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Archives for July 2010

Moving Statues

Mark Devenport | 15:45 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

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Rejecting TUV calls for the historic buildings at the Maze to be demolished, Gerry Kelly told reporters in North Belfast this afternoon that the people calling for the bulldozers to be sent in were the kind of people "who pull down statues, who deny the history of any place". What could have put that in the Sinn Fein Junior Minister's mind? Could it have been the overnight attack on the statue of the Seventeenth Century Governor George Walker? As the news report makes clear this isn't the first assault on a statue of the Governor - the original was destroyed in an IRA bomb attack in 1973.

P.S. The Ulster Unionist Tom Elliot got a bit tongue tied on the Nolan show this morning, almost turning the new development at the Maze into a "Transflict Confirmation Centre". The tongue twister proved contagious as subsequent callers started referring to it as a "Trans- thing". Any catchier titles? And "shrine" is already subject to copyright....

P.P.S. I am away for the next fortnight, but Martina Purdy is promising to step into my shoes.

Labour to contest council elections?

Mark Devenport | 12:57 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

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The Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham visited a soggy Belfast today, and pronounced himself ready to let local activists decide when and whether they should contest elections here. Mr Burnham added the qualification that they must be sensitive about local political considerations - code for treading lightly around the SDLP.

So when should Labour run? The local party chair Boyd Black told us they had their eye on next year's council elections. He didn't rule out the Assembly elections altogether, but sounded more cautious about them, noting they could be a "sectarian bear pit".

This timing, of course, will depend on who becomes the next Labour leader. Although Mr Burnham has the backing of the Northern Ireland Labour party and the former local Security Minister Paul Goggins, most bookies put him in fourth place. The former Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward, by contrast, is supporting the bookies' favourite, David Miliband.

Maze Logjam Broken

Mark Devenport | 16:17 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010

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Martin McGuinness revealed earlier today, whilst attending the opening of Newry's "triple bypass", that the DUP and Sinn Fein have reached agreement on the future of the Maze site. The ill fated multi sports stadium is no more. But the other aspect of the plan hatched back in Tony Blair's day, an International Conflict Transformation Centre, has survived.

Its understood the centre will go ahead within the listed buildings on the Maze site, which include the prison hospital where the IRA hungers strikers died, an H block and an administrative block. The centre will be labelled as a European centre of excellence attracting millions in Euro funding. But the DUP will play down any attempt to portray it as a "shrine to IRA terrorists" by stressing that the conflict centre will be answerable to a board which will be drawn from across the divide with representation from former security force members as well as former prisoners.

Reaching a deal on the centre should allow work to proceed elsewhere on the site with a development corporation (similar to the one which took charge of Belfast's Laganside) at the helm. The Royal Ulster Agricultural Society is still thought to be keen to move to the Maze from its current premises at Balmoral in South Belfast.

Given that part of the ferocity of the opposition to the stadium plan was linked to unionist doubts about the conflict transformation centre, some may deem it ironic that we now have a "shrine" (to use the detractors' terminology) but no stadium. However the alternative is continued logjam, with millions being spent to keep the old buildings in mothballs.

The volume of traffic from international visitors already passing through Stormont shows the level of interest in what lessons if any our peace process might provide for other areas of conflict. It will now be fascinating to see whether the Maze centre further stimulates this conflict transformation cottage industry and how its management board deals the inevitable difficulties posed by providing an agreed account of the traumatic events which took place within and beyond those walls.

UPDATE THURSDAY 17.25 The First and Deputy First Ministers have just officially confirmed the Maze deal. I shall put the text of their written statement in the extended entry.

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Bonfire of the Community Relations Quangos?

Mark Devenport | 16:47 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

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Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson is not impressed by some of the carping she has heard from community relations types about the latest Stormont CSI strategy. She wonders "how much of that is genuine or how much of it is about protecting their own positions and funding. There are a raft of good relations quangos out there which, quite frankly, are unelected, unnecessary and ineffective. Sectarianism and intolerance are still rife in our society so I have to ask just what exactly have these organisations delivered?"

Ms Anderson goes on to warn the quangos their days might be numbered, pointing out that "in the 2008-09 financial year, a staggering £9.7 billion was spent on unelected quangos in the North. That's around 75% of the total budget being spent on largely unaccountable organisations and clearly that cannot and should not be sustained. Sinn Féin is committed to reducing this kind of waste and to cutting the number of quangos. In the context of an agreed Executive CSI strategy, many of these good relations quangos could be redundant and should be abolished."

£9.7 billion? Well that is truly staggering - as the Foyle MLA suggests, three quarters of the entire Stormont budget. So staggered was I that I decided to go trawling for the source of this figure and came across this Sunday Mirror article reproduced on the Taxpayers Alliance website.

It reminded me that back in April when I first heard about this report on a Radio Ulster newspaper review I smelled a rat. What triggered my suspicion was not just the headline but a detail in the report which stated that "the Health and Social Care Trusts had the highest overall cost of around £3.3 billion".

So the Health and Social Care Trusts are unelected quangos? Well up to a point, Lord Copper. But they are also the health service here, the people who run our hospitals and clinics. If you phrase it differently and ask people whether they want £3.3 billion spent on elected politicians or unelected doctors and nurses, you might be able to guess which side most taxpayers would come down on.

To be fair to Martina Anderson she's not the only politician to take this report at face value. In the original Sunday Mirror article, the Alliance's Kieran McCarthy (who probably takes a different view of community relations quangos) is quoted as being "totally gobsmacked. I knew the cost was considerable but almost 10 billion for quangos in a wee place like Northern Ireland is a major scandal."

Sinn Fein don't spell out which quangos they want to chop but if you are looking at the shared future business you would have to think the NI Community Relations Council would be high on the list. So I decided to check out their budget. According to the CRC's statement of accounts for 2008/9 they had a turnover of just over £8 million, spending £20,000 more than they received. I'm told two thirds of this money was devoted to Victims and Survivors, leaving £3.25 million for community relations.

£3.25 million. That's about £2 per head of the population here, and compares with an estimated £2 million spent on combatting one night of rioting earlier this month. True, the Community Relations Council did have a role in distributing a further £14 million. However this wasn't Executive cash, but funding from outside sources like Europe and the IFI.

Whichever way you look at it the CRC budget is a long way short from that rather inflated £9 billion plus figure for quangos, which includes our quasi-autonomous non-governmental hospitals.

Shared Future (Comber Style)

Mark Devenport | 15:59 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

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The DUP's Simon Hamilton has been pronouncing the last rites on UCUNF, arguing that the fact that the "New Force" won't jointly contest next year's assembly elections shows the "disaster is drawing to a close".

The Conservative Co Chair Andrew Feldman says his party's "clear preference" is to continue the link with the UUP but this will have to be reviewed depending on who succeeds Sir Reg Empey in September. The view from Conservative Central Office is that their local activists shouldn't stand against the UUP next May. This will no doubt cause some frustration amongst local Tories who want to pound the campaign trail.

Back in Comber, meanwhile, Mr Hamilton has now ended the apparent divide between himself and his fellow MLA Michelle McIlveen. In 2007 the two DUP MLAs attracted some negative publicity when they opened separate constituency offices staring directly at each other across a side street in the County Down.

But over the 12th weekend, the two MLAs moved in to a shared office in the town's main square. Their old premises are now on the market. And they made their move before the Stormont CSI programme called for more shared space and an end to division.

"Not my type"

Mark Devenport | 17:58 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

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What Senator David Norris thought of the UUP's Basil McCrea. More on Patrick Corrigan's blog here.

The Shared Future

Mark Devenport | 17:23 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

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I've taken a first look at the First and Deputy First Minister's 77 page Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy.

Lots of it is on the "motherhood and apple pie" level. It's good to hear that the First and Deputy First will not tolerate "any form of hate crime or intimidation". But frankly it would have been shocking if they had declared anything else.

Nothing could be more relevant than their pledge to address "the issues for disaffected young people", but aspiring to reach out to the alienated youth living at interfaces is one thing. Achieving it is another.

Amongst the key goals of the programme are urgently addressing "the physical and community division created by interfaces with the support of the communities". So is this a pledge to meet the challenge thrown out by the New York Mayor Bloomberg at the Stormont US Investment Conference, when he called on Belfast to bring down its walls?

Well not quite. When you dig into what the First and Deputy First Ministers view as short, medium and long term priorities, you find that developing "shared space" and tackling anti social behaviour around interfaces is a short term goal. However "interfaces" per se, encouraging shared neighbourhoods and tackling issues around cultural identity such as "flags and emblems, murals, bonfires, cultural expression, language and popular protest" are all lumped into the "long term" basket.

The programme refers to the need to update the April 2005 Flags Protocol and promises that a new Justice Bill will deal with sectarain behaviour at spectator sports.

There are plenty of references to racial and cultural minorities, but nothing I can see about gay groups - so it looks like their fears about not being specifically covered were well founded. (UPDATE: I should, however, point out that on Page 4 the ministers "agree to publish a sexual orientation strategy")

And when you get towards the end of the paper there are sections on funding which contain nothing specific in the way of financial pledges but plenty of language designed to dampen expectations. "In times of economic stress" we are told "government and community must work together to make more improvement with fewer resources". There is an acknowledgement that sources of money such as Europe and the International Fund for Ireland are drying up.

So without cash, can this policy be anything more than aspirational? Although given the cost of the summer riots is it an area of government we can afford to skimp on? You have until October to give the Executive your views.

Back in the office

Mark Devenport | 15:48 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

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That's not just me, but also our MLAs, or some of them at least. Today the Committee which shadows the work of the First and Deputy First Ministers returned to the house on the hill to examine, amongst other things, the Public Assemblies and Parades Bill prepared after the Hillsborough talks by a joint DUP Sinn Fein working group.

Since the bill's publication we've had the trouble in North Belfast, the Orange Order refusing to back the proposals, and complaints about the 37 day notice requirement for public meetings not connected with parades controversies. After today's meeting, the SDLP's Dolores Kelly demanded that the bill should be withdrawn, but the DUP and Sinn Fein appear intent on marching on regardless in the hope that, perhaps witha few judicious amendments, the doubters can be won over.

It also emerged that the First and Deputy First Ministers will shortly publish the final draft of their long awaited Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy. Expect lots of aspirational phrases about building a better society. The Executive has been repeatedly criticised for putting the "Shared Future" on the back burner. But once the latest policy is finalised and implemented, will it make any difference on the ground?

(UPDATE: The strategy has now been published and can be found via this consultation page.)

Someone else taking a busman's holiday this summer is Ian Paisley Senior, now Lord Bannside, who has penned an article for the News Letter scotching talk of one grand unionist political party and decalring that if the voters decide there will be a Sinn Fein First Minister next May, he will have to accept it. Lord Bannside goes on to pledge to do all he can to avoid that eventuality, but can you read his remark that Sinn Fein did not become a majority party "on my watch" as anything other than a not very veiled dig at his successor?

Incidentally did anyone see the archival piece printed in this weekend's Sunday Times from November 1968 in which a reporter described the invective at an early Paisley rally, culminating in the journalist getting rumbled, then ejected with a bloody nose? It was fascinating not just as another mark of how far Ian Paisley Senior has travelled but also as a poignant reminder of the different fates which await us all. Whilst the man who ordered him out of the rally is now Lord Bannside, sitting on the benches in the House of Lords, the reporter was the distinguished foreign correspondent David Holden, murdered in suspicious circumstances in Egypt back in 1977.

Finally BBC Newsnight's Michael Crick predicted last night that Sinn Fein MPs could get their allowances severely curtailed by a vote likely to take place in the Commons this autumn. The issue was raised by the new Conservative MP Kris Hopkins who previously served as a soldier in Northern Ireland.

Burnham bound for Belfast

Mark Devenport | 15:31 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

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Nominations closed in the race to succeed Gordon Brown as Labour leader today, with David Miliband still the bookies' favourite. Northern Ireland has not exactly been a central issue in the campaign, but whilst I was away on leave David's brother Ed faced a question about whether the party should stand in elections here and fended it off with a non committal answer. He argued that "how the Conservatives went about it with their interventions in Northern Ireland politics before the election was a classic example of what not to do."

On Friday the former Health and Culture Secretary Andy Burnham is heading to Belfast to thank local Labour party members for their support. Presumably he won't be as non committal as Ed Miliband about the future direction of the party here.

Impartial Reporter and its Lisburn reader

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 17:02 UK time, Friday, 23 July 2010

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Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea is taking a keen interest in the Impartial Reporter these days. Not least its latest feature on Fermanagh MLA Tom Elliott and his bid for the leadership. Mr Elliott outlines his "vision of a disciplined party" as he is flanked by newcomer Mike Nesbitt and UUP veteran Lord Maginnis.

So far Tom Elliott is the only contender for leader - although most pundits are predicting Basil McCrea will soon enter the battle.

Mr McCrea has been coy but he has mentioned the article on his facebook. Here's what he had to say:

"An interesting piece from Tom Elliot in the Impartial Reporter. Obviously rolling out his leadership campaign on the basis that first out seizes the initiative. Rumour has it that his manifesto will be released shortly. Good to see he is a stickler for party discipline."

A stickler for party discipline - now whatever could Mr McCrea mean?


Surely not a sarcastic remark about the Executive discussion which suggested there should be no campaign until the leader Sir Reg Empey goes?

Hmmm.

Tis Marching Down the Aisle Season...

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 16:40 UK time, Friday, 23 July 2010

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Mark Devenport is on holiday (and his blogsitter has been ill). So apologies to his loyal readers. Martina Purdy here.

Mark is back on Monday but in the meantime warm congratulations to the DUP peer Lord Browne who is getting married. Sources at Westminster tell me that the DUP had a celebration on the Commons terrace to mark the peer's last days as a bachelor. Was he inspired by the assembly Speaker, William Hay, who just a few weeks ago walked down the aisle?

Is there something in the air at Stormont? The Alliance MLA Anna Lo just got married.

So congrats to all. At least there's time for a honeymoon. Stormont's not back till September.

No bottomless pit

Mark Devenport | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 16 July 2010

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The Chief Constable estimated the cost of policing the North Belfast disorder as equivalent to a hospital ward or a primary school. But not to worry, if there's a return to widespread disorder surely we can dip into the UK national contingency fund to meet such extraordinary requirements, can't we?

Not so fast. Across in London I found the thinking at some of the highest levels of government is that the devolution of justice should now make the cost of policing the marching season the responsibility of the Stormont Executive.

Locally the focus has been on the actions of dissident republicans in encouraging young nationalists onto the streets. But in England many fail to understand why tradition should justify any Orange parade proceeding down a route where trouble might ensue.

In these tough economic times, if the Executive seeks more funds for policing future disorder it may provoke the response from London that re-routing a march could save the authorities both trouble and expense.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Mark Devenport | 09:54 UK time, Friday, 16 July 2010

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Obviously the City of Culture triumph - congratulations to all those involved in the Stroke City bid.

Moreover when I awoke in England this morning I found Northern Ireland being hailed as an example to the others when it comes to tackling youth crime. Hard to believe, given the images from North Belfast? Well then listen again to my colleague Mark Simpson's report on the Today programme, in which you will hear praise for the local youth conferencing system and the Justice Minister David Ford insisting that care works better than incarceration.

Battle of Words

Mark Devenport | 10:59 UK time, Thursday, 15 July 2010

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Sticks and stones hurt PSNI bones. But can words do anything to blunt the appeal of the dissidents to nationalist youths?

Yesterday's Stormont Castle news conference saw no repeat of Martin McGuinness's blistering verbal assault on the dissidents as "traitors to the people of Ireland". Maybe that was because the rain dampened everyone's rhetorical ardour.

However the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin has launched a scathing attack on the dissidents in this lengthy statement on the North Belfast riots.

Minister Martin argues that those encouraging young people to engage in disorder are living in the hope that some of the youths will get seriously hurt. "Dreadful as it is to contemplate" the minister says "they are actually hoping that one or more of the rioters will be killed or maimed in their conflict with the police so that a new generation of martyrs for the cause will inspire others to follow. They are also hoping by their actions to provoke a violent reaction from the protestant community so that communities will once again look to paramilitaries for protection."

And in a similar line of logic to the Deputy First Minister's, Micheál Martin challenges the dissidents' nationalist credentials: "right now, the biggest threat to Irish unity is not the British, or the Orange Order, but those wannabe republicans who think that they can bomb and shoot their way there......Let nobody be fooled, these so-called "dissident" republicans are unqualified partitionists. Nobody who believes in the Republic should have anything to do with them."

No doubt the minister's targets will insist they will take no lectures from "26 county" political leaders. So is he howling at the moon? Or can this battle of words have an incremental impact?

Stop Thief!

Mark Devenport | 15:19 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

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So you have evidence a crime is being committed, there are police officers present, but you just can't bring yourself to turn in the guilty party.

The dillemma of an onlooker in North Belfast? Well maybe, but in my case this sums up my thoughts as I saw my umbrella being whisked away from me this afternoon. Okay, the Chief Constable Matt Baggott was close at hand, but I couldn't envisage him intervening as the perpetrators were none other than the First Minister Peter Robinson and his junior minister, Robin Newton.

As their news conference outside Stormont Castle turned wet and windy, a government official grabbed the closest brolly to hand (mine) to provide cover for the politicians. And after a plaintive cry of "bring back my brolly" I got it back in time for a BBC News channel report so no harm done. I shan't be ordering out a snatch squad.

During the news conference itself, the politicians and the police were determined to minimise any differences and emphasise their united committment. Martin McGuinness talked disparagingly about the "tiny" numbers of those involved and the "micro groups" stirring up trouble. Peter Robinson said the OFMDFM's North Belfast Task Force had already met 13 times. When I questioned whether the weekend events were an indictment of that taskforce he countered by pointing out how many of those involved in the disorder had come from outside the area.

Matt Baggott again promised arrests once the video evidence has been properly examined. But no one could promise this won't all happen again next year. No matter how many community relations initiatives are adopted, or new quangoes created to look after parades, there is no magic wand which can be waved to make the summer tensions go away.

Groundhog Day Revisited

Mark Devenport | 12:06 UK time, Tuesday, 13 July 2010

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Back in the 1990s it used to be the Drumcree stand off which journalists dubbed "Groundhog Day" because it came around every year in seemingly unchanging form. Now the Ardoyne shops confrontation has taken over - an ugly annual episode which may be repetitive but remains both depressing and dangerous.

The PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay stirred some political controversy earlier today when he used an interview on the Nolan show to criticise the First and Deputy First Ministers for not doing more to take a lead in condemning and tackling the violence.

The politicians won't be too happy with this - Gerry Kelly who is himself a junior minister in the First and Deputy First Ministers' office points out that, as a local representative, he has been busy trying to calm temperatues in and around the Ardoyne.

However the ACC made a distinction between local work and a more strategic approach. He talked about the politicains needing to have "a plan to meet this type of issue next time it comes round rather than waiting until it inevitably comes next year" and mentioned the as yet unpublished Cohesion Sharing and Integration strategy, which is meant to slowly erode the communal differences which fuel the kind of violence witnessed over the weekend.

Questioned further on this. ACC Finlay's boss, Chief Constable Matt Baggott, also mentioned the need to build a "shared future". However he deliberately steered the focus away from an argument between his force and the politicians. Instead he appeared to be excusing and playing down ACC Finlay's comments when he said some of his officers had been working for 24, 26 or 48 hours and asked for people to be "generous" in responding to comments which "may create political debate but are more about driving forward dialogue".

That said Alistair Finlay's comments haven't emerged from thin air - rather they echo the parting shot from Matt Baggott's predecessor, Sir Hugh Orde, when he told the Stormont politicians last year that they were failing to tackle the roots of sectarianism.

So where do we stand on the "Cohesion, Sharing and Integration" strategy? Progress on this score was a key demand from the Alliance party before David Ford accepted the Justice portfolio. The First and Deputy First Ministers agreed what they termed "the core" of the strategy back in February. But since then a draft has been shuttling between departments and Stormont committees and whilst this Stormont answer promised publication in June that timetable has now been exceeded. The latest guess is that the OFMDFM Committee and the Stormont Executive will approve the strategy for public consultation later this month.

When it comes out, though, will it contain anything which has the potential to narrow the divisions so evident this weekend? Cynics reckon that neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein have any great self interest in eroding the communal blocs on which they have built their political machines. Sinn Fein, in particular, rejects a lot of the "good relations" approach as a British sponsored exercise in trying to depict the problem here as being between "two tribes". Instead republicans insist that "equality" is the key to improving the situation. When you look back at the Education department's decision to slash its own community relations budget then the omens for a change of tack don't seem too promising. So even if we get a CSI strategy published and adopted, will it be pursued with enough vigour to deliver change on the ground? Or will we still be talking about Groundhog Day somewhere in Northern Ireland in 20 years time?

UPDATE 1500: The First and Deputy First Ministers have just condemned the riots - but in an outpoken response Peter Robinson also described ACC Finlay's comments as "unhelpful and unacceptable".

"Junket of all junkets"

Mark Devenport | 13:20 UK time, Friday, 9 July 2010

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Having stirred some controversy over the Pope's visit in a BBC World Service interview earlier this month, Ian Paisley returns to the subject in his News Letter column today. He says that "in the mother of all recessions" September's state visit will be "the junket of all junkets". He concludes that the Vatican's real objective is to secure "the Anglican sheep that are in the process of going over to Rome bringing their wealth behind them."

43, 35 or 15/90?

Mark Devenport | 12:33 UK time, Friday, 9 July 2010

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Remember the old gag about the plane landing at Aldergrove and the pilot telling his passengers to change their watches because the local time was 1690?

Well now we could be talking about 15/90 instead.

The reason - the shake up in Westminster seats announced earlier this week by Nick Clegg, which I see that Brian Walker has been writing about over on Slugger O'Toole.

According to this analysis by our election night psephologist Nicholas Whyte the planned reduction in the total number of seats in the Commons could result in the boundaries being redrawn leaving us with just 15 seats, down three from the current 18. Nicholas thinks that could mean the DUP losing two seats in the east and one in the west.

Where 15/90 comes into play is that the Assembly is organised on the basis of 6 Stormont seats to each Westminster constituency. So if that ratio is maintained it would deliver a 90 seat Assembly.

So whilst earlier this week Alastair Ross had us ruminating on a 43 or 35 seater Assembly a 90 strong Stormont appears far more likely.

As well as the changing boundaries we may have to cope (should it get passed on may 5th) with a switch to AV. Immediately after the election Nicholas Whyte reckoned that, if applied to this year's general election results, the AV system might have changed the result in South Antrim. However he didn't think it would alter much else.

The Green MLA Brian Wilson seems to disagree. In a recent press statement he attacked AV as a "betrayal of those who have worked for many years for electoral reform. AV is no fairer than first past post" he continued "and will reinforce sectarian voting patterns in Northern Ireland." Mr Wilson argued that the AV system "would effectively eliminate centre parties and members such as Naomi Long."

Nicholas isn't convinced, but given that the boundaries are due to be changed in any case pondering this year's East Belfast results is maybe a bit of an unproductive parlour game. On the point of principle it's clear that AV would do away with all the arguments about the need for voting pacts between either the unionists or the nationalists. But would it decimate the centre parties in the way the Green MLA implies?

One party which has come to a different conclusion about AV is the SDLP. Their leader Margaret Ritchie says the STV system used in Assembly elections is her preference, but failing that she believes AV is "a clear step forward". Certainly you can see why the SDLP would be happy to be spared the kind of pressure they were subjected to over voting pacts in Fermanagh and South Belfast during the last Westminster election.

My colleague Jim Fitzpatrick will have more on the constituencty shake up on the Politics Show this Sunday. I'm away this weekend but Stephen Walker is presenting Inside Politics in my absence on BBC Radio Ulster. Good luck, Stephen!

He did it his way

Mark Devenport | 15:26 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010

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As the new MP for Strangford the gun toting Ulster Scots speaking Jim Shannon isn't bidding farewell to this blog - I am sure he will feature regularly even though he "oot and aboot". However there was an emotional note to his final written Stormont questions. Mr Shannon accompanied them with a pastiche on "My Way", along the following lines:

"And now, the end is here
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I'll say it clear
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain
I've questioned 'til my quota's full
Ive asked each and ev'ry weekday
And more, much more than this, I questioned my way"

Not to be outdone Assembly officials responded with an Abba-esque reply:

"Thank you for the questions
Those sacred questions
Those endless questions
You gave us...

I'm thinking of the questions
I wouldn't change a single one;
Believe me"

43 or 35?

Mark Devenport | 12:52 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010

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How many MLAs should we have? A written answer from the First and Deputy First Ministers to the DUP's Alastair Ross concludes that if we had the same number of politicians to people as Scotland we would have just 43 MLAs, and if we followed the Welsh example we would have only 35 Assembly members.

Of course radical surgery of that kind seems unlikely but the answer points out that the Westminster coalition is due to launch a redrawing of the parliamentary constituency boundaries and this may well have a knock on impact on the Assembly. Indeed the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is expected to say more about this process this afternoon.

You can find the full text of the written answer in the extended entry.

Read the rest of this entry

A helpful suggestion

Mark Devenport | 11:37 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010

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Stormont ministers are down in Dublin today meeting their Irish counterparts. The economy will dominate the agenda with both administrations trying to work out how to cut costs whilst preserving essential services.

The ministers are also due to discuss cross border infrastructure development. onw hich topic I can pass on this helpful suggestion from a regular blog reader from the North West, Noel Adams, who has an eye for the detail of European bureaucracy. Noel spotted this recent news release from the EU adopting simplified rules to help regions access European funds at a time when budgets are under pressure.

The particular measure whcih caught Noel's eye was one "allowing major projects to be financed by more than one programme: e.g. the construction of a major motorway section which cuts across different regions can now be co-financed by several regional programmes. Under previous rules, this could not be accommodated." So could this be helpful for funding the Derry Aughnacloy road?

May 5th and all that

Mark Devenport | 18:07 UK time, Friday, 2 July 2010

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The Scottish First Minister thinks it shows disrespect to the devolved administrations. His Welsh counterpart wants to discuss postponing the Welsh assembly elections in response. But our politicians, as ever, don't have a united position on the possibility that a referendum on changing the Westminster first past the post system will coincide with the Stormont and council elections on May 5th.

A Sinn Fein source thought it sounded like an efficient use of resources. But Alliance's General Secretary Gerry Lynch thinks that "any clash between referendum and the Assembly election will mean people do not get a chance to give adequate attention to either." Mr Lynch argues that "people need to think about what they want our political system to look like. Any referendum campaign must give the public the chance to make their minds up away from the heat of an Assembly election."

The electoral authorities appear to share those concerns. They are worried the voters could get confused and that holding two elections and a referendum at the same time would pose logistical problems. The date of the Assembly election is set in legislation but the date for the council elections will be for the Northern Ireland Office to decide.

The authorities reckon you need at least 8 weeks between elections. Pushing back the council elections would mean holding them in July which isn't a great time. So instead the idea is being canvassed of holding elections to the 26 councils early, on the first Thursday in March. That way you would also avoid party canvassers tripping over census enumerators who are due to be working the doors in late March.

The DUP don't seem to have a set view - one source told me they'd probably be opposed to holding all three votes on the same day. But within the last hour I spoke to a DUP minister who argued that the voters aren't stupid and could easily cope with a referendum and two elections on the same day. An Ulster Unionist spokesman told me that while it was "not perhaps ideal to hold a referendum on the same day as other elections, Northern Ireland has experience of multiple elections on the same day." The UUP spokesman pointed out that holding all three votes together "could also perhaps increase the prospects of a higher turnout for the referendum."

Either way it will be up to the Northern Ireland Office to decide and they aren't commenting until their counterparts across the water confirm the date of the Westminster AV referendum. That announcement is expected next week.

Paisley and the Pope

Mark Devenport | 07:34 UK time, Friday, 2 July 2010

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Ian Paisley is due to become a peer next week, but before donning the ermine he's taken a crack at an old foe who is also fond of long flowing robes. He has told the BBC World Service's "The Interview" programme, to be broadcast this weekend, that the visit to the UK by Pope Benedict XVI due in September was a mistake. The former First Minister says "I think he (the Pope) should not be invited to the country....I don't know how it has been done because they have had it all secret. Nobody knows who made the thing. You go and ask a question of any minister and he says he doesn't want to have anything to do with it. The Queen is only meeting them on Scottish soil, not on English soil....I think it's a mistake."

He also doesn't see any reason to retract his historic quotes about Catholics, like the time in 1969 when he is quoted as telling a loyalist rally that "they breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin".

He brushes aside the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister, insisting that unionists will never let that happen.

On one level this is not very surprising anyone who has kept an eye on Ian Paisley's "News Letter" columns knows he hasn't changed his theological views. However the recent reassessment of the former DUP leader, since he decided to share power with Sinn Fein, has tended to diminish some people's memories of how fervent his attitudes were when, for example, he protested against the Pope in the European parliament back in 1988.

Of course some - like the Orange Order which has previously called for protests against the Pope's visit - may applaud Ian Paisleys forthright comments. For others it may be a reminder that his contribution has to be judged in the round, not just on his chuckling epilogue.

Indeed when the "Chuckle Brothers" were in residence at Stormont Castle they had an unspoken rule - Martin didn't have to do the Queen, so long as Ian didn't have to do the Pope. Which is a shame, because I'd rather like to be a fly on the wall, during an Ian Paisley/Pope Benedict XVI encounter in September (to which Ian Paisley might reply, as I think he did once to Noel Thompson "if you were a fly on the wall, I'd swat you".)


Battles, Boats and Bones

Mark Devenport | 16:58 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010

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That's the title of a book launched by the Environment Minister Edwin Poots uncovering forgotten stories and little known facts about archaeological discoveries here over the last 20 years or so. I too am a fan of alliteration, so here's a thought - anyone out there got any good alliterative triptychs which sum up either Northern Ireland in general , or Stormont in particular?

Raymond McCartney for AG?

Mark Devenport | 15:22 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010

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The new Attorney General John Larkin gave evidence to the Stormont Justice Committee this afternoon. The Ulster Unionist David McNarry welcomed him to Room 21, but made it clear he would have preferred it if the Attorney General had been an MLA, open to question in the Assembly chamber just like other ministers.

Next up was Sinn Fein's Chief Whip Carál Ní Chuilín. In the light of Mr McNarry's comments she wondered whether the Strangford MLA would back her nomination of her colleague, former IRA prisoner Raymond McCartney, to the Attorney General job. Messrs Mcnarry and McCartney are fast becoming a double act of the Justice Committee, but the relative bonhomie does not stretch that far.

During his evidence, Mr Larkin expanded on his view that the gap in supervisory powers over the Public Prosecution Service should be closed as a matter of urgency. Mr Larkin explained how - in contrast to the position on April 11th - he can't appeal unduly lenient sentences or initiate criminal proceedings. He also pointed out that if something goes wrong with a significant prosecution there is currently no way in which a parliamentary explanation can be provided. Although the AG seems happy on a personal level not to have over arching powers over the Public Prosecution Service during his running in period it's fairly clear he will push more and more for change on this score.

Mr Larkin was also asked a supposedly hypothetical question which sounded remarkably similar to the circumstances surrounding Margaret Ritchie's withdrawal of funding for a UDA linked conflict transformation project. Although he didn't go into the detail he suggested that if a local Attorney General had been in place at the time they might have been able to intervene early in order to prevent the row over whether the minister had acted lawfully or not.

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