Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Households facing higher water charges after “miscalculation”

A supposed “miscalculation” by NI Water could lead to a 15 per cent or £20 million increase in the domestic water bill this year; resulting in an extra £30 being added to the average household bill.

NI Water claimed that it had overestimated the amount of revenue it would raise from commercial customers. It also pointed to a number of high profile industrial closures, such as the Seagate factory in Limavady, as an additional reason for the shortfall. As a result it had carry out an internal ‘re-balancing' exercise that shifted the burden of liability for water and sewage costs onto householders.

The arguments and figures used by NI Water are very dubious. There is no evidence of a decline in commercial customers so great as to produce a £20 million annual deficit. This is just a smokescreen for shifting the costs of water and sewage from business onto householders. It fits in with the general thrust of Government towards provision of public services - of transferring resources from labour to capital, from one class of people to another. Generally, the main mechanism for this has been privatisation and the introduction of user charges. In the specific case of water it has been the creation of NI Water and the introduction of a separate water charge.

All this was contained in the water reform proposals put forward by the British Government and inherited by the Executive. It was never clear what contribution commercial customers were going to make. Now we know it is going to be less than they paid under the Water Service; and that householders are going to have to pick up the bill.

This revelation also blows a hole in the recommendations of the Independent Review Panel, which were based on the old estimates from NI Water. The Executive hoped that adopting its proposals of delaying charges for a year, reducing slightly the amount people would be charged and extending relief would dampen down any opposition and buy them some time on the issue. This is despite the fact that all the Panel’s proposals were based on the unlikely premise that NI Water could make 40 per cent cost savings. The latest revelation from the company makes delivery on even these meagre concessions impossible.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Between a rock, a hard place and a Stonyford

Yet more evidence of the fragility of the St. Andrews agreement and its inability to provide a solution to the endemic sectarianism of the Northern statelet was provided by the departure of a Catholic family from Stoneyford, just outside Belfast.

The family were the latest victims of a long campaign of ethnic cleansing organised by local loyalists – a campaign so blatant that the organiser is a minor celeb, known by name to the press, political activists and many members of the public across the North. The latest campaign culminated in a death threat against the young son in the family and a threat that their home would be bombed.

The reactions of local politicians reflected their role in the sectarian set-up. Jeffrey Donaldson, confronted with this coercion, washed his hands of it. Apparently the family had had the cheek to suggest that DUP supporters were involved in the intimidation.

The local RUC/PSNI expressed regret. Despite the threats extending over many years in a small village, with the leading perpetrator publicly known, they had been unable to obtain any leads.

Perhaps the most pathetic response was from the local Sinn Fein representative, Paul Butler. Pleading with the police to ‘do their job’ he might have been any nationalist politician from the original Stormont parliament or from the generations before that.

But it is not enough to observe these events. It is necessary to understand them and to do that you have to observe the context. The context of the various interviews that took place was the background of a new build housing development bedecked with Union flags and loyalist regalia. It was pretty evident that these were warnings to Catholics not to settle here.

No-one asked who had erected the flags. No-one suggested that the symbols of sectarian hate be taken down. Despite all the rhetoric the new society, the new police force, are not disposed to repress loyalist bigotry or protect the victims.

For all that the PSNI are not exactly the RUC. The RUC would have advised the Catholics to go. It was a single RUC station that, along with the local loyalists, emptied Rathcoole of its large Catholic population in the ‘70s – an episode of ethnic cleansing that, for the size of population, ranks with major historic episodes in Europe.

In the new society everyone has some sectarian rights (not equal ones of course). Sectarian intimidation is simply someone expressing their culture and the task of the police is conflict resolution. So it is not surprising that, when a Catholic priest took down a flag nailed outside his church, he was advised to return it. When a father complained that his dead son’s name had been raised on an Orange bonfire as a sectarian taunt, he was advised to see community relations. It is hardly surprising that the police in Stoneyford organised a meeting between the Catholic victims and the chief loyalist intimidator. Perhaps the answer in another grant for loyalist groups or the Orange order – maybe funnelled through the Irish government or the president?

The situation in the North is kept stable by the willingness of Sinn Fein to accept anything that is thrown at them and by a tremendous complacency on the part of their constituency. It is not a stability that can last forever. When it wears off the Provo supporters will want to know why Sinn Fein, through the policing boards, are party to a system that placates loyalist thugs and turns a blind eye to sectarian intimidation.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

DUP dumps Paisley Jnr – can daddy be far behind?

The first ministerial casualty of the power-sharing executive came this week with the resignation of Ian Paisley Jnr. His departure from the post of junior minister in the Office of the First Minister came on the back of yet more revelations about his financial dealings.

The latest one revolved around the rental of a DUP constituency office in Ballymena. A response to a freedom of information request disclosed that Ian Paisley Jnr and his father are each receiving £28,600 per year for the Church Street office. This combined total of £57,200 for one property is almost three times higher than the next highest MLA claim. It was further revealed that the mortgage for this property had been initially secured by developer and DUP member Seymour Sweeney. For a period he was the sole director of the company (Sacron) that purchased it. That company was subsequently transferred to Ian Paisley’s Jnr’s father-in-law.

Through the rental of this office, the Paisley’s were effectively giving a thousand pounds a week (claimed as expenses) to one of their relatives. Paisley Jnr stated that the money was being used by his father-in-law's company to repay the mortgage. However, given the extremely high rent being charged, it wouldn’t take long to pay off a mortgage. In a relatively short time period his father in law would own the property - any money accrued after that would be pure profit.

Another example of Paisley Jnr’s milking of the public purse came just last week with the revelation that he was receiving a salary as his father’s parliamentary researcher in addition to his MLA and ministerial salaries. He was taking three salaries for what is essentially one job.

However, these were just the latest in a series of controversies that surrounded Paisley Jnr during his tenure as a minister. Others included his St Andrews list that appeared to link the restoration of devolution to progress on a number of pet projects in his north Antrim constituency. There was the lobbying for a privately owned visitors’ centre at the Giants Causeway, and the attempt to influence a government department over the sale of public land. The developer and DUP member Seymour Sweeney was an interested party in both schemes. What is common to all of these is the accruement of benefits for the Paisley’s, their relatives and their supporters, at the expense of the public.

However, Ian Paisley Jnr’s dodgy dealings do not in themselves account for his resignation. He had given every indication that he would brazen it out. It was assumed that being the son the DUP leader and First Minister would protect him. There was no opposition from other parties to his continued presence in Government. This prompted SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell to ask: "Why was it always left to journalists to dig out the truth under the Freedom of Information Act?" Of course he did not offer an answer. This would have exposed the bankruptcy, not only of his party, but of the whole set up at Stormont.

What really did for Paisley Jnr was the opposition of senior members of his own party. This came to a head over the weekend at a meeting of six of its MPs to discuss the Dromore by-election defeat. They told Paisley to resign or face a party disciplinary hearing. Against this background Paisley’s resignation can be seen as the most immediate ramification of the DUP’s debacle. However, his probity was not the major factor in Dromore by-election. It was opposition to power sharing and the strong showing of Jim Allister’s TUV that damaged the DUP. The dumping of Paisley Jnr therefore has a political significance well beyond the immediate claims of improbity made against him. The whole basis of the St Andrews settlement is now in question.

He was offered up as a sacrifice to assuage that section of the DUP’s supporters who are now in revolt against its participation in the power sharing executive. The problem for the DUP is that opposition from this quarter is unlikely to be diminished by such gestures. Paisley Jnr’s resignation was immediately dismissed by Jim Allister. He said that it would “not be enough to redeem the DUP with the unionist electorate.” For him the “fundamental problem” was the “policy of having IRA/Sinn Fein at the heart of government.” He warned that unless this policy was reversed the DUP’s decline would continue.

The departure of Ian Paisley Jnr is undoubtedly a blow to his father. It diminishes his political authority and increases his vulnerability. All the criticisms attached to his son can be just as easily be attached to him. Paisley and his chuckle brothers’ routine is now the primary the focus of unionist opposition to power sharing.

Ten months ago Ian Paisley was considered to be at the zenith of his political career. He had triumphed over his unionist rivals, forced the disbandment of the IRA, and was sitting at the head of settlement that was very favourable to unionists. He was master of the political landscape. Now he looks to be on the way out – forced from the post of party leader and First Minister by a growing revolt among his own supporters.

This turn of events punctures the assumption which has underpinned the St Andrews (and the Good Friday Agreement before that) – that if a settlement had the endorsement of Paisley (or Trimble in the case of the latter) then unionists would accept it. The reality is that there remains a solid core of unionists who will not accept any form of power sharing no matter how favourable. They will not be appeased by the departures of the Paisleys or new faces at the top of the party.

Monday, February 18, 2008

By-election result sends warning to DUP

The defeat in a council by-election in Dromore has sent a stark warning to the DUP over power-sharing with Sinn Fein. Its first electoral test since the restoration of devolution, in a district considered a good barometer of unionist opinion, proved to be a disaster.

The by-election had been sparked by the resignation of a UUP councillor. In such circumstances an alternative UUP member could have been co-opted to serve the remainder of the term. But the DUP insisted on a by-election. Obviously, the party was confident of pickling up another seat. The contest would also enable the DUP to advance its broader objective of consolidating its leading position within unionism by eating further into the support of the UUP, and smothering the challenge of the Anti-St Andrews Agreement unionists grouped around Jim Allister’s Tradition Unionist Voice (TUV).

On the face of it the DUP was well placed to achieve both these objectives. It already held four out of five seats in that ward and in the last council election in 2005 had won over fifty percent of the vote. A repeat of that performance would have seen it romp home. In the event the DUP came a poor second behind the UUP.

Its support slumped from around 50 per cent of the total poll in 2005 to about 28 per cent. Though the UUP won the seat it did not increase its share of the vote. The decisive factor in this election was the performance of the TUV. It took almost 20 percent of the first preference votes cast over all, and nearly 28 per cent of the total unionist vote. Finishing third, its transfers went to the UUP and ended up eliminating the DUP. The fact that most of its transfers went to the UUP demonstrates the degree to which its supporters wanted to punish the DUP.

The Dromore by- election witnessed the DUP being deserted by a significant chunk of its supporters. Given the TUV’s unambiguous position on the St Andrew’s Agreement, this is clearly a vote against power sharing. It reveals that a solid block within unionism is still opposed to power sharing with under any circumstances, even under a settlement as favourable to unionism as St Andrews.

The DUP had been able to accommodate them through the last Assembly election when it did not firmly commit itself to going into government with Sinn Fein. The poor showing of the anti-St Andrews candidates also strengthened the mainstream belief the rejectionist element had been marginalized, and that most had fallen in behind Paisley. However, this assumption has come under strain recently. The first indication was Paisley being deposed as moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, and the growing speculation over his role as First Minister and DUP leader. Now with the Dromore by-election result we have firm evidence of a revolt among the party’s supporters. If such a result was repeated elsewhere, and remember Dromore was considered to be a relatively moderate area, the DUP could be in serious trouble. The TUV has the potential to do to the DUP what it did to the Ulster Unionists.

There were two reactions from the DUP to the Dromore result. One was to be dismissive. For example, Ian Paisley described it as a "flash in the pan." The other was one of concern. DUP Executive Minister Edwin Poots conceded that there was “an underlying level of discontent.” The local MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: "there is a protest vote there that we cannot ignore. We have got to recognise that message." They both promised that the DUP would listen to its supporters.

While one bad election result won’t precipitate a crisis within DUP it does create restlessness within the party, and will encourage those who have been biting their tongue over the settlement to speak out. Indeed, Jim Allister in the wake to the Dromre by-election, made an explicit appeal to this layer, asking them to “ponder whether by their presence and acquiescence they are not propping up the very thing which concerns them.”

The DUP leadership for its part will try to assuage its wavering supporters by cutting out the “Chuckle Brothers” routines and toughening its stance towards Sinn Fein. However, it will be difficult for the DUP to pick with a fight party that won’t defend itself and continues to capitulate on every issue (such as the Irish language) that it once claimed to hold dear. It also won’t assuage those unionists who are offended by the very presence of nationalists in Government. The only other option for the DUP is to bring the whole settlement crashing down. Any more electoral shocks, such as a victory for Jim Allister in next year’s European elections, may leave them with little alternative.

The St Andrews settlement is not about to collapse, but after Dromore by-election it is looking unsteadier. Jim Allister could rightly crow that it was “a very unhappy St Valentine's Day for the Chuckle Brothers."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

DUP rejects transfer of policing powers

The DUP’s rejection of the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Assembly has exposed yet again the vacuous claims of Sinn Fein for the St Andrews Agreement. We were told that St Andrews laid down a firm timetable for the devolution of these powers by May 2008. However, when Gordon Brown and Bertie Ahern recently made an appeal for movement on this issue, it provoked a fierce rejection from the DUP.

Senior members of the party lined up to denounce the proposal. Peter Robinson insisted the DUP had never signed up to a target for the transfer of policing and justice powers. He said that such a move would only happen when there was “the necessary support within the community”. Nigel Dodds said the issue was "not on the agenda". These views were echoed by DUP leader and First Minister Ian Paisley. He said that he had “absolutely no intention of bringing such a proposal to the Assembly as the necessary conditions do not exist." He didn’t detail the conditions, but mentioned the disbandment of the “IRA/Sinn Fein army council” and also the need for financial support from the British Treasury. However, the fundamental condition he laid down was the need for confidence within the unionist community.

The essential message from the DUP was that if unionists were uneasy at the prospect of nationalists having any role (no matter how minor) in administering the police and judiciary in the north it won’t happen. This is basically a reasserting of the unionist veto, albeit dressed up in the language of consensus. Paisley also denied that his party had agreed this at St Andrews. He said that it was “not our idea and we never agreed to it."

Not that the DUP leader has to worry about pressure from the British or Irish governments. Their appeal on the transfer of powers was extremely week. They merely said they believed “the time is right” for such a move, and that they stood “ready to help the political parties”. No hint of coercion or pressure here. Indeed, after the negative response from the DUP, they drew back from their timid proposal. A spokesman for the Irish Government acknowledged that the deadline was not likely to be met and “would accept that there may be some slippage.”

Sinn Fein were left floundering by all this. Gerry Adams made the astonishing claim, particularly in the light of the statements from their leadership, that the “DUP has agreed with the broad principles of all of these matters”. For him it was “only a matter of timing”, although he wasn’t prepared to set a time frame; presumably this is down the DUP. Sinn Fein’s policing spokesperson Alex Maskey said the party was “working very much with a mind that the transfer of policing and justice will happen by the May time-frame, and that is an agreement.”

The contrast of such statements to reality is stark. It could be described as a state of denial. But Sinn Fein can do little else, as to recognise the reality of the situation would be to admit complete failure. We are witnessing the same process we had with the Belfast Agreement. Sinn Fein in the role of the faithful defenders of a settlement they insist is being implemented, while the unionists, with the endorsement of the British and Irish Governments, pick it apart and bring it down. This is happening even more quickly with the St Andrews Agreement as it was pretty threadbare to begin with. The few gestures towards nationalists, such as the Irish Language Act and the devolution of justice and policing powers, have been junked already.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Bank rolling bigotry

A major feature of the peace process has been the legitimisation of sectarianism. One of the main beneficiaries of this process has been the Orange Order. Its sectarian agitation has been rewarded with lavish patronage from the state. This has ranged the from public funding for parades – money to promote the 12th July as some kind of family fun day – to the appointment of its members to various public bodies. Two Portadown members involved in the Drumcree protest were even put on the Parades Commission.

Another example of the mollycoddling of the Orange Order came this week with the announcement from the Irish government that the Order was to receive almost 250,000 euros in funding. This will go to a company, Cadelmo Ltd, set up to support an initiative in the border counties to promote and organise the Orange institution in the south. Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs minister Eamon O'Cuiv said he was “delighted to be in a position to provide funding".

Despite its claim that Protestants in the south were a persecuted minority who had to “keep their heads down” in order to survive, the Orange Order was happy to pocket this money. And this is just the tip of a large financial ice berg. A £10million centre commemorating the Battle of the Boyne, is due to open in three months. This centre, which is located at the site of the battle near Drogheda, will encompass a museum and an interpretive centre on the theme of the “Williamite revolution”. The Irish Government has also said it is committed to helping fund a “Williamite Trail” to run from Carrickfergus to the Boyne.

All this is part of the process of sanitising the Orange Order and portraying it as just another aspect of Irish culture. Yet even a cursory glance at the history of the Order would reveal it be a thoroughly reactionary organisation that has been, and continues to be, instrumental in denying democratic rights to the Irish people.

By coincidence, a small example of the true character of the Order was on show the very same day as the funding announcement was made when several hundred of its members picketed Banbridge Council. This was in response to the removal of a number of overtly political and militaristic symbols from public display at the Council’s headquarters. The items included a painting of an RAF vehicle checkpoint, entitled 'Freeze all Movement', an oil painting of an Orange lodge, and plaques presented by the RUC Male Voice Choir, the Royal British Legion, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Ulster Special Constabulary, the Royal Irish Rangers, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Hampshire Constabulary and the Royal Air Force Irish Guards.

These items have not been removed altogether, but merely moved to another room.
Yet even this meagre gesture towards not offending nationalists is too much for the Orange Order. Its Grand Secretary Drew Nelson, who led the protest, described the shifting of the items as a "determined effort to wipe the face of Britishness from the council and its property". The fact that they picked the building in such numbers can only be seen as act of intimidation to reverse the Council’s policy on symbols. And all this over a few plaques! How much more agitated would they be if there were any moves towards real equality.

Not that the Orange Order has any fears of being challenged. Certainly not by Sinn Fein. The reaction of Gerry Adams was to offer to meet Orange leaders to discuss their concerns. But if you accept Orangeism as a legitimate cultural expression what other reaction can there be?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Irish ferries – the bitter fruits of partnership

The fruits of social partnership were on display one again this week with the revelation that workers on Irish Ferries vessels on the Ireland/France routes were being paid just €4 an hour. This came out amongst all the razzmatazz surrounding the unveiling of the new €50 million ferry that is to service these routes.

In addition to low pay, the workers, who are mostly from the newer EU member states, are forced to endure the most oppressive conditions. On the two Irish Ferries ships operating the Ireland/Britain routes workers do twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. Any spare time they have is spent on the alternative vessel to the one they are employed on. They are actively discouraged from leaving the ships; any workers who do come ashore can be disciplined or even sacked. Also, the workers are no longer directly employed by Irish Ferries but supplied by an agency located in Cypress!

Despite these hardships they are still relatively well off compared with workers on the French routes. They are at least still receiving the Irish minimum wage of €8.65 an hour. However, come December they will no longer be entitled to this, and are expected to be put onto the lower rate.

The situation this group of workers find themselves in is iniquitous. But it is a situation that Irish trade unions have a great deal of responsibility in bringing about. For it follows directly from the deal that ICTU brokered with Irish Ferries in 2006 which saw more than 500 made redundant as part of an outsourcing and cost reduction exercise. At the time ICTU brought over 100,000 people out onto the streets of towns and cities across the country to protest at the blatant injustice of what Irish Ferries were attempting to do. One of the main slogans of these demonstrations was "no slave ships in Irish waters".

However, almost immediately after this impressible mobilisation, the trade unions made an agreement that gave Irish Ferries all they wanted. Their ships were re-registered in a foreign country and the any rights that the workers may have enjoyed under Irish law were removed. The only consolation was the workers on the Ireland/Britain routes would receive the Irish minimum wage for a two-year period. This agreement is due to run out at the end of 2008.

Unbelievably, some groups on the left hailed this as a victory. They fell in behind the bureaucrats because they were seen to be mobilising workers. However, the purpose of the mobilisation was not to fight back, but to demonstrate the ability of the leadership to marshal the working class and to show the Government and employers the benefits of keeping social partnership in place. If the union leaders could show their worth in facilitating the ongoing neo-liberal offensive they could keep their place at the table. So following hard on the hard on the heals of the Irish Ferries deal we had the ten year partnership agreement. Meanwhile, workers both indigenous and immigrant, both onshore and off shore, continue to suffer.

Ironically, the new vessel in the Irish Ferries fleet has been named the Oscar Wilde; another ship is called the Jonathan Swift. These two great Irish writers, much of whose energies were taken up in denouncing abuses of their day, would have no doubt found the conditions that prevail within the vessels that bear their names a subject worthy of their attention. If only today’s left possessed a fraction of their insight.