. The politicians have been debating the merits of extending extra protections to species such as the Irish hare, the curlew and even basking sharks.

Right now they are talking about snaring - the Environment Committee chair Cathal Boylan supports a complete ban, whilst the minister, Edwin Poots, is backing regulation.

The DUP's Jim Wells is no fan of snaring but launched an attack on Mr Boylan, claiming Sinn Fein had double standards as they were prevented from opposing hare coursing because of the views of some of their compatriots in the south west of Ireland, including Martin Ferris.

Peter Weir spoke vividly about the cruelty of hare coursing, suggesting at one stage that Mr Boylan and the DUP's Jonathan Bell (who had spoken supportively) should be left on their own in the chamber with two large dogs in order to see which one made it to the door first. He quipped that this could be a cross community form of the sport.

The debate is still continuing - I shall keep you posted on the outcome.

Tom versus George

Mark Devenport | 14:00 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010


The Fermanagh MLA Tom Elliott today confimed he wants to be the next Ulster Unionist leader. Those gathered around him included the Health Minister Michael McGimpsey and the deputy leader Danny Kennedy. The party's Strangford Westminster candidate Mike Nesbitt was also there.

As his campaign gathers momentum, Mr Elliott may be asked about his view on the UUP's link with the Conservatives and the likely impact of the budget on the local economy. But give him a chance to read it - as Mr Elliott confirmed his ambitions in the Stormont Great Hall, all eyes were on George Osborne, about fifteen minutes into his budget speech in the Commons.

Another potential leadership contender, Basil McCrea, wasn't at Stormont. The Lagan Valley MLA was in London, attending a garden party at Buckingham Palace and promising to call in at Westminster on budget day.

Expenses stand off

Mark Devenport | 10:55 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010


You could be forgiven for feeling puzzled listening to the DUP's Peter Weir and Sinn Fein's Carál Ní Chuilín debating Assembly expenses on Good Morning Ulster. Sinn Fein criticised the DUP for blocking an Assembly Bill which Ms Ní Chuilín argued would pave the way towards creating an independent body to oversee MLAs' allowances and pay. But the DUP said they had blocked the bill precisely because it would have meant that in an interim period the politicians would have to vote on a new allowances regime. The DUP, argued Peter Weir, also wants an independent body set up as soon as possible. So both parties appear to want the same thing, and yet are rowing about how they get there.

The truly surprising aspect of this row is that the brief bill which had been due to get accelerated passage through the Assembly last night was the product of many months' consideration by the Stormont commission (the cross party committee which runs the Assembly). The Commission backed a two stage process, first abolishing the current regime (with effect from September), then putting in place a new allowances scheme to be superintended by a new Independent Statutory Body.

It may be that the DUP has a point in arguing that this two stage process puts the cart before the horse, and the Independent Body should be set up immediately. But whey then did their representative on the Commission, Stephen Moutray, not make that argument at a much earlier stage in the proceedings? The explanatory notes to last night's ill fated bill make it clear that the Commission "has given extensive consideration to a number of issues relating to the pay, pensions and expenditure of Members". Its recommendations followed on from previous reports from the Senior Salaries Review Body and the courses of actions already taken by the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament.

What were the kind of changes in prospect? I'm told they would have included ensuring MLAs' constituency offices were subjected to independent valuations with a determination to ensure any rents being paid reflected the market level, restrictions on renting from family members or connected parties, a limit on the employment of family members to just one per MLA and a reduction in the level of mileage claims so that MLAs would get 40p per mile for their first 10,000 miles, then 25p thereafter ( currently the tipping point is 20,000 miles).

As these explanatory notes clarify there are also changes envisaged to the Stormont resettlement, ill health retirement and winding up allowances.

These changes had been due to be made by a "determination" of the Assembly which, it was planned, would have been put before members in the week starting June 28th. Now, however, the Commission's carefully constructed scheme is in tatters. So, the public may ask, is the important point at issue the principle that an Independent Body should rule on all these matters, or the inevitable delay that there will now be to implementing the changes to the expenses regime?

A line in the sand

Mark Devenport | 14:02 UK time, Sunday, 20 June 2010


On Inside Politics, my guest the former Secretary of State Peter Hain didn't call for an amnesty per se. But he argued that pursuing soldiers decades after crimes they are suspected of carrying out, or pursuing IRA On The Runs, like Sinn Fein's Rita O'Hare would be absurd. Mr Hain said "a line shoud be drawn in the sand". He wasn't convinced a South African style truth commission was the answer but pointed to the elements of the Eames Bradley report which he commissioned, minus the controversial recognition payments.

The former SDLP leader Mark Durkan expressed concern about Mr Hain's talk of a "trade off" between security force members and former paramilitaries, arguing that this reminded him of what he described as the "deeply corrupt proposals" contained in Mr Hain's ill fated On The Runs bill. Mr Durkan appeared perhaps more opposed to the secrecy of the process which had been envisaged under the On The Runs Bill than the fact that those found responsible for crimes would not have to serve time in jail.

On cost, Mr Hain argued that now justice has been devolved the expense of whatever truth recovery process is embarked upon will have to be borne by the devolved budget. This echoes the sentiment of the Westminster Northern Ireland Affairs Committee which argued in its report in December last year that seeking "additional funding from the UK Government looks like a step in the wrong direction. We believe that any significant additional funding should be voted by the Northern Ireland Assembly, rather than the UK Government. Decisions over funding levels and, by extension, the exact nature of any Legacy Commission would, therefore, be a matter of policy choice for the Northern Ireland Executive, rather than the UK Government. It is in the long-term interest of everyone involved that such decisions be taken by those who represent the people of Northern Ireland, and that the Executive be accountable for the financial consequences of such decisions."

A convenient conclusion, perhaps, for Westminster politicians. Given that the Committee also noted the need for cross community consensus on any future truth recovery process we could be waiting a long time for a conclusion to this debate.

So far as the time factor is concerned, it's interesting to note that the government has yet to respond to the Eames Bradley proposals, even though their team reported 16 months ago. The former Secretary of State Shaun Woodward argued that it would be better for the government to delay its response until after the outcome of the Saville tribunal. Even more puzzling, the general public were asked to give their reaction to the Eames Bradley report by October last year, and yet we have still to see any summary of that sample of people's opinions.

Blackberries and Raspberries

Mark Devenport | 17:59 UK time, Thursday, 17 June 2010


From time to time, Stormont Committee chairmen have to act like school teachers, reining in their unruly class of MLAs.

During this week's Justice Committee, chairman Lord Morrow gave a stern warning to everyone at the meeting to turn off their mobile phones, just before he had chastised some members for not turning up to a scheduled session with the Probation Board.

When the harsh buzzing of an electronic device interfered with the committee's recording equipment, Lord Morrow stopped the meeting and demanded that the guilty party turned off their "Blackberry, raspberry or whatever device" that was still on, lamenting that someone "doesn't listen to a word I say".

Committee members looked around at each other to see who was still in electronic communion with a mobile mast. Always quick with a quip, the UUP's David McNarry said he had no device on him, adding: "Unless someone has bugged me, Raymond" - an aside to Sinn Fein's vice-chair of the committee, Raymond McCartney.

Cynics may note...

Mark Devenport | 17:23 UK time, Thursday, 17 June 2010


In the immediate aftermath of Dawn Purvis's resignation as PUP leader I
wrote here that "cynics may note that this puts her Stormont allowances
beyond the grasp of any future sanction from the Independent Monitoring
Commission." Over on Slugger O'Toole some people accused me of "dancing
on her grave" which, frankly, I regarded as over the top given that my
next sentence read "however anyone who knows the East Belfast MLA will
recognise that she has a firm committment to her left wing unionist
principles, and for her to take this decisive action points to something
more than a temporary tactic."

But since I posted this it has been pointed out to me that when Dawn
Purvis stood down, the PUP lost its party allowance with immediate
effect. This is the money which the IMC could potentially target, rather
than Ms Purvis's individual travel, staff wages and office costs as a
constituency MLA. So her resignation effectively pre-empted any IMC
action by ending that source of funding and therefore can't be
interpreted as a protective measure, preventing any future sanction. I
wouldn't want anyone to be misinformed to the contrary by my original

Asymmetric Justice

Mark Devenport | 09:44 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010


During yesterday's Stormont Live Special, I discussed with Michael Mansfield (about 1 hour and 15 minutes in) the notion that the Saville inquiry had provided "asymmetric justice". I raised this particularly in relation to IRA victims and the unionist response to the tribunal. Mr Mansfield replied by making the distinction that the Bloody Sunday killings had been carried out by agents of the state.

That said, the morning after, the outcome also feels asymmetric in other ways - not just between state and paramilitary victims, but also between the Bloody Sunday families who finally won the right to a fresh inquiry, and those others who appear to have little hope of achieving a similar process. The families of those killed in Ballymurphy in 1971 will no doubt be pondering David Cameron's statement ruling out further costly and open ended inquiries. Moreover Pat Finucane's family remains locked in a lengthy stand off with the government, rejecting its offer of an investigation under the auspices of the Inquiries Act 2005, which they believe gives the state the powers to thwart any independent probe.

Which brings us to the whole notion of a truth or legacy commission, being highlighted now by the former Secretary of State Shaun Woodward. Although Robin Eames and Denis Bradley's suggestion that there should be across the board recognition payments was roundly rubbished, the other element in their report (that of a legacy commission) remains open for consideration. Indeed anyone who listened to Owen Paterson's interview on Inside Politics on Saturday will note that he wasn't talking about Eames Bradley in the past tense.

The Eames Bradley idea was rejected by Sinn Fein largely because it was part of a report commissioned by the British. Gerry Adams favours something like a UN led tribunal. However there isn't in practice a lot to distinguish the Eames Bradley legacy commission, which they wanted to be chaired by an international figure, from the Sinn Fein international truth recovery process. What's clear is there's little point embarking on any process unless there's a high likelihood that all the key players will actually, at long last, tell the truth.

But after employing talks facilitators, ceasefire monitors and decommissioning commissioners, are we really going to trawl the world for yet more elder statesmen prepared to take on the role of abitrating on the past? How long might such a commission last and crucially, given the economic times, how much could it cost? Eames Bradley put a £170 million price tag on their proposed five year commission, just £20 million less than the much criticised price tag for the Bloody Sunday tribunal. For comparitive purposes, the Regional Cancer Centre at Belfast's City Hospital cost £70 million - the planned satellite radiotherapy centre for the Altnagelvin hospital has a projected price of £60 million, So is there a model for dealing with the past which can provide truth and justice without enriching lawyers and draining the public coffers at a time when vital services will inevitably be under strain?

Waving from the windows

Mark Devenport | 18:05 UK time, Tuesday, 15 June 2010


Stroke City, as Gerry Anderson famously dubbed it, looked different but sounded familiar today. The reason - the whirr of the helicopter rotor blades overhead which I recognised as a constant accompaniment to covering disturbances in the city in bygone years. However today the chopper belonged to the media, not the security forces and the atmosphere wasn't riotous, but a bizarre mixture of carnival and anticipation, as people gathered in the sunny Guildhall square.

I analysed the potential fall out for our news outlets here. But in truth the images of the day stick in my mind more than any of the many words spoken. The relatives and their representatives had been locked into the Guildhall so as not to pre-empt David Cameron's unveiling of the report to the wider world. However they beat the embargo in their own way, by appearing at the windows, waving ecstatically, and holding copies of the reports with their thumbs up. So even before the Prime Minister began to speak, the message seemed clear.

The Saville report doesn't ever use the word "unlawful" to describe the killings. However the clinical way in which it describes soldiers killing civilians who posed no threat, and its precision in ascribing certain shootings to specific soldiers is striking. The report says that some soldiers "knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing". In one rather long winded but particularly damning passage, the report concludes that "In the case of those soldiers who fired in either the knowledge or belief that no-one in the areas into which they fired was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury, or not caring whether or not anyone there was posing such a threat, it is at least possible that they did so in the indefensible belief that all the civilians they fired at were probably either members of the Provisional or Official IRA or were supporters of one or other of these paramilitary organisations; and so deserved to be shot notwithstanding that they were not armed or posing any threat of causing death or serious injury. Our overall conclusion is that there was a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline among the soldiers of Support Company."

That phrase "deserved to be shot notwithstanding that they were not armed or posing any serious threat" is pretty chilling when you think about it.

Whether prosecutions now follow is a matter for the Public Prosecution Service, who will know that whatever decision they take will be closely scrutinised by politicians at Stormont and Westminster. It struck me that if the much vilified "On The Runs" bill had not been dropped by Peter Hain back in January 2006 it would have provided the solution to the PPS's dilemma in as much as it proposed extending an amnesty to members of the security forces serving during the troubles. But the bill was binned, and the PPS will now have some hard thinking to do.

On the topic of the Deputy First Minister, which I referred to in an earlier blog, the Saville report finds that Martin McGuinness was probably armed on the day with a Thompson sub machine gun - an assertion Mr McGuinness has tonight denied. Unionists may return to this paragraph in the future, but for now the image that remains is of those hands waving from the Guildhall windows and family after family emerging to pronounce their loved ones innocent.

A good day to bury bad news?

Mark Devenport | 13:40 UK time, Tuesday, 15 June 2010


I drove up to Londonderry this morning to get in place for a special Stormont Live this afternoon which will cover David Cameron's statement to the Commons and the findings of the Saville report.

Derry looked particularly attractive in the June sunshine - groups of tourists followed their guides around the Bloody Sunday memorial and Free Derry Corner. Up on the walls near the Apprentice Boys HQ, another guide waited to take people on a "Siege Heroes" tour.

Over at Guildhall square the massed ranks of the media prepared to cover the families' reaction to the voluminous report they are now studying inside the building. Some of my colleagues are heading in to try to glean what they can during an hour's "lock-in".

Earlier in the week I wrote about how the entirely unconnected sagas of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the Review of Public Administration were running strangely in tandem. It may be coincidence, but the Executive's failure to sort out their plans to streamline the local councils has emerged on a day when a far bigger story will push it out of the headlines.

When the former Arlene Foster appeared alongside the First and Deputy First Ministers inside Stormont Castle to unveil the eleven council compromise, it was hailed as an example of the Executive breaking a logjam. So why, under Edwin Poots, has the plan back fired?

Is it the argument Mr Poots makes, that without more collaboration on back office services, the merger no longer makes financial sense? Or is it to do with boundary concerns and unionist fears that Belfast could go green? Or what about suggestions that some politicians are still uncomfortable about the proposed governance arrangements for the new councils which would see the introduction of a proportional system to the handout of all posts?

Pay your £9 million (the bill the Environment department has so far wracked up) and take your choice. But what's clear is that the long awaited publication of the Saville report seems a fairly good day to bury some bad news.

Pigeon Hole Post

Mark Devenport | 17:28 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010


In his "The Origin Of The Species" Charles Darwin discussed at some length the origins of the domestic pigeon, concluding that they all descended from the rock pigeon, otherwise known as Columbia Livia. But I have scanned his work and failed to see any definite date for the creation of the first pigeon hole.

Be that as it may, MLAs discovered in their pigeon holes today a DVD entitled "Scientific Evidence for Creation in the Classroom".

The free gift came courtesy of the North Antrim MLA, Mervyn Storey, who argued in an accompanying letter that "some people are of the opinion that scientific evidence that points to a younger earth and to the sudden appearance of species fully formed should be consigned to a philosophy or RE class. Clearly this is an unscientific approach to the teaching of our children".

Mr Storey continued "it is in fact a more scientific approach to open up science classes for the consideration of more of the evidence".

So what came first, the pigeon or the pigeon hole?

A straight bat and a reverse swing

Mark Devenport | 11:03 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010


The Secretary of State Owen Paterson played what in cricketing parlance would be called a "straight bat" to all my deliveries during yesterday's "Inside Politics". Mr Paterson was at pains not to say anything controversial about the Bloody Sunday inquiry, his first major news story to handle whilst in office. So he spent a lot of time urging everyone to suspend judgment, read the report when it is published then move on from there.

But presumably he hadn't had a team talk with his Cabinet colleague, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke who was over on Sky News describing the Saville inquiry as "ludicrous" and a "disaster" in terms of time and expense. So whilst the Northern Ireland Secretary was employing a "straight bat", the Justice Secretary, in typical buccaneering style, resorted to the political equivalent of Kevin Pietersen's "reverse swing".

Two long running sagas

Mark Devenport | 12:48 UK time, Friday, 11 June 2010


There's no real comparison between the Bloody Sunday inquiry and the Review of Public Administration. However the two long running sagas appear to be winding towards the same week for a conclusion of sorts.

The Saville Inquiry has been running for 12 years, and after £190 million of expenditure, its report is due out next Tuesday, with the Guardian predicting today that it will conclude that a number of civilians shot dead by the army were unlawfully killed.

The RPA is, thankfully, more prosaic stuff, although the talk of streamlining bureaucracy here stretches back almost as long, to at least 2001. The projected cost of cutting 26 councils down to 11 is £118 million (with net savings predicted in the future). Executive ministers couldn't make a decision on the issue last night, after one of the longest meetings to be held in Stormont Castle concluded at about 7.30 pm. Instead they are holding more discussions over the weekend with the intention of holding a special meeting to make a final decision on Monday.

How many councils we have is of course nothing to do with the truth about Bloody Sunday. But the housekeeping involved next week dictates that the publication of Tuesday's report will almost certainly interrupt "normal" politics for a few days, which means that Monday really does feel like the last chance for Executive ministers to sort out their council mess.

Last night DUP and Sinn Fein ministers frequently adjourned the Executive to go off into huddles to try to make progress on local government. The fact that discussions are due to continue over the weekend points to a determined effort to breathe new life into "Plan A" - the move towards 11 councils. But we won't know until Tuesday whether that's succeeded.

On Tuesday the Deputy First Minister will have to concentrate entirely on Bloody Sunday. There will be considerable interest not only in what the 5500 page report says about the activities of the Paras, and whether any soldiers might face prosecution, but also how it deals with the allegations surrounding Martin McGuinness himself.

According to the Inquiry Counsel the Tribunal will have to decide:
"a. whether there is a period of about 20 minutes for which Mr McGuinness cannot account; and, if so
b. whether this is innocenetly explained by Mr McGuinness' inability, after more than 30 years, to provide a precise account of his movements; or
c. whether Mr McGuinness was in fact involved in paramilitary activity during that time.
The Tribunal will also wish to consider whether Mr McGuinness was ivolved in any attack on the security forces at any time during the day, other than the shooting towards the Walls at 5.30 - 6pm which he admits having ordered."

The day after the Inquiry publishes its report Mr McGuinness is due to travel to Liverpool, where the team behind the Derry-Londonderry City of Culture bid for 2013 are due to make their final bid to the judging team. Perhaps the First Minister will go too, or perhaps that will depend on what the Saville report says.

I'm aware as I write that mixing together Bloody Sunday, the local councils and the City of Culture feels slightly odd. But it's also a fair representation of how far we've come in the last 38 years and the strange competing realities which govern Northern Ireland in 2010.

P.S. Preparing for next Tuesday I read through the section of the Bloody Sunday Counsel's report which dealt with Martin McGuinness and the claim from a Security Service agent, codenamed Infliction, that the Deputy First Minister had told him he had fired the shot which started the whole episode. Mr McGuinness has flatly denied this claim.

Amongst the witnesses the Inquiry spoke to on this point is the former Security Service employee David Shayler who said his colleagues gave him the opinion that Infliction was (if you can pardon my English this is a direct quote) a "bulls**tter". This may very well turn out to be the truth, but I wonder if Lord Saville will also take into account subsequent newspaper claims from Mr Shayler that he (Mr Shayler) is in fact the Messiah?

That was then, but this is now...

Mark Devenport | 14:53 UK time, Thursday, 10 June 2010


When David Cameron visited Portadown and Ballymena during the European election campaign he seemed pretty unequivocal about his intention to cut Sinn Fein MPs' Westminster allowances. That as echoed by the Secretary of State Owen Paterson who, in opposition, said he thought it would be inconceivable that Tory MPs would vote for the allowances to continue.

But when Mr Cameron visited Stormont Castle as Prime Minister he didn't repeat the line, indicating only that this was a matter for the House of Commons.

Now the DUP are claiming a Tory U turn, as Ian Paisley Junior raised the issue with the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young who confirmed it is no longer a matter for the government of the UK but for the independent panel known as IPSA.

I'm still waiting to peruse the Commons transcript of the exchange (which hasn't yet been posted up) but Ian Junior claims it is an indication that the Conservatives are backing away from their promises on both dual mandates and Sinn Fein allowances, for fear of offending republicans.

Lording it over the Lib Dems

Mark Devenport | 18:36 UK time, Wednesday, 9 June 2010


The Liberal Democrats in the Lords have just voted John Alderdice to be their convenor or chair. So the former Alliance leader is convening the Lib Dems in the Lords, but the first Alliance politician to be elected as an MP, Naomi Long, isn't sitting with them in the Commons.

As has been documented elsewhere, Jim Shannon made his maiden speech in the Commons yesterday and treated the other Mps to a touch of Ulster Scots. yesterday's news maybe tomorrow's fish and chip paper, but Mr Shannon's sterling (and often ballistic) contributions to this blog mean we can't let such a moment go unmentioned. Click here to see how the Hansard stenographers coped with his Strangford lilt.

Finally, maybe the Conservatives in North Down were watching Tuesday's Michael McGimpsey interview on Stormont Live. Certainly they didn't mince their words calling the delay in selecting joint candidates with the UUP "outrageous" and promising to press ahead with selecting their own Assembly candidate. So will we have the two parties criticising each other next spring, then kissing and making up at some future contest?

Exclusive? Maybe not....

Mark Devenport | 15:44 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010


There was a moment during this afternoon's Stormont Live when Jim Fitzpatrick and I thought a major story might be unfolding on air. Discussing the performance of his health department in successfully reducing its underspend and the prospects for future cuts, Michael McGimpsey appeared to indicate that his party's political arrangement with the Tories was over.

We were discussing whether health spending should be ring fenced here, as it has been in London. Mr McGimpsey is strongly in favour, whilst the DUP's Jim Wells declined to take a position. The Health Committee Chair said this would be a matter for the Executive.

I put it to the Health Minister that, when it came to the cuts, he was playing the roles of both Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, as his ally David Cameron who would be wielding the axe. The minister responded "we know the financial situation the Kingdom as a whole is in, and we're aware that of the £19 billion that Northern Ireland benefits to the tune from the Treasury, we make a contribution of £12 billion in taxes back. So we make a very very substantial gain being part of the Kingdom, and gaining from Treasury. As far as a relationship with the Conservatives, we had a relationship for the last election, that is true. That relationship no longer is part of our political arrangement because the Assembly is entirely devolved matter."

I could see the DUP's Jim Wells, sitting between me and the minister, raising his eyebrows. But when Jim and I pursued the matter Mr McGimpsey appeared to row back insisting he was merely setting out the factual position that his party's link with the Conservatives had been for the Westminster election, not for Assembly matters. This may be a hard one to sustain when it's George Osborne who is writing (or maybe not writing) the cheques.

We continued our discussion with David McNarry, who told us he still thought there was merit in the Conservative link up. Mr McNarry shared our studio with Gregory Campbell for the first time since he wrongly predicted (in October last year) that the DUP would be reduced to "a couple of MPs". Fortunately he wasn't a betting man, and gamely offered the East Londonderry MP a congratulatory handshake and admission he'd got things wrong.

However he refused to rule out any further predictions come this autumn. Watch out for "Mystic McNarry" then.

P.S. Thanks to those who spotted my original typo on the Chancellor.

Commission Costs

Mark Devenport | 15:21 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010


On Monday I mentioned that Assembly members discussed the creation of a new Older People's Commisioner, with an estimated annual running cost of £1.5 million. I see that the running costs of some of the other Commissions are included in this week's Stormont Written Answers.

Estimated costs for 2009/10 included £6.98 million for the Equality Commission, £1.264 million for the Victims Commission and £1.838 million for the Children's Commission. Other organisations included in the breakdown include the Community Relations Council (£8.873 million), and the Strategic Investment Board (£6.74 million).

Dog Days

Mark Devenport | 16:15 UK time, Monday, 7 June 2010


Whilst the rest of the UK listened to the dreadful (and thankfully rare) account by a Northern Ireland mother of a fox attack on her twin baby girls in East London, Assembly members were debating the no less serious (but rather more common) matter of attacks by dogs. The Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew told MLAs that dog attacks are running at more than 700 per year. Her Dogs (Amendment) Bill deals with licensing, and the control of dogs which attack people, livestock or other dogs.

Ms Gildernew told MLAs that 11,000 stray or unwanted dogs were impounded in 2008 - in the same year 3,500 animals were destroyed.

Although the politicians recognised the frightening nature of dog attacks, especially on children, there were some lighter moments. The minister pointed out that four candidates were mauled during the recent Westminster election, as were a number of party workers, including some of her own helpers in Fermanagh. Responding, Ian Paisley Junior said he'd never been bitten by a four legged dog on the campaign trail but had been mauled by other politicians. However, he implied, their bark had turned out to be worse than their bite. Now whoever did he have in mind?

"Six County Glasses"

Mark Devenport | 14:40 UK time, Monday, 7 June 2010


Assembly members had some urgent business on their agenda at the start of today's proceedings. They had to vote on Friday's motion calling for Israel to grant safe passage into Gaza for the Irish Aid ship M.V. Corrie. Yes, the M.V. Corrie - the vessel which was intercepted by the Israelis on Saturday. Those on board, including the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire, had already been arrested and deported by the Israelis by the time the Assembly held its vote. But such are the vicissitudes of the Stormont rules that the petition of concern brought by unionists delayed a vote until this aspect of the motion had already been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Still there was more to it than that - the motion included, for example, a demand that Israel should end its blockade of Gaza. So the vote went ahead and produced a dead heat with 40 for and 40 against. Given that the petition of concern required the motion should be subjected to a cross community test, we got the breakdown. 39 unionists voted against, 36 nationalists voted for, 4 others voted for and 1 other voted against. 3 MLAs abstained.

After the result was announced, the Speaker was subjected to some sustained cross questioning from members of his own party, the DUP. They were annoyed that Friday's special sitting had been convened. The Environment Minister Edwin Poots wanted to know if Mr Hay had some discretion to refuse such requests. Gregory Campbell wondered whether the assembly would have to meet no matter how - in his words - "spurious" a debate might be. Nigel Dodds argued that the rule needed to be clarified as the public could decide such special sittings were "ludicrous".

Willie Hay played a straight bat, insisting that he had no role whatsoever in accepting or rejecting requests for special meetings, provided they had the necessary 30 signatures.

Then the West Tyrone GP Kieran Deeny weighed in. He had signed the request for a special sitting together with the Fermanagh MLA Gerry McHugh, but didn't actually attend the sitting on Friday ( because, according to Mr McHugh, it clashed with his surgery). Evidently annoyed by the unionist put downs, Dr Deeny asked why the Assembly should not deal with global issues of humanitarian concern. Why should Stormont, he continued, look at everything through "Six County glasses"?

That got the unionists going and the noise level in the chamber rose as the Speaker called for order. "Let us move on to the business of the house", Mr Hay intoned, then looking as much at sea as an Israeli commando dangling on the end of a rope, he added "whatever that is...".

The Clerk helpfully whispered to the Speaker that they needed to suspend standing orders, and MLAs got back to their day jobs, authorising £1.5 million in annual expenditure on an Older People's Commissioner and ensuring all our Six County Dogs are microchipped and licensed. By which time the five Irish activists from the M.V.Corrie had flown back to Dublin and the Israeli navy had shot and killed four Palestinians in diving gear off the Gaza coast. One assumes they did not check to assess the likely reaction from the Stormont Assembly before pulling their triggers.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Mark Devenport | 16:08 UK time, Sunday, 6 June 2010


I once got into trouble with the Derry journal for my poor knowledge of French when I used that phrase - just to avoid suffering "deja vu all over again" on that point can I clarify this is a quote from the US baseball legend Yogi Berra.

Having got that out of the way what I was thinking of was a point made by our regular commentator Seamus Close on today's Inside Politics, when we were discussing this week's revelation that the taxpayer will have to foot the bill for £60 million in over payments from Europe to farmers here. (A point I see that Epat N12 has already been commenting on).

Seamus pointed out that some of the over payments are being blamed by the authorities on poor mapping of land, and that the Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew had said nobody was to blame. But he reminded me that way back in 2001 the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee investigated allegations of fraud in farm payments.

Their report contained the following paragraph (and this is where Yogi Berra's malapropism came to mind) "we were astounded to hear that maps as old as 1938 and 1963 were still being used by the Department and that this contributed to the ridiculous outcome that grants were being claimed on the basis of land at Clement Wilson Park, Barnett's Demesne (including car park area), Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park and Dunmurry Golf Club and included large areas of recreational land, a wildlife reserve and rosebeds. It is equally surprising that staff in the Lisburn Office handling these claims did not recognise their fraudulent nature. We welcome the assurances by the Accounting Officer that they are moving very quickly towards a much more sophisticated mapping system and that site inspections are now undertaken of all new land registered by farmers."

Good we sorted out those mapping problems so promptly.

A School Debating Society?

Mark Devenport | 17:51 UK time, Friday, 4 June 2010


That was the charge from the DUP's Peter Weir at this afternoon's special sitting on a motion regarding Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the MV Corrie and the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Unionists claimed the special sitting was a waste of time and a publicity stunt. Nationalists countered that Northern Ireland's representatives had every right to urge the warring factions in the Middle east to seek an alternative to conflict.

Given that the former Nobel Peace Prize Winner was named in the motion, there was a pointed aside from Peter Weir who told republicans that if they had paid more attention to Mairead Corrigan Maguire back in the 1970s lives would have been saved. The SDLP's Alban Maginness agreed, but turned it back on the sceptical unionist by arguing that if more people listened to her today lives could be saved in the future.

The unionist parties put down what's known as a petition of concern, ensuring that the motion would require a cross community vote, and delaying that vote until the start of business on Monday. The MV Corrie is scheduled to reach Gaza or be stopped by the Israelis over the weekend. So the delay will make the the section of the motion urging Israel to give the vessel safe passage even more academic than would have been the case if it had been voted on this afternoon.

Payment Overdue?

Mark Devenport | 12:35 UK time, Thursday, 3 June 2010


One of the Executive policies for tackling the economic down turn is meant to be speeding up any payments from government to contractors. But maybe this doesn't apply to the legal sphere.

Mystery still surrounds the cost of QC Paul Maguire's advice over allegations the BBC Spotlight programme raised regarding Peter Robinson back in January. A Freedom of Information request covering the advice, the lawyer's fees and whether the taxpayer footed the bill was refused recently by the Department of Finance and Personnel on the grounds of legal privilege.

But within 24 hours, the department admitted "an oversight" in responding to part of the FoI request. It said the fee figure could be disclosed - it was not privileged - but "no fee note has been received from Counsel as yet."

Minister Sammy Wilson told the Assembly in March the bill for Mr Maguire's services had not been received. Two months later it seems he's still waiting.

A New Dawn

Mark Devenport | 09:09 UK time, Thursday, 3 June 2010


Having condemned the murder of Bobby Moffett and the subsequent intimidation of people in the Shankill area, Dawn Purvis today went an extra mile by parting company altogether with the UVF's political wing, the PUP. Cynics may note that this puts her Stormont allowances beyond the grasp of any future sanction from the Independent Monitoring Commission. However anyone who knows the East Belfast MLA will recognise that she has a firm committment to her left wing unionist principles, and for her to take this decisive action points to something more than a temporary tactic. Ms Purvis never relished the role of explaining away UVF transgressions - she clearly had no stomach to act as a mouthpiece for those who ordered Mr Moffett's death. David Ervine's widow Jeanette has described the murder as "the last straw*" and blamed "a handful of people who don't want politics."

Councillor John Kyle, a Christian GP from East Belfast, is now taking over the PUP on an interim basis. He's told the Nolan show that he still believes the PUP has been a "superb project" which deserves support. However he wouldn't rule out a complete break with the UVF, responding only that this would be a decision for a future PUP meeting. The late David Ervine, as a former UVF member, undoubtedly had what his wife calls "the street cred" in persuading the paramilitaries to hold to their ceasefire during tense times. But if Dawn Purvis's influence turned out to be far more limited, the same will surely apply to John Kyle, leader of a party which no longer has as MLA. To that extent could the PUP face the same fate as the old Ulster Democrats, who parted company from the UDA, then withered away?

Apart from raising questions over the future of the PUP, the murder of Bobby Moffett brings into focus the credibility of the loyalist weapons decommissioning process. Back in June 2009the UVF and Red Hand Commando told the public they had put their guns "totally and irreversibly beyond use". Yet some of those guns seem to have been very much in use on the Shankill Road last week. What would have been the response from the mainstream unionist parties if Provisional IRA guns had been brought onto the streets and used in a murder carried out on a busy thoroughfare in front of passing shoppers? That is what seems to be the case with the UVF. How many UVF guns were held back from General De Chastelain's team, and how many weapons do other paramilitary groups still have at their disposal?

UPDATE: My colleague Martina Purdy interviewed Dawn Purvis in her East Belfast office earlier today and found herself just ahead in the queue of the UUP's Fred Cobain. old friends, one presumes, or have other parties started wooing the independent Ms. Purvis already?

Did Trigger Evolve?

Mark Devenport | 15:25 UK time, Tuesday, 1 June 2010


Nelson McCausland faced questions this afternoon - the first time the Culture Minister has been at the Assembly despatch box since his controversial letter to the Ulster Museum was leaked. Because questions have to be tabled in advance, rather than being asked, PMQs-style, without notice, there were no direct inquiries about the Ulster Museum. But when one MLA worked in a reference Mr McCausland once again criticised whoever leaked his letter.

Then, after a question about Ulster Scots culture, Mr McCausland went on to stress the duty of all institutions, including museums to serve all sections of the community equally. I was expecting him to warm more to his theme when the Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy trotted off down a completely different path, prefacing his question with a reference to how much he had enjoyed a private conversation with the minister on the topic of Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. Guffaws ensued including an off microphone contretemps with the Alliance party over the name of the horse. So the Museum row faded into history, and the essential question evolved (if we can use the term) into - what exactly was so interesting in Danny and Nelson's chat about Trigger?

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