Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Summer recess

After two months of work over the past five years MLAs are taking a well earned summer break. There will be no posts on this blog during the Assembly’s summer recess. Posts will start again when it reconvenes. Look out for the StormontWatch link repapering on the Socialist Democracy homepage.

Robinson slams "sickies"

If the new Stormont regime has dominant themes beyond sectarianism and Sinn Fein capitulation, it is corruption, arrogance and class hatred. All of these elements are summed up by Peter Robinson, DUP Finance minister. His end of term report at the end of July, just before the MLAs treat themselves to a long holiday from their largely imaginary duties were suspended for a long holiday, was to attack civil servants for having too many ‘sickies’.

This is rich beyond richness. The Robinson family is a byword for nepotism, running Castlereagh council as a private fiefdom. Robinson and the DUP had no difficulty in ‘being on the sick’ while they boycotted Stormont until they got the sectarian deal that suited them, drawing full pay for the duration.

Meanwhile the gang on the Hill have managed to pay themselves £720,000 in expenses in just two months!

As if to underline the class nature of the regime, 300 water workers were quietly sacked in the background as the new Parliament opened.

Anyone planning to write a satire about the folks on the Hill should drop the idea now. You won’t be able to outdo the real-life farce set to resume at the end of the summer!

Monday, 30 July 2007

Stade de Farce – the politics behind the sports stadium row

The issue of the “national” sports stadium has proved to the most controversial to arise in the two months since the restoration of the Stormont Executive and Assembly. Combining grandiose pretension, parochialism and sectarianism, and founded on a policy of privatisation, the proposed stadium has come to symbolise all that is rotten about the new political settlement.

The stadium has its origins in the first short-lived executive, which commissioned a report on the feasibility of a national sports stadium at the former Maze/Long Kesh site. A panel made up of representatives of sporting bodies and nominees of the political parties was established to come up with a plan for the site. The final report of the panel, which was endorsed by all the political parties, proposed the building of a 35,000-seater facility that would be a venue for Gaelic sports, soccer and rugby games. In addition to a stadium and other sporting facilities, there was also to be “a conflict resolution centre” that would highlight the role of the former prison site in “The Troubles”. A number of the buildings such as the prison hospital, internment huts, and a H-block wing are to be preserved for this purpose. The claim made for the centre is that it will demonstrate to other parts of the world how conflict could be transformed into peace. It is to be a showcase of the Irish peace process.

The controversy over the sports stadium focuses on the inclusion of the conflict resolution centre on the site. Despite its vague and woolly mission statement, the centre is too much for some unionists. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson has dismissed the plans for the Maze as “ludicrous”, and branded the proposed conflict resolution centre a “terror museum”. His party colleague and executive minister Nigel Dodds claimed that “the price for Sinn Fein support for the Maze project” would be “a shrine to IRA terrorism”. The novel aspect of this is that the minister responsible for the proposed stadium is Edwin Poots of the DUP. He agrees with them about the “theorist shrine”, but argues that a stadium on the Maze site is the best way to prevent this. He told the most recent meeting of the Assembly Culture Committee that there was a “far greater potential for a shrine to be developed if that's (the remaining prison buildings) the only thing left of the site.” Poots also pushed the discussion in an overtly sectarian direction by suggesting that the GAA had refused to contemplate playing a stadium located elsewhere. Unionists seized on this, accusing the GAA of wielding a veto over a Belfast stadium.

Essentially the dispute within the DUP is over the best strategy to erase the political connotations associated with the Maze site. They both aim to wipe out the memory of the Maze/Long Kesh as a political prison and to deny that the struggle that resulted in thousands of people going through the prisons arose from any legitimate grievances. There is also a element of parochialism motivating these arguments with those most opposed to the Maze site representing Belfast constituencies, and Edwin Poots, whose Lagan Valley constituency includes the Maze, supporting it. The DUP leader and First Minister Ian Paisley has cine out against a Belfast location as one of the possible sites, the Ormeau Park, faces his Martyrs Memorial church. He said he was appalled by the prospect of sports being played near by during a service. In terms of reaction they have all been trumped by their former DUP colleague Jim Allister. He favours the Taliban approach of de-listing and demolishing every prison related building on the Maze site.

In their unceasing efforts to accommodate the prejudices of unionism Sinn Fein have given reassurances that they don’t want anything controversial on the site. Martin McGuinness said that hw was “not arguing for any kind of shrine and the First Minister”; and that the proposed centre would “concentrate on how we resolve conflict.” In this Sinn Fein is effectively colluding in the historical revisionism that seeks to wipe out any memory of the republican struggle, or retrospectively transforms it from a struggle to end partition to one for the current settlement. The row over the Maze site is is part of the pattern that has been quickly established in the new Assembly of unionists stamping down on even the mildest acknowledgment of to nationalist grievance or gesture equality, and of Sinn Fein accommodating them.

The other aspect of the stadium controversy that has been largely overlooked has been the issue of privatisation. The whole stadium project is actually dependent on the transfer of the publically owned site to a private developer. With its noxious mix of sectarian politics and neo-liberal economics the stadium controversy encapsulates perfectly the nature of the new dispensation.

Monday, 9 July 2007

MLAs blame BNP for racism

Probably one of the most incongruous claims yet made in the Assembly came during the debate on the long delayed racial equality strategy. In his contribution to the debate UUP deputy leader of the Danny Kennedy dramatically revealed the identity of the organisation responsible for whipping up hatred in the north. Was it the UVF? Was it the UDA? No, it was none other the BNP! Imparting exclusive information he had received from the Orange Order, Kennedy warned that the BNP would "try to actively recruit in Northern Ireland over the 12 July celebrations this year." He welcomed the efforts by the Orange Order to counter this and declared on behalf of his party that "we do not want, or need, imported hate mongering in Northern Ireland." What a relief. All we have to do stop hatred is to support the Orange Order in its opposition to the BNP.

In this perverse schema the Orange Order is a bulwark against reaction, rather than its chief promoter. Loyalists are completely written out of the picture. When a Sinn Fein member temporarily awoke from their political stupor to point out the well documented role of loyalist in racist attacks, they were immediately denounced. Unionists went into their well rehearsed tactic of claiming that any criticism of loyalists was tantamount to condemning the whole Protestant community (as if the UVF and UDA were the legitimate representatives of Protestants). Any attacks that did take place in Protestant areas were put down to legitimate grievances. Danny Kennedy said that there were real fears "due to new nationals gaining jobs at the expense of locals." The task of the Assembly was therefore "as much about putting those wrongs to right as it is about legislating against race hate itself." This reiterates the familiar approach to loyalists of legitimising their bigotry and violence while throwing money at them. All the parties, including the SDLP and Sinn Fein, have accepted this.

Even the Alliance Party, who proposed the motion and like to posture as the liberal opponents of racism and sectarianism, come to the defence of loyalists. While accepting there was "clear evidence of an association between loyalism and racist attacks" Alliance MLA Stephen Farry undercut this immediately by making the spurious claim that there is "also been racism from republican circles" (there isn’t). He urged the Assembly to take a "balanced approach this mater."

In many ways this debate summarises the politics that underpin the peace process, of accommodating all forms of bigotry and imagining there is an equality of sectarianism between unionists and nationalists. Despite the pantomime at Stormont the growing number of racist attacks in the north demands to be taken seriously. During the year 2006-07, the PSNI recorded 936 racial incidents. That is more than twice the number reported in the two previous years. On the weekend prior to the Assembly debate there was was petrol bomb attack in south Belfast in which seven Malaysian people live. It is suspected that loyalists were behind it. Debates in Stormont or looking to the DUP lead executive to produce a document on racial equality (they are opposed to the concept of equality) aren't going to stop such things happening.

So what are you for, Margaret?

Our local social development minister, Margaret Ritchie, has unwittingly given us another glimpse of the comic-opera nature of our colonial administration with a breathless complaint about social security jobs.

Margaret warned that the Treasury was trying to impose a 5% cut in social security and other services. Up to 1,500 social security jobs could be under threat. She said she would be making a case to the Treasury because if the cuts go ahead, claimants would have to wait longer for benefits. Job losses would impact on the "delivery of front line social security services to the people most in need."

"It means the claimants have to wait longer for benefits, and it means that they do without money," she said. "Those people can ill afford to do without money, they need it in order to provide food on the table," adding that the Social Security Agency had already suffered because of a previous comprehensive spending review, with 674 job losses. Overall 40% of existing jobs would go.

Ms Ritchie told the assembly's social security committee that, taken together, that amounted to the Social Security Agency losing 40% of its staff. She now plans to lobby Gordon Brown for an increase in funds.

Two questions:

What new land of milk and honey is the assembly leading us to where the first item on the agenda is truly astounding job cuts?

What are you for Margaret? What is the toy assembly for if all you can do is write to Gordon? Can’t we write ourselves and at least save your salary and that of the rest of the inflated windbags with long titles posing in the great white elephant on the hill?
Posted by North

Monday, 2 July 2007

DUP dinosaurs target Darwinism

While there is no shortage of political dinosaurs roaming around the Assembly, their existence had not yet called evolutionary biology into question. That was until this week and the intervention of the DUP’s Mervyn Storey at a meeting of the education committee. He demanded that the minister bring forward proposals "to ensure that scientific explanations, other than Darwinian evolution, are taught in schools as scientific explanations". This was clearly a reference to the theory of "intelligent design" which dresses up divinely inspired creationism as science. Such theories have been comprehensively debunked by the scientific community, and even the federal courts in the US have outlawed it’s inclusion in science classes as unconstitutional.

The only thing more ridiculous than the DUP proposal was the response of the education minister. Rather than dismiss this as the nonsense it is Sinn Fein’s Catriona Rune accommodated it, assuring the DUP that in the revised curriculum there would "be greater flexibility for schools to include teaching of alternative theories to evolution". Under the spurious concept of concept of equality that prevails at Stormront theological claptrap is put on a par with scientific theory. However, this just one small part of a broader peace process in which reaction and bigotry are recognised and accommodated as legitimate. No wonder the DUP are satisfied with this settlement. Under its terms no one will be making monkeys out of them.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Ruane calls on MLAs to become team players

The Ulster Unionists and SDLP were urged to start behaving like team players in the Stormont assembly by Education Minister Caitriona Ruane on the 19th June as she saw off an attempt to commit her to a policy of offering every student teacher in the North a one-year post.

The DUP backed a Sinn Fein amendment which kicked the proposal into touch by agreeing to consider implementing the scheme, identical to one which operates in Scotland, only once a review of government spending at Stormont had been completed.

So, not only are Sinn Fein unable to compete in radicalism with the cosmetic reforms of Scottish labour or the routine barbs of other right-wing parties in Stormont, Ms Ruane is able to offer a convincing reason for their failure. She urged the Unionists and SDLP not to commit the executive in Assembly votes to schemes without taking into account the constraints on ministers` budgets – that is, to spare Sinn Fein and recognise that she holds a comic-opera ministry where the British control the budget!

Posted by North