BBC BLOGS - The Devenport Diaries

Archives for November 2010

Taxing Times

Mark Devenport | 14:54 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

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The call from seven leading business organisations for a reduction in the local level of corporation tax has won support from across the political spectrum. The DUP, the SDLP and the Northern Ireland Conservatives voiced their support whilst Sinn Fein linked the move to its wider demand for full "fiscal autonomy". (UPDATE: I should have also mentioned the UUP in that list but somehow missed this statement from David McNarry. It points out that they have long campaigned on the issue, which is expected to feature in their conference this weekend.)

During Finance Questions, Sinn Fein's Cathal Boylan asked Sammy Wilson when he hoped to see the Treasury's paper on rebalancing the economy here. The paper is expected to address the Corporation Tax argument. Mr Boylan implied local politicians should be able to weigh up all the information in the paper before deciding on the budget.

This prompted a tart response from Mr Wilson, who reminded Mr Boylan that the Treasury paper was only due to be a discussion document. Stormont politicians, he argued, did not have the luxury of being able to study it before finalising their budget.

Sinn Fein took heart from today's announcement of wide ranging budget powers for the Scottish parliament. Although their spokesman Mitchel McLaughlin agreed with the SNP that the move did not go far enough, he clearly saw it as a step in the right direction.

Unionists may be prepared to embrace a lower local corporation tax rate. But they are wary of the wider powers demanded by Sinn Fein. Their fear: that "fiscal autonomy" may be the thin end of wedge towards the political independence republicans crave.

Of course not everyone is convinced by the corporation tax argument. This morning on BBC Radio Ulster the tax specialist Richard Murphy (who advises the TUC) slammed the proposal. The Workers Party's John Lowry also voiced his opposition. Citing a previous ICTU report "Pot of Gold or Fools Gold", Mr Lowry claimed that setting up a differential tax regime could cause problems for supermarkets transferring goods from GB warehouses to NI stores.

What's far from certain is whether Owen Paterson has convinced the Treasury to change its mind since the Varney report rejected the lower corporation tax rate lobby. This week the Treasury released a document proposing changes to Corporation tax across the UK, including a lower 10p rate when corporations make profits as a result of new products developed within the country.

The Treasury's Corporate Tax Reform document set out a "road map" for various changes over the next three years, but it didn't include any reference to devolving corporation tax to Northern Ireland.

Council Power Sharing

Mark Devenport | 13:48 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

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Edwin Poots launched a council reform paper this morning which includes proposals to return planning powers to our councillors for the first time since 1973. Should the proposals be implemented it will be a test of local politicians' ability to decide planning decisions professionally and with impartiality. At present councils discuss planning applications but don't make the final decision. Big decisions, on strategic planning matters, will still be taken centrally by the department (which is subsuming the planning service).

The other aspect of the paper covers the future governance arrangements for our councils. This is where you need to be a bit of an anorak. The consultation document suggests that council posts should be handed out in proportion to a party's strength. But how to judge that? The paper mentions the possibility of Single Transferrable Voting in which each councillor could vote for the individual they think should get a job. It also raises the possibility of the Saint-Lague system (devised by a French mathematician who once calculated that a bumblebee could not fly.) However it returns to the trusty old D'Hondt method used for the Stormont ministries as the fall back if parties cannot agree an alternative.

Mr Poots' resort to D'Hondt has drawn fire from the TUV leader JIm Allister who argues that "far from diminishing D'Hondt and moving away from mandatory coalition the DUP, sadly, is in the business of bedding it into even local government." There's a different kind of criticism from the Alliance's Stephen Farry who told me D'Hondt unfairly favours large parties. He thinks that if the method was employed in Castlereagh and Lisburn unionists would get all the top posts and the reverse would be true in Newry and Derry. The consultation document suggests applying D'Hondt to all positions over a four year period to counter any bias towards bigger parties. But Mr Farry isn't convinced this will make much of a difference.

The paper also suggests checks and balances including a procedure under which 15% of the members of a council could "call in" a decision related to the protection of a political minority in the council area. It is also proposed that key decisions which have an impact across a number of wards or involve a major capital project should be subjected to an 80% weighted majority vote rather than the cross community vote used at Stormont.

The department is asking for comments before March 11th next year. If you want someone to explain the detailed maths behind D'Hondt, Saint-Lague or the "Droop Quota method" ask them, not me.

Your Party or Your Wife?

Mark Devenport | 16:47 UK time, Sunday, 28 November 2010

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It isn't exactly "your money or your life?" But as flagged up previously on this blog the Green MLA Brian Wilson faces a choice of "your party or your wife?" following Alliance's nomination of his other half, Anne Wilson as a candidate in next May's Assembly election.

Today Brian Wilson joined me on Inside Politics to talk about the role of the Greens in the politial and economic turmoil south of the border and the decision of the party to elect a leader in the north. But I couldn't resist asking him who he would back in May. His answer - strict neutrality. He will campagn for both his wife and his colleague Steven Agnew. But will he abstain from voting, and if not, who will get his first preference? He wouldn't (or couldn't) say.

"Selfish Strategic and Economic Interest"

Mark Devenport | 16:52 UK time, Saturday, 27 November 2010

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Back in 1986 Peter Robinson's selfish interest in the south concentrated on not spending too long behind bars after his arrest during the loyalist incursion into Clontibret. But today he was able to take on the role of the concerned neighbour, wishing to see his southern cousin drag itself out of its current economic plight.

The use of the phrase "selfish strategic and economic interest" was quite deliberate - harking back to Peter Brooke's speech in 1990 (in which he said Britain had no such interest in Northern Ireland). The Brooke speech served as a signal to Irish republicans that they should pursue a negotiated solution. The Robinson speech is intended to portray a settled situation in which Gerry Adams has given up on hoping his West Belfast seat will ever be part of a United Ireland, and the north and south are comfortable about mutual cooperation.

Although there were occasional barbs towards Gerry Adams, Caitriona Ruane and Margaret Ritchie, the DUP leader's speech did not include any specific reference to his partner in government Martin McGuinness. Someone else notable by his absence was the new Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott. Other DUP politicians threw brick bats at the UUP, but Mr Robinson, now seeking to broaden his party's appeal, treated them as, more or less, an irrelevance.

If there were few remarkable passages in today's conference spech, then it was well to remember the astounding political survival act which made today's gathering possible. In the immediate wake of the revelations over his wife's personal and financial affairs and the loss of his own Westminster seat few would have given Mr Robinson much chance of survival. But there he was, receiving a warm reception and talking with conviction about strengthening the party (although he didn't specify whether recapturing East Belfast would be a job he would take on, or one he intends to sub contract to another DUP politician).

I have recorded an interview with Mr Robinson for tomorrow's Inside Politics during which he argues that Sinn Fein's increased southern focus (in the light of their by-election victory and Gerry Adams' switch to Louth) should spur republicans to reach a budget deal. His logic - that Sinn Fein can hardly present themselves as economic saviours south of the border if they cannot conduct budget negotiations competently at Stormont.

Is this the case or will the need to stand against cuts in the south have a negative impact on Sinn Fein's willingness to cut deals in the north? Martin McGuinness's speech in London on Friday night lacerated the Secretary of State Owen Paterson for playing party politics with the process here. Mr McGuinness drew analogies with what he portrayed as the failure of the Conservatives under John Major. Mr Paterson has ruled out any further negotiations on the Spending Review, insisting that the allocation is a settlement, not a basis for discussion.

We've been here before - John Major insisted the Downing Street Declaration was not open for negotiation. However Sinn Fein came back with demands for "clarification". It seems frankly unlikely that George Osborne will clarify, discuss or negotiate his decision any more. So will Sinn Fein take "no" for an answer?

No Comment from McClarty

Mark Devenport | 16:31 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

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Rumours reached us from the North Coast today that the veteran Ulster Unionist Deputy Speaker David McClarty may be considering running in next May's Assembly election as an independent. Mr McClarty wasn't picked by his party to stand again in East Londonderry. Instead the UUP confirmed their former Westminster candidate Lesley Macaulay and David Harding as their official candidates.

In the interests of reporting fact, not rumour, my colleague Martina Purdy gave Mr McClarty a call, but he wouldn't clarify the matter, responding simply with a "no comment".

Santa Alert

Mark Devenport | 16:19 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

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If you are intending to go for a walk in the Stormont grounds in the next few weeks, keep your wits about you and constantly look to the left and right. Otherwise you might be run over by a Santa travelling at speed.

One of our Inside Politics producers was chatting to an MLA about appearing on the show this Sunday and he said yes, with the precondition that he would have to disappear promptly to take part in a Santa dash for the learning disability charity Mencap.

Then almost simultaneously we got word of another Santa dash at Stormont - this time for the MS Society on December 11th.

As Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson used to joke that he was the Stormont Santa, doling out the goodies to other departments. Sadly changing times mean that - should a budget deal be reached - he's more likely to end up as Scrooge.

Danny's Fees Dilemma

Mark Devenport | 14:18 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

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So far so good - we haven't had any equivalent of the disorder experienced across the water over student fees. At a briefing this lunchtime, the Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy paid tribute to the way local students have conducted the debate on the issue (he attended a question and answer session at Queen's University last night). But of course the key difference is that so far the minister has yet to announce a decision on fees, so the students don't have anything concrete to which to respond.

The minister told us that he's asked Joanne Stuart to come back to him with a re-appraisal of the fees question by the end of the year. He then hopes to put proposals out to consultation early in the New Year.

He talks about three broad concerns - affordability (presumably both for students and the devolved government), retention of local students at local universities and preserving the status and reputation of our local universities.

The minister is waiting not just for Ms Stuart's paper, but also for some kind of progress in Stormont's budget discussions. After all there is little point in proposing a policy then finding out you have no resources to implement it. DEL officials say their equivalent department across the water has lost 80% of its university teaching funding. So if that cut is passed on in direct proportion it would be bad news for the minister and for the universities under his umbrella.

DEL are mounting a spirited defence of the universities, and of their other training roles, pointing out that Northern Ireland's ability to attract foreign direct investment is linked to our provision of a young suitably skilled workforce. For example, the recent deal under which the US bank Citi has expanded its operations here depended on guarantees that suitable university courses would be provided to train potential staff.

Nevertheless there are reasons to fear for DEL in any budget agreement. If a large element of health and justice are ringfenced, where will the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson look for savings except in other areas like higher education? And if the crucial political deal over the budget will have to be hammered out between the DUP and Sinn Fein, where will that leave departments headed by ministers, like Danny Kennedy, from other parties?

All of which could mean there's not much money in the pot when the minister has to resolve his dilemma over fees in the New Year.

P.S. During the course of the briefing, Mr Kennedy expanded on the obvious difference between himself and the DSD Minister Alex Atwood over the Conservative Liberal Democrat welfare reforms. In line with Conservative thinking, Mr Kennedy thinks there "must always be an incentive to work". Questioned about Alex Attwood's search for flexibility over the proposed housing benefits changes, the DEL minister added that he wasn't convinced exceptions would be possible without breaking the important principle of parity.

However when pushed further as to whether that was a principle which could never be broken, Mr Kennedy responded in jovial fashion by quoting Groucho Marx "those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others".

The Other Pat Sheehan

Mark Devenport | 14:11 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

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Last week this blog informed you about Gerry Adams' replacement's love of cricket. But obviously that wasn't good enough for a colleague who decided to check out Wikipedia for any other salient information on the new West Belfast MLA. I can only assume that's what he was doing when he visited this page, as he hasn't shown a previous specialist interest in 1950s Playboy Playmates of the Month.

A friend in need

Mark Devenport | 10:36 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010

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The old republican maxim used to be that "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity". Changed times, now the British Chancellor sees Ireland's difficulty as an opportunity to help - in George Osborne's words - "a friend in need".

Of course it's not just an act of charity. The British and Irish economies are heavily interconnected in terms of trade and bank loans. A complete collapse south of the border might make it easier to get a parking space at a Newry shopping centre and cause some unionists to gloat about the "failed entity" south of the border. But the impact in terms of diminished takings and job losses here would soon set that into context.

In London some euro sceptics - like the Conservative John Redwood - have argued that Britain should not participate in any rescue package. That's been echoed by the TUV leader Jim Allister who last week described the prospect of the UK playing a part as "monstrous and wrong".

However at Stormont it's just not nationalists who appear convinced that George Osborne has little choice about taking part in the rescue. Yesterday on "Inside Politics" for example (speaking prior to the confirmation of the multi billion Euro bail out) the DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson told me Ireland was "reaping the effects of having joined the Euro and lost its fiscal and monetary independence". But he added that he didn't take any pleasure in what was happening and didn't think " any of us want to see a weak economy in the Republic". Mr Wilson pointed to the level of interdependence between Northern Ireland and the south adding that he was concerned that the continuing problems being revealed within the balance sheets of the Dublin banks could have a negative impact on the liquidity available to firms here.

Not everyone, of course, agrees with Messrs Wilson, Allister and the Daily Telegraph that the Euro is to blame for Ireland's difficulty. In yesterday's Observer Will Hutton blamed the "duplicity and lack of grip" of the Irish government and the fact that "Dublin followed Edinburgh, Reykjavik and Dubai in trying to exploit unregulated global finance and become an international financial centre." He argued that instead of being the problem the Euro should be part of the solution.

I am not going to pretend to be a financial expert. With a layman's eye, it seems that membership of the Euro has robbed Ireland of one lever for managing its crisis. But the the roots of the difficulty lie not just in the cheap credit made possible by Euro membership, but also a lack of bank regulation (a problem common to other countries). Whilst celebrating the success of the "Celtic Tiger" the authorities in Dublin failed to discern when a boom fuelled by healthy export performance tipped over into a bubble of unsustainable property speculation.

Last week, talking to Gerry Adams about his move to Louth, I asked him if he had been in power during the 2008 financial crisis, would he have let the banks go to the wall. He answered "yes", adding that he would burn the bonds issued to investors.

At some point I'd like to see a good counterfactual piece about what would have happened if the Irish government hadn't come to the banks' aid in 2008. In the Irish Independent back in September Thomas Molloy argued that it was "possible the country would have witnessed 'Mad max' scenes for several days as cash shortages forced people to barter and then loot supermarkets and other sources of food."

The failure of Irish ministers to tell the truth in recent days may have seemed mildly irritating (just last weekend they were blaming the BBC for peddling "fiction" about the bail out). But it could be excused as a tactical manouevre in the midst of high stakes financial negotiations. The far bigger questions concern the strategic decisions made in 2008 and in previous years and whether the alternative courses of action canvassed by opposition politicians would have averted this crisis or merely accelerated events.

32 County Paisley

Mark Devenport | 15:27 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

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Speaking in the Lords today, Ian Paisley senior came out in favour of a United Ireland. Another astonishing stage in the Big Man's evolution? Well not quite....Lord Bannside expressed his support for reunification under the British crown.

Referring to a letter in the Irish Independent in which the writer "invited Her Majesty
to come over and take the whole of Ireland under her control", the former DUP leader went on: "I am not going to throw such a bomb as that into the House today. But it's a very good thought and, if we all came together with Her Majesty at our head, I think we would do very well."

Presumably referring to the Battle of the Boyne he added "another king did that at a certain famous watering place that I will not mention here today."

Accompanied by his wife, Baroness Paisley, the former Free Presbyterian moderator joked that Lady Paisley had been sent, like John the Baptist, before him.

Replacing "Googly" Adams

Mark Devenport | 11:40 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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Thanks to Danny Morrison who tells me that when he shared a cell with the new Sinn Fein MLA for West Belfast he discovered that, apart from his well documented GAA involvement, Pat Sheehan is an enthusiastic cricket fan.

So if there's a dispute about next May's election results, maybe Sinn Fein will resort to the Duckworth Lewis method.

Your starter for ten - which local musician released an album named after the method, used for calculating which team should win a limited over match interrupted by bad weather or poor light?

Vote Management in West Belfast

Mark Devenport | 11:15 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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So IRA hunger striker Pat Sheehan has been selected to take Gerry Adams' West Belfast assembly seat. With 71% of the vote there seems little doubt Sinn Fein will successfully defend this safest of seats at the next Westminster election (although we still don't know how an y boundary changes will redraw the constituency). But, given the Sinn Fein President's absence from the ballot paper, will they be able to repeat their previous achievement in returning 5 MLAs next May?

The vote management required to pull this off in the last Assembly election was the envy of Sinn Fein's opponents. If you look at Nicholas Whyte's website you can see that Diane Dodds had more first preference votes than Alex Attwood in 2007, yet got beaten by Sinn Fein's Jennifer McCann by 481 votes on the last count. Nicholas points out that Sinn Fein still had 266 undistributed transfers which, if they had come into play, would have widened the margin.

Unless the Irish general election coincides exactly with the Assembly campaign, Gerry Adams will no doubt continue to maintain a high profile in West Belfast in the weeks running up to the vote in May. Still it will be another interesting test for the party's vote management machine.

Whilst Sinn Fein were selecting their candidate, over in London the Secretary of State was making a speech setting out various options he is considering for dealing with the past.

Owen Paterson also said he's increasingly attracted to the idea of passing a Northern Ireland "normalisation bill" during the course of this parliament. Mr Paterson argued this bill could deal with issues such as political donations, elements of electoral law and, if it has not been resolved by consensus, ending once and for all double jobbing at Stormont and Westminster.

Mr Paterson repeated that the government will not be neutral on the union, and defended the financial settlement provided for Northern Ireland under the spending review. He said Northern Ireland ministers had been briefed that they would be facing reductions of 18 per cent on current spending and 48 per cent on capital spending. He says that in fact, the Executive is being asked to make savings on current spending of 6.9 per cent and a reduction in the capital budget of 37 per cent.


Grass Groan

Mark Devenport | 14:57 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

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The Assembly is today debating a DUP motion calling for better coordination between the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Roads Service on grass cutting in public spaces. Cue various jokes about politicians spending their time talking about cutting the grass when they should be cutting their expenditure.

But I groaned the most when a colleague told me someone had justified the debate by pointing out that the Assembly has always been keen on lawn order.

How not to dispose of a whale

Mark Devenport | 10:01 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

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So the authorities in Donegal have decided to incinerate the 33 whales beached on Rutland island, rather than to bury them on site. It's understood the authorities will transport the whale carcasses by truck to County Cavan before destroying them. Obviously they have learned a few lessons about how not to dispose of a dead whale. But for those who haven't, I am eager to grab this rare legitimate opportunity to point to a famous TV report from the US state of Oregon.

Double or Quits?

Mark Devenport | 18:06 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010

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Dawn Purvis's council/MLA double jobbing bill has been through several debates at the bill, as covered previously on this blog. Now with the final stage due in the next couple of weeks, Ms Purvis has got wind that the DUP is planning to table a "petition of concern" requiring both a unionist and nationalist majority for the measure to proceed. This will mean that the DUP can block the private member's bill.

Ms Purvis is furious, accusing the DUP of "outrageous behaviour" and using the special procedure "to support their own interests as a political party".

DUP sources say their offer of a compromise on phasing out council/assembly double jobbing was spurned and those who rejected it "have only themselves to blame". They insist that if the bill is blocked the DUP won't be acting purely in its own interests, but in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland in general.

Given the bad odour attached to "double jobbing", blocking the bill might not be the most popular course of action the DUP could take. Nevertheless it seems to be under serious consideration.

Poetry Corner

Mark Devenport | 10:27 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010

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Describing his decision to choose Louth over West Belfast on Good Morning Ulster, Gerry Adams resorted to a famous quote from the American poet Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken":

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Fairly fitting given Mr Adams' long documented love of trees reiterated just this weekend on his Leargas blog.

It made me think of other Robert Frost poems such as his "Ten Mills":

I never dared to be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.

Maybe not so fitting for Gerry Adams, that one (unless you are a dissident). Perhaps more suitable for a middle of the road politician like David Ford.

Any other (repeatable) poems which you can think of which sum up individual politicians?


Mr Adams goes to Dundalk

Mark Devenport | 14:49 UK time, Sunday, 14 November 2010

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They parachuted Martin McGuinness into Mid Ulster and ran Bobby Sands as a prisoner candidate in Fermanagh, so it is far from unprecedented for republicans to see an electoral opportunity and move heaven and earth to exploit it.

After a period during which it seemed Gerry Adams had accustomed himself to a globetrotting retirement, his entry into the politics of County Louth looks set to take the Sinn Fein leadership in a fresh direction.

The upsides for the party will be augmenting what has been widely regarded as a lightweight team in the Dail with someone who enjoys both fame and a certain gravitas. Although the long rumoured notion of Mr Adams standing for Irish President has come to nought, this will provide him with an enhanced profile in the south, whilst Martin McGuinness increasingly is viewed as the de facto leader in the north.

The downsides could include pressure on Mr Adams to improve on the weak grasp of southern economics and society which he displayed in the TV debates during the last Dail campaign. There will also be lingering questions about his handling of the allegations concerning his Louth based brother, Liam.

The possibility that his critics might attack him for "double jobbing" have been dealt with by the Sinn Fein President making it clear that he will relinquish both his Stormont and Westminster seats. With Sinn Fein securing 71% of the vote in this year's General election there seems no doubt that the party will retain the seat in a by-election. But it will be fascinating to see who wins the selection - one of the existing MLAs, or someone parachuted in from elsewhere?

The rhetoric surrounding Mr Adams' candidacy is that he will be a voice which will "stand up against the consensus for cuts". So will Sinn Fein administer cuts north of the border and oppose them in the south? Or might this be another sign that the party could prove reluctant to agree a Stormont budget in the coming weeks? On Friday Conor Murphy talked of "challenging the British government on their proposed cuts" and refusing to run to "the British Treasury agenda."

BBC locks up loyalist

Mark Devenport | 11:07 UK time, Friday, 12 November 2010

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Whilst motorists around Belfast pulled their hair out last night stuck in the gridlock sparked by a series of security alerts, a leading loyalist found himself temporarily interned without trial - inside the BBC.

To explain - I was just starting to make my way home when I got a call from the "Hearts and Minds" team, concerned that the disruption might prevent their guests, the SDLP Minister Alex Attwood and the new PUP leader Brian Ervine, making it to studio in time for their 7.30 pm programme.

I agreed to fight my way back through the bumper to bumper traffic in order to wait as a standby guest for Noel Thompson.

Around 7 pm Brian Ervine arrived, but I hung on in make-up waiting for Alex Attwood to turn up. Five minutes before the programme was due to go on air the SDLP minister emerged from the storm outside and everyone relaxed.

"Hearts" had been switching their running order around to cope with the late arrivals and in make up we thought we had a good ten minutes to spare whilst Julia Paul's film was broadcast. So the PUP leader enquired if he could use the facilities, and I showed him around to the closest gents, explaining that it is equipped with a slow acting motion sensitive light so not to worry if for a few seconds he appeared to be plunged into darkness.

I made my way back into make up when the studio floor manager ran in to announce that since both guests had arrived the show would begin with their debate. Would they please take their places beside Noel immediately?

I headed back towards the gents to make sure Brian knew which way to go, only to hear an ominous click click noise. The cubicle door wouldn't open, the seconds were ticking away and the PUP leader was locked in.

Sadly it's not the kind of loo door which responds to a 10 pence piece - instead we really needed a skeleton key. We sent an SOS to security, and the make up assistant tried any keys ready to hand, but to no avail.

With the opening credits running (and a studio director, on her last day before starting pregnancy leave, worrying that her baby might arrive early) the time had come for decisive action. After telling the PUP leader to stand back, our floor manager aimed a couple of hefty kicks at the door.

We heard a crack, but still it wouldn't budge. Then Brian tried the lock again from his side and, to everyone's relief, it turned. He was rushed into the studio and had to have his microphone fitted whilst Alex Attwood was already answering the first couple of questions. The debate - about whether government money should be channelled to initiatives which Mr Ervine believes might assist loyalist paramilitaries in changing their ways - went on. The PUP leader looked a little flushed, but otherwise betrayed no sign of his inconvenience in the BBC's convenience.

We have reported the faulty lock to the relevant authorities. I'd like to take this opportunity to refute the tongue in cheek rumour propagated by Brian Ervine after the show that in confining him in a darkened cell like room I was operating to an MI5 agenda.

Stranger Than Fiction

Mark Devenport | 16:57 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

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Due to my rather eccentric shift pattern, Wednesdays are my Sundays - the day I get off in lieu for working the weekend presenting "Inside Politics". So I didn't watch the proceedings at yesterday's Finance Committee until today.

So I've only just watched the video of the Ulster Unionist David McNarry raising with a rather bemused Finance department official the report which I broadcast on Evening Extra on Tuesday night.

In that broadcast I reported that the Finance Minister hoped to have a draft budget ready to present to the Assembly by next Tuesday, in order to expedite a final budget my mid February.

Mr McNarry declared that he "almost crashed my car" when he heard the report. If he had I would have been partly responsible for two Ulster Unionist collisions in one week, as Mr McNarry's colleague Basil McCrea is still sporting a black eye after an alteraction with a fallen tree during the storm on Sunday night.

However the Strangford MLA kept a grip on his steering wheel and phoned me to check out my report. I never name my sources, but was happy to confirm that I had indeed been briefed with the proposed timetable by way of clarification of some comments Sammy Wilson made during his question time on Tuesday afternoon.

During yesterday's Finance Committee, Mr McNarry described me as "an honourable broadcaster who wouldn't report on fiction". However last night a Stormont source told me the draft budget process will take longer - perhaps two or three weeks. This afternoon I got more confirmation that a draft budget will definitely NOT now be brought to the Assembly next Tuesday.

At this stage I don't know what impact this delay will have on the final budget. If that slips beyond mid February it will get perilously close to the end of the financial year at the start of April. Perhaps the Executive might truncate the period of consultation on the draft budget.

So apologies to Mr McNarry for causing him to swerve and maybe I have a career in fiction after all! For those who have suspected this all along, I'd like to point out that on Tuesday night I also reported that DUP sources were prepared to ring fence the health element of Michael McGimpsey's budget. That development was confirmed by Sammy Wilson the next day.

All the best works of fiction, I'm told, have a sprinkling of fact - just for the purposes of verisimilitude.

More on Mrs Wilson

Mark Devenport | 13:14 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

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Last month this blog hinted that Brian Wilson's wife Ann might stand as an Alliance candidate in North Down. Last night the party picked her, alongside their sitting MLA Stephen Farry. Of course the joy of the single transferable vote system means that the outgoing Green MLA Brian Wilson can back both his spouse and his likely successor as Green standard bearer Steven Agnew. But who gets his first preference?

One Man Peace Wall

Mark Devenport | 12:27 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

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Last night I had the privilege of chairing the "East Belfast Speaks Out" debate, with panellists Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, Dawn Purvis, NIO Minister of State Hugo Swire and journalist Liam Clarke.

I quipped at one point that I felt like a "one man peace wall" keeping Peter and Martin apart. In truth the occasion was pretty polite - the First and Deputy First sang off much the same hymn sheet and the proceedings only got heated when they turned on Hugo Swire over the Spending Review.

Mr Swire gave the term "residual terrorist groups" its first official outing (both the British and Irish governments are trying to propagate this jargon as a substitute for the Solzhenitsyn like term "dissident"). RTGs? A bit too much like RPGs for my liking, and it would require a leap of faith to imagine that the media and society in general would obediently follow the officially suggested vocabulary.

Indeed Martin McGuinness (who has had a few colourful descriptions for the dissidents over the years) made it pretty clear to me that he thought the proposed jargon is absurd (I shall check his precise words to you and update when I have them).

As chair I wasn't able to scribble copious notes, concentrating instead on trying to keep the proceedings moving. However over on Slugger I see that Alan in Belfast has provided an almost heroic level of detail. There's also a good write up on Jenny Muir's East Belfast Diary. The debate will feature on tonight's BBC Hearts and Minds and there was a team from the young people's group WIMPS who i think will be posting up some video of the event in the near future.

In one sense the evening was remarkable as much for what didn't happen as what did. I can't ever recall Martin McGuinness sitting on a public platform in loyalist East Belfast before. Even though one question from the PUP's Jim Wilson talked about the allegedly one sided nature of the police's historic enquiries no one from the audience took this as an opportunity to get stuck into the Deputy First Minister about his IRA past. Instead he was extremely warmly received.

Subsidised Lasagne 2

Mark Devenport | 10:24 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010

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The Assembly, whose wheels move slowly, still hasn't come back with an answer about the level of the Stormont food subsidy. But this morning the SDLP's Pat Ramsey (who sits on the Assembly commission, which manages the place) estimated the subsidy at half a million pounds a year. I shall keep you posted if the Secretariat's figures differ.

UPDATE: The Secretariat has released a statement which on one reading suggests the subsidy is actually higher than Pat Ramsey's estimate, running at £600,000 per annum. I am told it's not as simple as that. The canteen contractor returns some money to the assembly from the food sold, which would lower the overall level of subsidy. However I don't have a breakdown for that returned cash.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's the Assembly statement:

An Assembly spokesperson said: "The Assembly Commission is responsible for ensuring that the appropriate level of service is provided for its Members, staff and the public who use its facilities and has entered into a range of contracts to ensure this. Specifically, the catering contract was awarded in 2007. Because of the nature of Assembly business and the requirement that services often be provided during unsocial sitting hours and for events, where the costs of providing such services exceeds the monies taken in, the extra cost is assumed by the Assembly. This is often referred to as a "subsidy", which does not have any impact on the price of food at any of the assembly's outlets as the catering contractor is responsible for price setting. Currently the catering contract costs, in real terms, are in the region of £600,000 per annum, with Contractor salaries making up two thirds of this cost. The Assembly Commission is currently looking at a range of measures to reduce costs with steps being taken to make efficiencies. The contract is continually under review to provide the best value for money."

Goodbye Subsidised Lasagne

Mark Devenport | 16:05 UK time, Monday, 8 November 2010

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My compliments to the chef who prepared my seafood lasagne for lunch in the Stormont basement canteen. It tasted lovely, but could it be my last? Well not necessarily, but it might cost me more than the £3.01 I paid today, if Peter Robinson has anything to do with it.

The DUP leader called for an end to subsidised food at Stormont during a debate on Assembly running costs this afternoon. MLAs backed Mr Robinson's motion, calling on the Assembly to reduce its spending in line with the cuts facing the Executive departments as part and parcel of the Treasury's comprehensive review.

The SDLP's Alban Maginness did his best to give the First Minister indigestion, claiming it was "a bit rich" for Mr Robinson to object to subsidised food given his track record of claiming the £400 monthly Westminster food allowance. Mr Maginness refused to take an intervention from the East Belfast MLA, who presumably wanted to point out that other parties' MPs took that allowance, which has since been changed in line with the overhaul on Westminster expenses.

The SDLP's Mark Durkan sounded as if he was continuing the food and beverage theme when he labelled the debate the DUP's "Tea Party moment". But of course as a former intern for Ted Kennedy, Mr Durkan had the recent US elections in mind accusing the DUP of cheap populism.

Some MPs thought the debate set a dangerous constitutional precedent of the Executive pressurising the Assembly. Mr Robinson retorted that he was speaking in an individual capacity, not as First Minister, but his critics didn't accept this differentiation.

Sammy Wilson hit back by accusing these sceptics of dancing on the head of a constitutional pin. It was a Stormont version of "Strictly Come Dancing", he quipped, but most of the speakers had not even provided as elegant a performance as Ann Widdecombe.

P.S. I have asked the Assembly if there is any estimate of the cost of subsidising the food. I am still waiting for an answer, but I shall keep you posted.

P.P.S. Last time I saw a Lakeland Tours bus it had dropped off Tom Elliott supporters for the UUP leadership election at the Waterfront. A few moments ago I spotted one, apparently broken down at the mini roundabout at Carson's statue on the Stormont estate. The bus had blocked the roundabout requiring Stormont staff to redirect cars around the obstacle. So another Stormont log jam...

Fresh double jobbing row

Mark Devenport | 16:36 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

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I'm just off the phone from the East Belfast MLA Dawn Purvis who isn't happy about some new amendments the DUP have put down on her anti-double jobbing bill. The bill, which would stop MLAs also serving as councillors, was subject to a lengthy debate last month. It is due to go through what's known as its further consideration stage in the assembly next week.

Ms Purvis wants the ban to come into force in time for next May's Stormont and council elections. However a DUP amendment published today would delay the measure coming into force until May 2014. The DUP's Peter Weir says his party believes the end to dual assembly council mandates should be phased in, not introduced in "one fell swoop". Another DUP amendment would reduce allowances paid to councillors who are also MLAs during the period before the full ban comes into force.

You hum it son, I'll play it

Mark Devenport | 15:45 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

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So far as I can remember, the last time the rotating doors at Stormont were out of commission was when Michael Stone got jammed in them. But today all visitors were being sent around to a side door so a grand piano could be squeezed through the front. The piano is for the recording of a BBC Christmas concert featuring the Three Priests.

P.S. For those who don't get it the headline is a reference to this old PG Tips advert. I am sure the piano movers today were much more professional!

Farewell IMC

Mark Devenport | 15:13 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

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After 6 years in existence the Independent Monitoring Commission is being wound up. Initially it provided a fig leaf for David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and drew criticism from the DUP. But after the DUP became the dominant unionist party they treated the four strong IMC with greater regard. The IMC periodically fined Sinn Fein for not using their influence more over the IRA (similar action was taken against the fringe loyalist parties). Sinn Fein always objected to the body, and have now expressed satisfaction at its demise.

The recent report on the murder of Bobby Moffett illustrated the Commission's limitations - the IMC blamed the UVF but wasn't able to suggest any effective sanction.

Still it didn't always stick to the government's script - remember the time when General de Chastelain was insisting that the IRA had fully decommissioned, whilst the IMC reported that the Provisionals may have held on to a quantity of handguns.

The British and Irish governments acknowledge that there is "a continuing public interest in ensuring that the public are informed about the threat in Northern Ireland from terrorism. Once we have received and considered the IMC's final report, the British and Irish Governments will do what is necessary to ensure that that need is met". So it's not clear what if anything will replace the IMC, and as the period before its inception suggested, the NIO may in the future be very reluctant to bluntly proclaim that a group's ceasefire is over if such a statement is not deemed politically expedient.

Downsizing Stormont

Mark Devenport | 16:00 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010

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The Assembly Executive and Review Committee met this morning to discuss how big Stormont should be. The meeting took place behind closed doors, but I'm told Sinn Fein favoured keeping the current 108 strong chamber, whilst the other parties backed various reductions. The DUP, in line with their recent speeches and documents, suggested an assembly of 72 to 75. Alliance opted for a similar number. The Ulster Unionists backed a reduction, but didn't specify how many MLAs. The SDLP were open to moving to a 90 strong assembly.

Sinn Fein sources say there are reasons why Stormont has so many MLAs and they are concerned about any move which would dilute the Assembly's representative inclusive nature. Speaking to the Politics Show recently, Alex Maskey talked about the constituencies which already have either no nationalist or no unionist representation.

However the expected reduction in local Westminster constituencies to 15 will, as things stand, have a natural knock on effect bringing Stormont down to 90 MLAs (even if each seat retains 6 MLAs). Given the range of views exchanged this morning it seems that, at the very least, a reduction to 90 politicians now appears likely.

Discriminating against soccer?

Mark Devenport | 12:22 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010

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MLAs have been debating David Ford's Justice Bill. There was a general welcome for the proposed offender's levy, intended to fund victims projects.

However the section of the bill dealing with sport has prompted some pointed exchanges. The Ulster Unionist David McNarry wondered why restrictions on ticket touting and banning orders applied to soccer but not Gaelic or rugby. He alleged that the measure discriminated against Protestant working class males.

By the lunchtime break the minister had yet reply to Mr McNarry. However he did intervene to clarify a complaint from the DUP's Gregory Campbell who wondered whether a section prohibiting throwing a missile onto the field of play might be used maliciously to prosecute a fan returning the ball to the players. Mr Ford pointed out that the section would only come into force if a spectator had no "lawful excuse" for his or her action. He presumed throwing a ball back would be covered.

Or to put it another way, the ball, in this case, would not be in any judge's court.

An end to abstentionism?

Mark Devenport | 16:37 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

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Iain Dale has beaten me to it, but it's quirky enough to repeat in any case. Young Sinn Fein politician Connor Morgan made his maiden speech in the Commons, treating his audience of young parliamentarians to a few phrases in Irish. Of course it was the youth parliament not the real thing, but as Iain Dale writes, if Connor Morgan can do it, why not Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness?

My free breakfast

Mark Devenport | 16:02 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

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Flattery, they claim, will get you anywhere. But my flattering remarks about Ms Purdy and Sex In The City (noted in this weekend's Sunday Times) didn't get me anywhere as my colleagues fixed the rota so I started my first working day back from leave at the La Mon hotel 7.30 a.m.

At least I did get a free fried egg, before broadcasting on Good Morning Ulster about the headlines from the DUP economic document "Rising to the Challenge".

The proposed public sector pay freeze provided the headline. Although they follow George Osborne's example in suggesting a freeze for all those earning more than £21,000, the DUP go further, supporting an end to the annual increments by which civil servants have clambered up their pay grades.

Civil servants interviewed by the BBC in Belfast city centre this afternoon were generally unimpressed (one thought, given the changes in pay and pensions, that she'd be 107 before she could retire). Sinn Fein's version of the pay freeze (which would only apply to those earning more than £43,000) would be more politically palatable. But would it generate the kind of savings needed to make a dent in the Executive's "black hole"?

And is it worth having a freeze which would apply to 23,000 civil servants, but not to more than 100,000 other public sector workers? The DUP thinks the health service and the education system should follow the example they want to set in the civil service. However, that involves taking on sceptical trade unions and revisiting cross UK pay arrangements.

DUP politicians acknowledge they can't suggest such painful options without being prepared to take their own medicine. Mr Robinson says his ministers should take a 5 - 10% voluntary pay cut - he says he will himself take a 10% reduction (over at Social Development Alex Attwood has already taken his own unilateral cut).

Other aspects of the DUP document are worth noting. They haven't gone with Sinn Fein's mobile phone mast tax. But both parties think assets locked within the Housing Executive and housing associations could generate much needed cash. Instead of agreeing to sell Belfast port (something the Treasury favoured back in the days when Gordon Brown was Chancellor) the DUP propose levying a dividend which they think could be worth tens of millions of pounds over the next four years.

And with Citi expected to confirm 400 new jobs later this week, there's an admission that Invest NI may have to lower its sights. The DUP say that instead of concentrating on high value jobs, we may have to try to attract lower wage options like call centres. The message: in the current climate any job will do.

Conspicuous by its absence from both the recent Sinn Fein and DUP economic papers is the controversial option of levying water charges. With an election due next May, both parties appear to have decided this remains politically unacceptable.

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