Thursday, July 25, 2013

Report Card 2012/2013

After being recalled to discuss the Red Sky controversy and again to discuss the Loyalist rioting and violence surrounding the 12th of the July, the Executive term 2012/2013 has come to an end. So how have each of the Ministers performed through out the Assembly term?

First Minister - Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson's term will be remembered for his handling of the anti-democracy 'fleg' protests following Belfast City Council's decision to restrict the flying of the Union Jack from the City Hall to designated days. The response of the DUP together with the UUP was to circulate 40,000 inflammatory leaflets to Unionist and Loyalist homes. The effect was to stoke tensions.
Several weeks and months of street rioting and violence ensued. His lack of leadership on this issue epitomises the lack of leadership shown by Unionism as a whole.

The U-turn on the Maze Peace Centre is yet another example of weak leadership. The renege on the agreement jeopardises 5,000 jobs and millions in investment on what has the potential to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ireland and Britain. £18m in European Peace Funds already looks to have been lost.

The First Minister has bowed to pressure from the TUV, UUP and Orange Order. Yet he has not uttered one word of condemnation on the Loyalist rioting and attacks on Police in Belfast during an anti internment parade. Neither has he condemned the attack on the Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Deputy First Minister - Martin McGuinness

Top of the class, from militant to peacemaker Martin has turned into quite the statesman. Following on from his handshake with the Queen of England which was described as a 'historic peace move', Martin continues to be well spoken and consistent in  his condemnation of dissident Republican's and the Orange Order. He urged Republicans to resist from celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher. He extended his best wishes to Kate & William on the birth of their baby boy. Perhaps the most significant message given by McGuinness came in his speech to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, "I am so confident in my Irishness that I have no desire to chip away at the Britishness of my neighbours".

Finance Minister - Sammy Wilson

With the severe austerity being imposed by Westminster curtailing spending cuts to only 2% is an achievement in itself.

However the Finance Minister's deliberately provocative order to spend £10,000 of public money on erecting poles to display more Union flags from 5 government buildings in Belfast clearly shows where his priorities lie.

Sammy Wilson was also responsible for holding up the cross border Narrow Bridge project. Although the Irish government had already secured 80% of the funding, it was only when it looked like EU funding would be lost that he was backed into a corner and had no choice but to release funds and approve the scheme subject to several very dubious conditions.

Education Minister - John O'Dowd

While the removal of Academic selection to grade young people will go down as Education Minister, John O’Dowd's greatest achievement, the announcement of almost 300 additional jobs for recently qualified teachers during the term is also an achievement in the current economic environment.

On BBC television's The View, smaller parties complained that they had been kept in the dark about a shared future plan, to which Mr O'Dowd responded: "So what?" Harmless yes but it did come across as arrogance on Minister O'Dowd's part.

Health Minister - Edwin Poots

The Health minister deserves credit for exploring all Ireland health strategies with his southern counterpart James Reilly.

However Mr. Poots did come in for criticism when it was revealed that patients were waiting up to 70 weeks for orthopaedic surgery in a Derry Hospital. Poots also made headlines when he took a legal challenge against a decision by a Belfast court which allowed same sex couples to apply to adopt children. The DUP MLA was successful in his deliberate attempt to denigrate the 1916 Rising when he tweeted "had forgotten it is the 97th anniversary of a failed rising by subversives”. This provoked a twitter storm and a swift backlash from the riled Nationalist community.

Enterprise Trade and Employment Minister - Arlene Foster

A better year for the North's private sector development with private sector investment up 41%. Impressive given that economic policy of the UK government is not compatible with the economic needs of the North of Ireland.

However Arlene Foster's refusal to cooperate with the Irish Government in order to promote 'The Gathering' as an All Ireland project was regrettable. While 26 counties cash in, the North has missed out on the economic benefits from a great tourist initiative due to a small-minded parochial attitude and
antipathy towards all Ireland co-operation.

Justice Minister - David Ford

Strong in his condemnation of Unionist violence, rioting and attacks on police, the Justice Minister approved the drafting in of hundreds of additional police from Britain to assist the PSNI in to quell public disorder linked to Loyalist and Orange Order rioting.

Agriculture and Rural Development Minister - Michelle O'Neill

The winter blizzards resulted in the deaths of thousands of farm animals. The health minister was questioned on why it took three days after the snow started falling for a relief operation to deliver feed to stranded animals to get underway. The health minister rightly maintained that her fist priority was people and once the humanitarian issue was dealt with, helicopters from both the Royal Air Force and the Irish Air Corp, and specialist snowcat vehicles, were involved in getting bales to the affected farms.

The minister has also been successful decentralisation of department of agriculture jobs from Belfast to other more remote parts of the North.

Culture Arts and Leisure - Carál Ní Chuilin

The Minister deserves credit for securing funding for the redevelopment of stadia. Ravenhill, Casement Park and Windsor Park are all undergoing/to under go significant face lifts which will bring sporting infrastructure in the six counties in to the 21st century.

The arts minister was prepared to reach out to the Unionist community by agreeing to fund uniforms for members of hundreds of marching bands and by attending Northern Ireland football games.

Employment and Learning - Stephen Farry

Stephen who? Other that championing to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) his department's 'Graduating to Success Programme', a higher education strategy setting out a vision for the sector up to 2020 and meeting with various groups representing the unemployed, Minister Farry has been pretty low profile during the Assembly term.

Environment Minister - Alex Attwood

The A5 motorway linking Donegal to Aughnacloy would be presently under construction were it not for a court ruling that the project needed a more comprehensive environmental assessment. The fact that a fuller environmental survey had not already been carried out in the first place is a failure by the department of the Environment. The buck must stop with Minister Attwood.

He also opposed changes in planning laws which would create economically significant planning zones. Not surprising given that it would take power from his department and hand it to OFMDFM.

Regional Development - Danny Kennedy

The Regional Development Minister is responsible for infrastructure projects in the North. Danny Kennedy was at best luck warm in his support for the A5 upgrade. Although the delay is primarily the fault of Alex Attwood's department of the environment, Minister Kennedy must share in the blame. The economically significant Narrow Water bridge scheme linking Omeath in Co. Louth with Warrenpoint in Co. Down and the restoration of the Ulster Canal have also not progressed. The excuse for the delay in both projects is lack of funding, however was the political will there on the the Minister's part.

Minister Kennedy was responsible for the erection of "Welcome to Northern Ireland" road signs along the border. This was described as 'petty' and 'politically motivated' by local politicians and caused widespread Nationalist anger.

Social Development - Nelson Mc Causland

The Social Development Minister caused huge controversy in 2012 after his reversal of plans to develop 200 new social homes on the Girwood Barracks site in North Belfast. Housing Executive figures at the time showed Catholics made up 95% of those on the public housing waiting list in North Belfast. A court barrister summed up widely held belief that "the simple reason for the decision was he didn't want 200 Catholic families moving into this area. The minister's decision was motivated by improper collateral purposes: a restriction of the expansion of the Catholic population in north Belfast and to counter the decline of the Protestant population."

By his own standards McCausland, who believes 'that Ulster Protestants are one of the lost tribes of Israel' and who holds the creationist view that the universe was created about 6,000 years ago, was having a quite assembly term.

That was until he again became embroiled in controversy again after a BBC Spotlight programme made allegations of political interference in the running of the Housing Executive. The programme also featured claims by Jenny Palmer - a Housing Executive board member and DUP councillor who claimed she was pressured to change her vote at a meeting discussing the decision to axe a multi-million pound contract with East Belfast company Red Sky. So serious were the allegations that the Assembly was recalled to discuss the claims.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Gathering Delivers

The Gathering is delivering. Ireland's 'greatest ever tourism initiative' is aimed at mobilising the Irish diaspora and others to return to or visit Ireland during 2013, to be part of a series of local gatherings, events and festivals to celebrate Irish culture, history and genealogy.

According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO):
  • Tourism numbers are up 8.1% to 1.77m between March and May this year
  • There was an 12.8pc increase in North American tourists over the first five months of the year, with 369,100 visits
  • One million American visitors are expected to visit Ireland in 2013, spending around $1bn (€765,000).
  • The number of tourists coming to Ireland from the United Kingdom has increased by 5.6% to 726,300 – despite the overall slump in the general British travel market.
  • Visits from mainland Europe were up 8.5pc for January to May and by 9.6pc between March and May.
  • The highest jump has been witnessed in visitors from France at 26.3pc, the Benelux countries at 11pc, Germany at 6.1pc and the Nordic countries at 6pc.
  • Even recession-mired Spain has seen visitors here rise by 5.4pc over the same three-month period.
  • The Australian and New Zealand market also grew by an impressive 12.1pc from March to May.
Of course while Dublin, Cork, Galway and Killarney cash in, Belfast, Derry and Newry have seen little or no benefit from the initiative. They could have, were it not for DUP Tourism Minister Arlene Foster refusing to cooperate with the Irish Government in order to promote The Gathering as an All Ireland project and promote Ireland abroad. Instead she insisted on marketing the North as "part of the United Kingdom" distinct from the rest of Ireland.

Most overseas tourists, especially those from North America, come to visit the island as a whole. People come to Ireland for the céad míle fáilte, the scenery, the traditional music, the Irish language, the Guinness and all that is bound up in the Celtic Irish identity promoted abroad. It's cool, it's appealing, it's ancient and it works.

Blinded by a DUP Minister's small-minded parochial attitude and antipathy towards all Ireland co-operation, the North has missed out on the economic benefits from a great tourist initiative.

Tourist numbers to Ireland for the fist six months of the year show Overseas visitors increase 5.4%.
Below is a great video made by a Canadian couple of their trip around Ireland - A Fortnight Plus Half - An Ireland Adventure.