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Archives for March 2011

West Tyrone Double Act

Mark Devenport | 17:59 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011


So when is an independent not an independent? How about when they are half of a double act? Eugene McMenamin,who quit the SDLP today, to enter the race in West Tyrone says he's working in tandem with the Omagh councillor Paddy McGowan- who left the SDLP back in the 1990s. The two will ask their supporters to give each other a second preference - yet another headache for the SDLP in the constituency.

The Departmental "Lucky Dip"

Mark Devenport | 16:46 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011


Thursday turned out to be a busy day for independents. In Foyle, the former radio presenter Paul McFadden threw his hat into the ring claiming local people were disillusioned about the failure of Stormont to deliver. Then in neighbouring West Tyrone Eugene McMenamin quit the SDLP to confirm he would stand as an independent. Given the SDLP is widely believed to have lost a seat in 2007 due to running too many candidates, this news must have been greeted at SDLP HQ with a weary sigh.

At an SDLP breakfast briefing, Alex Attwood told reporters, including my colleague Martina Purdy, just how bad tempered recent Executive meetings have been. Mr Attwood reckons both the DUP and Sinn Fein are eyeing up his Social Development department. The portfolio may enable one or the other to launch eye catching housing and urban regeneration projects. But how would they cope with Iain Duncan Smith's crusade to rewrite the welfare system? Breaking parity with GB is rather easier said than done.

Continuing the "lucky dip" theme, the UUP's Basil McCrea repeated what he called "the strong rumour circulating that the DUP and Sinn Fein have already done a deal regarding Ministerial portfolios post the election, with the DUP seeking to take Education whilst letting Sinn Fein take Enterprise, Trade & Investment" (although the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane said today she wanted to take the department again).

Speaking at a hustings event at St Columb's College in Londonderry, Mr McCrea was in part responding to a speech by the DUP leader Peter Robinson at yet another grammar, Down High in Downpatrick. Mr Robinson reiterated his support for a commission to look into the development of a single integrated education system, insisting this did not amount an attack on the Catholic maintained sector.

I'm off this evening to the first of Sinn Fein's Town Hall meetings, although this being West Belfast it's not in a town hall but a GAA club. Also tonight catch the first of my election round-ups on "Hearts and Minds" (hint - turn the sound down and you can enjoy Ian Knox's cartoons without having to put up with me burbling over the top of them).

Alliance TV Highlights

Mark Devenport | 09:28 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011


These days it's so much taken as read that all the parties are using web technology that to point out that this candidate is tweeting or that candidate has posted some video frankly exposes you as an old crusty has been tapping out your story on a 1940s vintage typewriter (on which the tttt key tends to stick).

So I won't.

However the party websites can still yield some surprising moments - one of which was discovered by a colleague of mine as she checked out Alliance TV. Click on the little TV screen and you will watch a cartoon promo for the achievements of the East Belfast MP Naomi Long.

So far so good.

But leave your cursor hovering there and you are offered various suggestions for other mini films, some of which are Alliance party broadcasts but some of which appear entirely unconnected with the ideology of the centre ground party.

For example there's a busty woman in a silvery blouse, who appears to be one of a number of starlets featured in a contribution called "My House of Night Movie Dream Cast".

If you click through on the mini "You Tube" icon you get a variety of other tangential suggestions such as "Naomi Long Speaks Honestly Against The Drugs War" (this turns out not be the East Belfast MP but a quite different counsellor based in Washington D.C.) and "Davey Edge and Naomi Long singing at O'Leary's Irish Bar, Southport". This Naomi belts out a pretty mean version of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain", but once again I am not convinced this woman is the Alliance Deputy Leader (although she is wearing a hat and dark glasses which may be an attempt to cover up a bit of "double jobbing" in case the gig clashed with a parliamentary debate.)

I should say that when you go to the Alliance Party Channel site on You Tube all this extraneous stuff is sadly missing. So I'm guessing the surprise appearance of the blousy woman must be one of the side effects of You Tube's suggestion system.

P.S. Having said I wouldn't mention anyone's tweets, last night I enjoyed Sinn Fein's Niall Ó Donnghaile for telling off us "media/trendies" for suggesting the people had never voted on issues before (and I thought you were trendy, Niall..) and the SDLP's Claire Hanna who noted that politicians are only ever "shocked, appalled or delighted". Claire pledged, if elected, to be "awestruck, bemused and occasionally ambivalent". I think there has to be room in the new politics for an avowedly ambivalent party.

Alternative Ulster

Mark Devenport | 14:24 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011


Peter Robinson was talking about how much Northern Ireland has changed at this morning's DUP event at Belfast's Ormeau Baths. He portrayed this campaign as the first in which the main issues are those that face people in their everyday lives and the first where voters can pick those who can deliver.

Well here's another proof of political change for all you ageing punks out there - it's the first election in which the original drummer from Stiff Little Fingers is a candidate. Brian Faloon is standing for People Before Profit in South Belfast. Brian was drummer on SLF's first album "Inflammable Material", which featured their anthemic "Alternative Ulster".

After one album he left the band - prompting the rest of SLF to pen the plaintive "Wait and See" with its lyrics...

"Then came the day you said goodbye
We tried to smile but had to cry
You knew that you'd be missed
But we wished you all the best
But still we wished you would stay

Till then you were a part of everything
And everything that might have been
And now that everything has turned into what is
If you'd have waited you'd have seen
But you gave yourself the sack
Now there's no turning back
Now all your future's 'Wait and see'. "

So how will he do come May 5th? And where will the Stiff Little Fingers vote transfer? I suppose we shall all have to "wait and see".

P.S. Does this mean Eamonn McCann will have to swap the Pogues T-shirt he always wears for an SLF one?

Getting to Grips With the Election

Mark Devenport | 17:03 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011


Recently I awarded an Ulster Unionist politician a prize for most extended metaphor in a press release. Today I indulge in much the same myself - taking to Queen's University's climbing wall in an attempt to illustrate the DUP and Sinn Fein's scramble towards the Stormont summit. You can catch that report on BBC Newsline 6.30, and an accompanying article which should be published shortly on the main news website.

The politicians are already on the campaign trail. As motorists will already notice, a fair few posters went up over the weekend. Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams (who called the focus on who might be First Minister a unionist "sham fight") launched a poster today with the slogan 'Leadership across Ireland', consciously emphasising the party's recent success in the Dáil election. The DUP's Peter Robinson handed in his nomination papers in Newtownards, then drove up to Londonderry where he told cancer sufferers that the planned radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin Hospital will go ahead.

Yesterday, on Inside Politics, I presented the first in a series of special election programmes. The Alliance leader David Ford denied that his party had been unprincipled in taking the Justice department after spending the first half of the Assembly mandate portraying themselves as Stormont's only opposition. Mr Ford insisted that Alliance was making a real difference not just to Justice but to how the Executive conducts its business in general.

Mr Ford's tenure at Justice (assuming he is reappointed on the other side of the election) is scheduled to come to an end in May 2012, when the sunset clause negotiated at Hillsborough comes into effect. If there's no agreement on renewing the cross community appointment, or agreeing to put the department on the same footing as the others, then the Justice Ministry is set to be dissolved.

The Alliance leader can't see any better alternative than the current compromise. He acknowledged that "we have a history in Northern Ireland that we always manage to have a little bit of a crisis over this" but played down the prospects of a repeat of the Hillsborough talks as May 2012 looms.

Whatever happens to Justice, Mr Ford believes Alliance is on a trajectory when it could get one of the ministerial posts on the basis of its mandate, via the "D'Hondt lucky dip".

My other guest was UKIP's Henry Reilly who insisted his party, which is pledging to run eight candidates, isn't a single issue pressure group. UKIP hasn't yet published its Stormont manifesto, but when it does Councillor Reilly promises it will be radically different from its Westminster platform.

That document called for the abolition of the Stormont assembly and its replacement by a gathering of Northern Ireland's 18 MPs. The MPs would spend three weeks out of every month working on UK wide issues and the fourth on devolved matters. UKIP also backed an English parliament and rewriting the Barnett formula to address what it called the disadvantage caused to English residents.

Councillor Reilly told me that the party has now opted to "keep the MLAs but halve their expenses". He said UKIP is concerned about the disparity between Scotland and England, but claimed that far from losing out under their proposals Northern Ireland would in fact get more cash. So their Stormont manifesto should make an interesting read.

Inside Politics will be working its way through a range of parties standing in the election as the campaign continues.

P.S. The Campaign for an English Parliament points out that the UKIP idea of letting English MPs meet one week a month for English-only days does not amount to their idea for a full English Parliament.

Beating "Purdah"

Mark Devenport | 17:15 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011


First we had a rush to get legislation through the Assembly before it dissolves for the election. Now we have a rush for ministers to get out announcements before the formal dissolution kicks in at a minute past midnight tonight. The Executive Information Service reckons it has sent out more than 90 press releases in the last 48 hours. Everything from Edwin Poots tackling invasive species to Caitriona Ruane cutting the first sod for a new Special school.

There may still be some bland releases during the campaign, but according to the Executive's election guidance officials should "as far as possible avoid competition with Assembly candidates for the attention of the public. Each case should be considered on its merits, but there is a presumption that official support should not be provided in relation to the launch of new policy initiatives, announcements, the opening of new facilities, paid publicity campaigns, or other matters which could be seen to have a direct material bearing upon the Assembly election campaign. Major investment or jobs announcements should also be deferred where possible until after the election."

The regulations also say that government buildings should not be used for electioneering purposes. With that in mind one Stormont party has already sent out a reminder that their press officers should not be contacted via their Assembly e-mail addresses - if you want them you need to go through party headquarters.

Black Thursday for UUP

Mark Devenport | 15:47 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011


By rights the Ulster Unionists should have been claiming some credit today for their efforts in encouraging the government to push ahead with its consultation paper on devolving Corporation Tax. The UUP leader Tom Elliott took his place alongside the Secretary of State, the Treasury Minister David Gauke, the First and Deputy First Ministers, the SDLP and Alliance leaders. The UUP Treasurer Mark Cosgrove made an impassioned speech in favour from the floor.

But elsewhere the party was forming what one source referred to as "a circular firing squad". Deputy Leader John McAllister and Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea told Stephen Nolan they were relaxed about the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister, if that was the voters' verdict. Their colleague David McNarry responded by taking to the airwaves to accuse them of undermining Mr Elliott, who has talked about forming a group with the DUP to stop Mr McGuinness getting the top job. Mr McNarry called for the two moderates to go.

If that wasn't bad enough one newspaper headlined the resignation of the UUP Vice Chair Terry Wright over the Health Minister's decision to pull the plug on the Altnagelvin radiotherapy unit. Another broke the story which has now led to the dismissal of Danny Kennedy's Special Adviser, Brian Crowe, over claims about his private life involving allegations of sexual impropriety...and that he had abused his position as a ministerial adviser.

So when I approached Tom Elliott for an interview on the margins of the Corporation tax launch it was more in sorrow than in anger - what to hit him with first? Other politicians were talking about the UUP leader almost as if he'd suffered a bereavement.

All this as the clock ticked towards the formal dissolution of the Assembly at a minute past midnight and the formal start of the election campaign.

What I have to say for Mr Elliott is he is always unfailingly polite in dealing with tough questions - even though in this instance it was pretty clear he'd been blind-sided by the row on the Nolan show. However it can't be good heading in to a campaign with mixed messages about whether you are heading for opposition or a merged grouping with the DUP, internal squabbles, resignations and lurid headlines. The difference in message between Messrs McCrea and McAllister and Mr McNarry shows that the rift between moderates and traditionalists revealed during the party leadership candidate remains in place.

The UUP will have to pick themselves up, brush themselves down and get on with the campaign. Maybe their best hope is that they did so badly in 2007 that they can't fall any further. Certainly these latest events won't spur any general revival.

St. Carmel

Mark Devenport | 10:40 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011


By his own admission, the DUP's Jim Wells isn't an expert on Catholic doctrine. So maybe he can be forgiven for skipping a few of the basic requirements (such as not being on this planet) in proposing the former SDLP MLA Carmel Hanna for beatification as a saint. Jim made his proposal last night at a well attended launch of the new Stormont International Relations Strategy - something for which he was keen to credit Carmel for laying the groundwork. As previously reported on this blog the strategy includes a plan to twin with North East Uganda. Scotland has already paired with Malawi and Wales with Lesotho.

Joint First Ministers

Mark Devenport | 21:40 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011


With three days to go until the Assembly is dissolved for the May election, Martin McGuinness has used a UTV interview to float the idea that if Sinn Fein emerges as biggest party he and Peter Robinson could share the title of First Minister.

A statesmanlike gesture or - as Arlene Foster maintains - a pre-election ploy?

It's true that for some time Sinn Fein has been emphasising the equal power and status of the two top jobs at Stormont Castle. However, coming so late in the day, the latest comments don't change the legal reality that this election will be held under Section 16C of the Northern Ireland Act - the post St. Andrews change to the Stormont rules which hands the top job to the biggest party irrespective of which designation it stems from.

Back in January a Stormont commitee considered whether there should be any changes to the relevant law. The Committee report shows that the three Sinn Fein members voted against any change to Section 16C.

Alliance's written submission, for example, argued that the top two jobs are "co-equal in law and formal status" - this should be "reflected in terms of the nomenclature used" and such a move "would depoliticise what could become a potentially polarising contest over which party has a claim to First Minister and which party is relegated to Deputy First Minister".

By contrast Sinn Fein said the party "supports the retention of the provisions for the appointment of Ministers as set out in Section 16A-16C of the NI Act 1998."

During a recent interview for Inside Politics, Peter Robinson pointed out that if the DUP isn't the biggest party it could refuse to nominate for the Deputy First Minister, thus plunging the parties back into negotiations. Martin McGuinness is holding out an olive branch whilst knowing the current rules could potentially enable Sinn Fein to negotiate from a position of strength. If Sinn Fein had played this card earlier, say at the point when their Committee members had a vote on the matter, then they would have left themselves less open to the accusation that this is a ploy.

Ultimately the nature of the debate will depend on the maths. Sinn Fein could conceivably catch the DUP, but there are reasons why the party might not repeat its poll topping performance in the European and Westminster elections. And what will the voters make of this "election as beauty contest", when most people appear more concerned about the economy and cuts than which office in Stormont Castle the top two men occupy?

First past the post frenzy

Mark Devenport | 17:40 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011


On Saturday the No to AV campaign held a rally at Belfast's Ulster Hall attended by the princely total of seven people. As Yes campaigner Quintin Oliver tweets it was a bit of a contrast to the days when Michael Stone paraded in front of a packed loyalist audience ahead of the Good Friday agreement referendum. The No campaign says they distributed 10 - 15,000 leaflets ahead of the rally, but admits that this was the worst attended event they have held anywhere in the UK. The Yes campaign held an event of their own this morning, with the SDLP's Conall McDevitt and Dawn Purvis in attendance.

The DUP are in the No camp, the SDLP and Alliance in the Yes. The UUP have yet to declare and Sinn Fein - who paraded their TDs at Stormont today - will probably take the view that the only parliamentary reform they want is for MPs to relocate from Westminster to the Dail (quietly some might vote "yes"). But whatever any of them say, if the Ulster Hall turnout is anything to go by, not many people are listening.

Libya - the view from Stormont

Mark Devenport | 13:49 UK time, Sunday, 20 March 2011


When Margaret Thatcher allowed Ronald Reagan to use British bases to attack Tripoli back in 1986 Colonel Gaddafi responded by continuing to arm the IRA, who used his munitions in countless attacks throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's hard to imagine history repeating itself, but the bitter experience of the past makes the responses of Stormont politicians not entirely academic.

They haven't released a fresh statement today, but last week the DUP made it clear that they support the intervention in Libya. The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson argued that the current operation illustrated the need to halt defence cuts.

On BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics,the unionist Jeff Dudgeon predicted that the latest developments might spell the end for the campaign to win compensation for victims of Libyan linked IRA violence.

I haven't seen an official statement from the party yet, but a couple of tweets from Sinn Fein politicians point to republican opposition to the air strikes. John O'Dowd implied double standards in relation to Libya and Israel,whilst the SF North Belfast councillor Conor Maskey talked about "innocent people dying at the hands of greedy politicians".

Also on Inside Politics, the Secretary of State Owen Paterson defended the intervention whilst directing detailed questions over double standards in relation to, say, Bahrain to the Foreign Office.

Guinness Cheese

Mark Devenport | 16:32 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011


Having spent most of my St. Patrick's Days in the USA recently I didn't know what to do with myself yesterday. I sauntered out into Belfast city centre, winding my way between the green hatted, tricolour clad revellers and bumped into a couple of employees of a well known city centre delicatessen handing out complimentary portions of Guinness Cheese. Guinness Cheese - what more could you want? I imagine there will be plenty of Guinness on tap and plenty of cheesiness on display when Barack Obama arrives in Moneygall in May.

(P.S. Disgusted in Derry - is your real name Joe Biden? When the US Vice President had to pause during his speech to the White House St. Patrick's reception, because the audience was chatting, he ad libbed "must be a bunch of Englishmen talking back there". Sounded just like you...)

I got a bit confused by Martin McGuinness's comments hoping the President will visit us "before the end of this term." Given that the Deputy First Minister had previously talked about the "first full uninterrupted Assembly term" it sounded like he wanted Obama here, now - maybe even before one minute past midnight on Friday - which is the start of the election recess. It seems likelier that the hope is that the President might touch down during his own US term of office.

Whilst Mr McGuinness was talking about terms, Dawn Purvis was in D.C. talking about terminations - part of a delegation seeking to raise awareness of what it referred to as "Ireland's draconian abortion laws". Ms Purvis won the backing of the US Catholics For Choice organisation - but it's fair to say that others within the Irish American community will take a radically different view.

The East Belfast MLA is due to be a guest on the Politics Show on Sunday talking about a report on educational disadvantage and working class Protestants. I am hoping to be joined on Inside Politics by the Secretary of State Owen Paterson who hinted, during a speech in Washington, that he may be ready to publish his long awaited consultation paper on devolving Corporation Tax, perhaps within days.

Matchmaker Reg

Mark Devenport | 11:49 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011


Reg Empey is a man who has had many titles - Cllr, MLA, UUP leader, Minister, Sir and Lord. But now he can also style himself "matchmaker". When he was Employment Minister he organised a series of functions as part of a campaign intended to attract business people who had left Northern Ireland to consider returning to their roots. The other day he bumped into a couple who told him they had met at one of the Department's events - and now planned to get married. So that courtship worked out better than the one between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives.

Breakfast fit for a King

Mark Devenport | 16:42 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011


Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness start their Washington St Patrick's visit tomorrow by attending a Congressional breakfast hosted by Representative Peter King. As Ed Moloney reported on his blog, The Broken Elbow, Congressman King has been at the centre of a storm after being accused of both Islamophobia and hypocrisy over his recent Congressional hearings on the alleged radicalisation of the American Muslim community.

Congressman King used to champion the IRA - in more recent decades he's been a prominent backer of the "peace process" and a regular on the St. Patrick's circuit in D.C.
However in the light of the latest publicity, the SDLP's Claire Hanna isn't happy about the First and Deputy First Ministers' attendance. She argues that "to associate the cause of the North's economic development with a rabble-rousing bully and demagogue like Peter King is a disaster."

Is it safe to assume the SDLP delegation in Washington won't be looking for a free breakfast from the Congressman? I would ask them but they are all on the plane as I write.

UPDATE: I can now confirm that the SDLP delegation weren't at Peter King's breakfast - instead they were in New York having a light repast of fruit and cofee before catching the train to D.C.

IFI hanging in the balance

Mark Devenport | 12:12 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011


Back in May last year I reported on the tug of war between the Us Ireland Alliance and the IFI over congressional funding. With the USA making its own spending cuts, the Washington Post reports that the Senate might be about to administer a $17 million "coup de grace" inappropriately enough on St. Patrick's Day.

The IFI maybe didn't help itself because back in 2009 it was talking about running itself down. But now it says "there is a strong feeling across the community in Northern Ireland and the six southern border counties that there is still much work to be done to consolidate the peace process". It's thought Irish officials may be fighting a reaguard action to keep the IFI patient alive. But if the USA cuts its cash that is likely to have a knock on impact on European donors. Should the Fund cease, it's thought there will be a 3 to 5 year wind down on backing projects.

In a recent online article Trina Vargo repeated her criticism of the Fund as part of a "culture of dependency". But local politicians, such as the DUP Junior Minister Robin Newton, have urged the Americans to keep the tap running. That in itself is an interesting sign of how far we've come because when the Fund was created DUP politicians shunned it, regarding it as an attempt by the British and Irish governments to sweeten the bitter pill of the Anglo Irish agreement.

Burnside and the Tycoons

Mark Devenport | 11:29 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011


The former South Antrim MP and MLA continues to work for some fascinating clients in his role as a top London PR operator. Back in 2009 Mr Burnside refused to comment on reports that he was acting for the Sir Fred Goodwin, the boss who presided over the collapse of the Bank of Scotland. Now it's reported that the PR man was left on his own to host a party on board the "Veni,Vidi,Vici" a luxury yacht belonging to the firm owned by the property tycoons Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz. Vincent Tchenguiz is said to have sent his regrets to his guests - the brothers have been a bit tied up lately, answering questions from the police as part of an investigation into the collapse of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing.

Just William

Mark Devenport | 17:39 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011


A couple of weeks ago I let Good Morning Ulster listeners know that the Stormont Speaker William Hay had got an invitation to Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding. What I didn't know then was that whilst he has a ticket, the Palace didn't send one for Mrs Hay.

Imagine the conversation between the Speaker and his wife, Doris. "There's good news, and bad news, dear....". The Speaker insists he won't leave Doris on the steps of Westminster Abbey, but it will be just William inside the church, so he'll have to find some way to make it up to her - so near and yet so far from attending the society event of the year.

More haste less speed

Mark Devenport | 16:56 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011


Rather than reach its final stage tomorrow, the historic Justice Bill (Stormont's first in nearly 40 years) had had to be clawed back for an extraordinary extra further consideration stage. The reason - a clause inserted via an amendment appears to contravene a European directive on the age which someone must be to supervise an under 18 year old using a shotgun.

The UUP's Basil McCrea has accused the Justice department of incompetence, which may be a bit harsh as the Minister opposed the amendment in question. However Basil may have a point when he cites this as evidence of the weaknesses inherent in pushing laws through via accelerated passage. A couple of weeks ago the DUP's Jim Wells floated in the Newsletter the idea that instead of rushing bills through before the end of an Assembly term (when they automatically fall), politicians should be able to pick up a bill at the stage it had previosuly reached, provided no one objects. In a rare sintance of UUP DUP agreement, Basil thinks Jim might have a point.

New rules on rent

Mark Devenport | 16:43 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011


The Assembly has just published a new handbook which provides guidance for politicians who are elected in May about the expenses they will be able to claim. MLAs will still be able to employ family members, but will have to register any relative on their pay roll. But the handbook states that an MLA cannot

"claim payments for a property that they themselves own and from the commencement of the next mandate in 2011, no payments can be claimed for property that is owned by a "connected party". In this context a "connected party" can be defined as
(a) a family member, or
(b) a person with whom the Member is "connected" within the meaning of
section 252 (2) (b) (c) (d) and (e) and section 254 of the Companies Act

This new guidance should being Stormont into line with Westminster and stamp out controversies like the ones which surrounded Gregory Campbell,Kieran McCarthy,Carmel Hanna and Billy Armstrong.

Solomon's Sporting Judgment

Mark Devenport | 11:06 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011


I'm an avid soccer fan who spends much of his weekend watching under 10s chasing a ball around a pitch, so I'm not about to begrudge the Executive's cash injection for soccer stadia. I wasn't brought up on a diet of GAA, but I've always found Gaelic football exciting to watch and once, memorably, found myself trying to coach a class of under 8s in the skills of a game I didn't properly understand (cue shouts of "Mister, that's not how you do a toe tap"). So fair play to them too.

But could the ministers behind yesterday's "good news" announcement on cash for sports have misjudged the electorate? Today's Nolan Show seemed stacked with callers demanding not just a different balance between mainstream and smaller sport funding, but a diversion of funds from stadia to health and education.

The Culture Minister Nelson McCausland has hit back, arguing that stimulating sporting interest and participation should raise general health levels amongst the public?

But one aspect of the announcement which is questionable is its very symmetry. If the Executive took a needs based approach rather than a politically expedient route, would both the GAA and Soccer require exactly £61.4 million? I know it's a sporting cliche to talk about a "game of two halves", but is this the sporting equivalent of the judgment of Solomon?

It stirs memories of the symmetrical solution to the Victims Commissioner dillemma - we can't agree on one so let's appoint four. Since then the departure of Mike Nesbitt meant the Commission reduced in number to three, but has anyone been demanding a restoration of the previous symmetry?

AWOL on the budget

Mark Devenport | 09:59 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011


It had been clear for weeks, perhaps months, before Wednesday night's budget vote how the main parties were going to divide. So I paid a bit of extra attention to how the independents behaved. On the TV in the Great Hall we could see the North Down unionist Alan McFarland walking into the lobby with the DUP and Sinn Fein. Later he told me he thought Sammy Wilson had handled the budget sensibly and his critics had yet to put up a viable alternative. Other independents - such as Dawn Purvis - reached a different conclusion.

When the first voting numbers for the UUP amendment came through it was clear 99 MLAs and had cast their votes. On the second SDLP amendment and the main budget vote that figure dropped to 98. The MLA who went temporarily AWOL was the Green Brian Wilson who I watched head into the chamber for the first vote, then head back up the stairs towards his office. Did he think he'd voted on the main division, or simply concluded that the result showed the budget was a "done deal"?

But that still leaves 9 non-voting MLAs. 4 of those would have been the Speaker Willie Hay and his deputies, David McClarty, Francie Molloy and John Dallat, who wouldn't vote as they had each presided over sections of the debate. Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster is in the USA on official business. Social Development Minister Alex Attwood couldn't bring himself to back the budget - as he made clear during the debate - but got off side rather than vote against like his Ulster Unionist counterparts.

So that's 6, which left 3 MLAs who didn't show for perhaps the Assembly's most important vote. Yesterday I started to follow this up and the first call I made was to Sinn Fein's BIlly Leonard. As I reported yesterday the East Londonderry MLA refused to comment on speculation that his absence was due to his suspension by Sinn Fein HQ.

So that's down to 2. I had intended to call Dr Kieran Deeny, to check why the Independent Health Campaigner hadn't cast a vote in a debate in which health spending had been a major source of conflict. But before I picked up the phone our Fermanagh reporter Louise Cullen passed on the confirmation that the West Tyrone MLA won't stand again. It has been rumoured for some time around Stormont that Dr Deeny intended to concentrate on his role as a GP. Will another independent, say Paddy McGowan, pick up the baton, or will the main parties in West Tyrone squeeze the independent vote out?

That leaves one other non-voting MLA, Fermanagh's Gerry McHugh. I tried him yesterday to no avail, and again this morning when his office said he might not be accessible today. So I shall keep you posted if he gets back to me.

A clash of styles

Mark Devenport | 14:57 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011


The DUP's Jonathan Bell made a typically rumbustious contribution to the budget debate, slashing and burning his party's opponents. He hammered the UUP over their links with the Conservatives ("Tom's Tory Team" according to Edwin Poots).

Then Mr Bell attacked the SDLP for allegedly suggesting that the City of Derry Airport could be sold off to raise revenue and insisted that "no amount of fake tan could cover this up". This was a reference to last week's jibe by the SDLP's Pol Callaghan at the First Minister's rosy complexion.

When Mr Bell sat down he was followed by the altogether more diffident Danny Kinahan. The studiously polite South Antrim MLA described Mr Bell's speech as exactly the kind of contribution the public hate, full of "pathetic political point scoring". Then in an unusual exercise in self knowledge he admitted that he himself was getting "caught doing the same thing because you get trapped into it."

So I hereby nominate Mr Kinahan for the Stormont award for honesty and self flagellation.

Which reminds me that a few days back I had intended to hand out another prize to a different UUP politician. A week ago Sammy Gardiner put out a news release with the headline "Gardiner says as far as Pharaoh Sammy Wilson is concerned it is make bricks without straw time for the Ulster Unionist Children of Israel in the Health Department."

With only a fortnight left before Stormont rises, Sammy G. is the only contender for my most convoluted metaphor of this assembly term award.

Ostrich Economics

Mark Devenport | 11:36 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011


Margaret Ritchie had a good line during her budget speech this morning - accusing the DUP of adopting "ostrich economics" by preferring "to ignore the difficult realities of the environment rather than try to do something to improve it". The DUP's Simon Hamilton ridiculed the SDLP budget amendment as "big on words but short on actions". Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin claimed the amendment was a "whatever you are having yourself" document.

So who are the Ostriches? The UUP who stick their heads in the sand rather than admit their Conservative allies played a major part in the £4 billion cut to the local budget? The SDLP who sometimes seem reluctant to face up to the fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein are playing by the rules they helped create back in Castle Buildings in 1998? Or the DUP and Sinn Fein, who might have less of a rebellion on their hands if they had taken a more corporate approach over the last four years, rather than appearing to delight in sewing up deals behind the scenes and presenting them to the other two parties as faits accomplis?

It's clear now both the UUP and SDLP will propose their respective amendments, then when they are inevitably voted down both parties will vote against. The UUP call for 38% of the additional £432 million which Sammy Wilson claimed to have identified last week to be allocated immediately to Health, and the rest to be allocated by the incoming Executive. That translates as £165 million for health in year one - in contrast to the Finance Minister's offer of £120 million over 4 years. So much for the maths - the proposal will be voted down.

At the weekend on Inside Politics, Danny Kennedy refused to rule out UUP ministerial resignations. However UUP sources were insisting last night that their ministers aren't quitters. So we can expect a ministerial vote against, or the ministers finding themselves busy elsewhere, but no resignations. Technically this would be a breach of the Stormont ministerial code. Yet what would be the point of the First and Deputy First Ministers launching a motion of censure? It would distract attention from their visit to washington next week and increase the focus on the dissident ministers in the run up to the start of the election campaign.

By early evening the final budget should go through, with no resignations, no motion of censure, but plenty of sound and fury taking us into the election.

Black out on Red Ed

Mark Devenport | 17:03 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011


We were a bit taken by surprise by the Labour leader Ed Miliband's first visit to Northern Ireland, as his party didn't do the customary ring around in advance to tip off media outlets that their boss was in town.

But we weren't the only ones out of the loop - trying to check Mr Miliband's itinerary I put in a call this morning to Boyd Black, the Secretary of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. Around teatime Boyd called me back, when it became patently obvious that local Labour supporters were even more in the dark about Ed's visit than us hacks.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised - when he stood for election as leader Ed Miliband didn't sound convinced about local Labour activists' eagerness to contest elections. Questioned about this, he said "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."

But at least when David Cameron flew over here he normally tipped off his own supporters in advance.

The Out of Towners

Mark Devenport | 17:08 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


One element of Sammy Wilson's package is an extension of the small business rates relief scheme which should cuts rates for small retailers in town centres and make up the loss by introducing a special levy on big out of town shopping developments.

The idea has polarised the business community with the Independent Retail Trade Association (small shops) "delighted" but the British Retail Consortium (big shops) warning that this will "damage Northern Ireland's reputation as a business location and be self-defeating".

One sceptical property industry source suggested to a colleague that the out of town levy might never happen. The cynic noted that the proposal would please small business voters prior to the election, but might get bogged down in consultation at a later stage.

Bearing in mind the classic movie "The Out of Towners", will the Executive ever get anything more than "crackers and olives" from its out of town levy?

P.S. On the topic of additional revenue, the Regional Development department is meant to be actively pursuing legislation to allow for a levy on Belfast Port. But last month an executive from Belfast Harbour told the BBC's "Stormont Today" that this measure would require primary legislation for all trust ports across the UK. So this might prove a complex task for the department, requiring the involvement of Westminster as well as Stormont.

Unplanned Over Commitment

Mark Devenport | 15:56 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


On Good Morning Ulster and Talkback I bottled out of explaining exactly how Sammy Wilson is getting his extra money. I mentioned that it was partly down to greater efficiency in collecting the rates, and partly to the impact of changes in inflation on the expected rate rise.

But I added that for a more detailed explanation I would need to be an accountant, and my audience would need to be accountants as well.

I'd been faced with translating the following paragraph into English:

"the introduction of a measure of overcommitment - in response to the removal of our EYF facility by the Treasury. I feel we need to re-introduce this "self help" measure to maximise spend across the Block."

Afterwards a party adviser chided me for bottling out, insisting that overcommitment should be an easy concept to explain to radio listeners.

However it was only a few moments later it crystallised in my mind. A Finance department official stood behind me in the queue for the Stormont canteen. He tried to pay for his fish supper but found he didn't have enough change. I offered to bale him out. Instead he negotiated a stay of execution on the bill until he could visit the cash machine.

There it was. An unplanned overcommitment, with a willingness to find the cash at a later stage - the guiding principle for our final budget.

P.S. Good luck to the official in question - he is running a half marathon at the weekend. After the budgetary process it should be a doddle.

Low Balls and High Rawls

Mark Devenport | 11:55 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


The politicians bowled plenty of low balls at each other during this morning's budget debate. Sammy Wilson taunted the UUP and the SDLP as cynical opportunists. Basil McCrea hit back by referring to the "Emperor's New Clothes", a not so veiled reference to the minister's famous naked ramble through the woods. Then the SDLP's Pol Callagahan chimed in with an assertion that the promises in the budget were as false as "the First Minister's fake tan" - although he admitted later that he wasn't sure if Mr Robinson had been toning up for his St Patrick's Day trip to Washington or was still red with anger from the Executive clashes last night.

But amidst the low balls, the Finance Minister tried to treat his audience to a bit of high-falutin philosophy, when he likened his budget to the theories of the American thinker John Rawls. Amongst Rawls' ideas is the concept of the "veil of ignorance" under which society is best organised when individuals and groups don't know exactly which role they will be assigned.

Sammy's argument is that since the parties don't know exactly which portfolios they will take on the other side of the election, the budgetary process forced them to consider the greater good rather than looking after number one. And you thought when I mentioned Stormont and "veil of ignorance" in the same blog you were going to get yet another cheap unworthy jibe.

(In a recent private conversation Owen Paterson raised the hypothetical possibility with Martin McGuinness that the UUP and the SDLP might go into opposition. I had heard that the Deputy First Minister replied "they wouldn't have the balls". I now realise what he must have intended to say was "they wouldn't have the Rawls" - a reference to the capacity of the SDLP and the UUP to put themselves, in a Rawlesian way, into the shoes of their Executive colleagues.)

Blackberrygate and the Final Budget

Mark Devenport | 10:56 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


I mounted a lone vigil last night outside Stormont Castle as Executive ministers engaged in what were variously described as direct, brutally frank or ill tempered exchanges.

Sammy Wilson's seven page final document gave extra cash to Education, Regional Development, Health and Employment and Learning. The last two of these departments are, of course, Ulster Unionist controlled. But the fresh money wasn't enough to get them on side - instead they sided, predictably, with the SDLP in opposing the package.

Speaking in the Assembly chamber within the last few minutes the Finance Minister lampooned his critics as "ministers who wouldn't take "yes" for an answer". They say the new resources didn't close the gap, and criticise the budget as the product of a DUP/SF carve-up (something Sammy Wilson rejects as "absurd")

During last night's meeting the ministers traded these accusations face to face. At one point Martin McGuinness accused Alex Attwood of leaking the proceedings to me via texts from his Blackberry. The Social Development Minister offered the Deputy First Minister his Blackberry to inspect, an offer Mr McGuinness declined.

More seriously the First Minister is reported to have strongly criticised a senior official in the Health department, demanding his removal. This is the second instance in recent weeks in which a civil servant has been drawn into the in-fighting within the Executive. This appears to be further evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the Stormont system.

Given that the civil servants have to serve so many different party political masters, it's an extremely hard balancing act for officials to try to facilitate their ministers' agendas, whilst maintaining their professional impartiality. A number of officials will be rotated between the departments in the period surrounding the May election. Given the D'Hondt hand out of departments, the officials don't know which party ministers they might be working to after the election. It's a sorry state of affairs when the civil servants are being dragged in to this internecine battle - certainly something I can't imagine happening across the cabinet table in London.

"The Maggie Taggart"

Mark Devenport | 16:03 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Not for the first time I made myself the butt of everyone's jokes at the Linenhall Library today, during a press scrum at an exhibition about the IRA hunger strikers. The exhibition marked the 30th anniversary of Bobby Sands beginning his hunger strike. To avoid getting in the way of a camera lens, I dropped to my knees, from where I directed a question to Gerry Adams. He gave me one answer before saying he found it disconcerting talking to me down on the ground. So I struggled to my feet, saying I'd stand if the cameras would let me - and once I'd got to my full (not very imposing) height, Gerry asked if I was standing or not....I'll refer that one to Steven Agnew and the Stormont alliance for the vertically challenged.

During his speech Martin McGuinness quipped that he too wanted to be a T.D., but clarified that he wanted to be T.D. for Mid Ulster. Referring back to the hunger strikes, the Deputy First Minister assured his audience that European funding for a conflict resolution centre on the site of the Maze was assured and that the centre would definitely be built.

Mine was just a passing visit to the exhibition above Belfast's Linenhall Library, but the BBC has a more permanent presence. One of the items on display is a home made radio smuggled into the jail to enable the IRA prisoners to follow the news outside. One of the sets was nicknamed "Mrs Dale" after the old BBC radio serial. But the radio set which interested me the most was one nicknamed the "Maggie Taggart", after our Education and Arts correspondent, a general news reporter at the time of the hunger strikes.

P.S. Sinn Fein aren't the only ones seeking to extend their influence south of the border. The Ulster Unionist and gay rights campaigner Jeff Dudgeon has announced he is seeking a seat in the Irish Seanad in order to, amongst many other things act "as a counterweight" to Gerry Adams and his 14 strong Dail team.

Ugandan Discussions

Mark Devenport | 11:07 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011


MLAs will tonight debate a report from the Assembly's all party international development group which calls on Stormont to develop its own strategy in this area. Amongst the suggestions is a proposal for Northern Ireland to partner with North East Uganda.

This used to be an area plagued by the fearsome LRA, the Lords Resistance Army, notorious for its barbarity and use of child soldiers, although in recent years the LRA has been forced into other neighbouring countries. The Foreign Office still advises against travel to North East Uganda, describing lawlessness there as endemic, with frequent and unpredictable tribal clashes.

The strategy suggests partnering with Uganda because:

"Like Northern Ireland, there have been problems with sectarianism for many centuries (the 4 main tribal groups have had long standing and often bloody conflicts).
Like Northern Ireland, Uganda has just emerged from a long period of conflict and is beginning to develop a new identity for itself on the world stage.
Like Northern Ireland, young people and those living on the margins have been disproportionately affected by the conflict and many have been caught up in para-militarism (Lord's Resistance Army).
Like Northern Ireland, Uganda has a high percentage of young people with 50% of the country being under 14. It has, in fact, the second highest birth rate in the world.
Like Northern Ireland, there is a high level of agricultural employment and activity."

P.S. And I am aware of what Private Eye used to refer to as "Ugandan Discussions", but couldn't resist the headline.

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