Groundhog Days. Once again renewable energy has hit the headlines, though it seems because the funding is covered outside the Stormont budget the schemes haven't managed to elicit the level of public interest that RHI attracted. Also in the news are voices expressing concern about the NI Protocol on Northern Ireland business (particularly retail) and on the consumer. Oddly these same voices supported Theresa May's backstop, which entailed many of the same pitfalls and could have been far more damaging arguably. Finally, in the outworking of the NI Executive response to Covid, policy implementation neither seems fully 'thought-through', nor is there much substance beyond the immediate headline number and sounds of panic from the Health Department. How can messaging be clear? Consequences?
There seems to be a common thread around Governments' pronouncements around Brexit and COVID19 that creates uncertainty and confusion; and that is the ambiguous nature of much of the messaging. We are asked to believe what Government tells us, but find it hard to do so where what we are being told could be interpreted this way or that, and words are not followed through with effective action that would demonstrate certain commitment to a shared goal. Result? Rather than taking back control, there is a sense of drift and lack of direction. In the worst examples this has lead to wilful disregard of any authority, and message.
Four topics in this episode. First mixed messaging of Covid in NI, then the botched messaging on exams. Required messaging for the Union, particularly heading into the Centenary events around 2021 and the creation of Northern Ireland. Restoring a message based on evidence and reasoned debate rather enabling nationalist slogans to become received truth and a 'black taxi' tour of recent history before established fact. Bit longer than usual, big issues. Links to pieces mentioned on usual blog sites.
A small change planned for how decisions are made by Northern Ireland Ministers might be a big thing. Meanwhile the big changes needed on fundamental services that underpin any economy are not getting the focused attention needed because, look, here's a cycling strategy to get you on your bike or, there, a Boris bridge. Sometimes we forget that for all the photo-ops and tweets, nothing actually happens - take Russia for example, all that meddling and still a pariah at the upper reaches of UK foreign policy: China should take note.
There is a new Government in the Republic of Ireland, which may bring a new approach. Damage caused by Fine Gael's aggressive attitude to North/South and East/West relations may be ameliorated by the more thoughtful Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail. The performance of Sinn Fein in Belfast this past weekend has shown how unsuited they are to any coalition, with its complete disregard for anything other than its own sense of itself alone. With more examples of poor public sector management - most recently Charity Commission and LandWeb - a dysfunctional Executive on top of dysfunctional public services doesn't bode well for reform - or that the next RHI isn't just around the corner. New Decade, same failed approach.
Rather than proposals we now have 'approaches', on the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the UK leaving the EU, and on Legacy from Secretary of State Brandon Lewis. These 'approaches' are long on ambition, short on detail. This episode looks at issues of concern in the UK Government Approach to the Protocol, and then on the current Sinn Fein hissy fit regardingVictim Pensions. Even when legislation is past and things are 'agreed' (New Decade, and it would seem New Approach from everyone but Sinn Fein) we find one Party going off on a different track - guess who?
A brief gap while every day was Covid-19, a short recap on the need for accelerated Health reform. As if that were not a big enough challenge, money is being spent by the Stormont Executive while there is still no basic budget this financial year (none since 2016!), no programme for Government, and therefore no baseline to understand scale or impact of spend on future budgets. There are big decisions to be made very soon. The sort of coalition discussions happening now in the Republic of Ireland, on how to manage future deficits and set priorities, seem unimaginable with Sinn Fein at the table (and outside the door) at Stormont. Perhaps it is best suited to being a populist opposition, which it is set to be in the new Dail.
RHI has exposed weaknesses in the entire Stormont infrastructure, which were already known and ignored in favour of 'Keeping the show on the road'. Despite knowing what needed to be reformed, for 20 years, the current Health Service ought to be so much better - and isn't. We rightly praise our frontline health workers for selfless dedication. Perhaps we’d be better demanding an end to political hobby spending and the reform across the board that Northern Ireland badly requires.
At Stormont House, Julian Smith has left the building. While lauded for the moment of MLAs returning to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, he hardly left behind a Northern Ireland Government that could be described as strong and stable. While Sinn Fein in particular has announced money for many, there is still no budget to understand spending/income, and a Programme for Government is due end of April! Then his undue haste to hasten 'Legacy', and in particular the outworking of the HIU proposals that seem designed to be harass ex-security services personnel in a highly vexatious and unfair manner...
New Decade (barely) and we're questioning public sector competence around MOT services. The previous decade started with public disquiet around Northern Ireland's water services. In between, RHI and the rest. Meanwhile, almost 20% of current MLAs are 'co-opted'; Party appointees, serving Party first?
New Approach? We don't seem to be able to start a conversation on change.