Thursday, 24 February 2011

A follow up on Arms

I may not have made it clear in my last post that, whilst I don't feel Arms trading as a whole is an evil thing, there are unquestionably those who undertake it in such a way that can be described as evil. The main point I was trying to make, though probably not very well, was that it is fair to criticise the means and manner in which we as a country trade arms, but that it was naive in the extreme to expect us to not trade arms at all.

This blog post by Amnesty pretty much echoes my sentiments, and probably does so in a more coherent manner. The author, like me, questions why certain arms have been sold to certain countries and questions the risk assessments employed.

However, there is one part of the blog I take issue with.

1. Timing. The blog criticises the timing of the delegation, given the recent uprisings in the region. I think that is grossly unfair and to use Cameron's terms: prejudice bordering on racism. There are many countries in the region and to assume that all are unfair, corrupt and likely to turn on it's citizens is wrong. There could even be a case for this being a perfect time for the visit. It is not guaranteed that, when the dust has settled on the uprisings, the new regimes will be stable. Other countries in the region may wish to increase their defence capability and should not be denied that right.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Arms Trading: Not for the Naive

On Twitter, I follow a varied selection of political types from all camps and over the last few days those that I would class as Left Wing and/or Labour types have been quite vocal about their disgust at David Cameron embarking on a tour of the Middle East with a group of arms traders in tow. They have been asking if it is not a little distasteful and a touch ironic to be promoting democracy in one hand whilst dealing arms in the other. They couldn't be any more naive if they tried. Democracy has almost always been achieved, maintained and then protected by the threat of and sometimes the application of force.

It's common for people to write, in pieces such as these, that it would be great to live in a world without the need for weapons. I'm going to say no such thing because it is utterly moronic. There has never been a time in history when weapons haven't existed. Nearly all lifeforms are born with weapons of sorts or at the very least defence from the weapons of others. To try and imagine life without weapons is to try and imagine and end to all life so let's not even give it thought.

Those who can accept the above can then progress to a conversation about the real issues of the arms trade: what do we sell, who do we sell it to, how much do we sell and so on. What is not relevant is whether an arms trade should exist. It does and always will do. A country may decide to abandon all arms but it's survival will always depend on the arms of others and so follows that those seeking to secure their own survival will need to be armed.

As a nation, we face a choice of either manufacturing our own weapons or buying them from other sources. In order to maintain a military edge we prefer to design and make our own. Unfortunately the size of our armed services means that we alone do not purchase enough weapons to make design and manufacture financially viable. We  overcome this by selling to other nations that don't have the capability and expertise to build their own weapons.

We can, and do, as a country apply strict criteria of sale when trading in arms. The criteria exist to prevent weapons being sold to unstable regimes or those whose values are in direct conflict with ours. It is this criteria that can be criticised and held up as immoral or fundamentally flawed, but not the principle of trading arms in itself.

At some point, there may well have to be foreign military intervention in Libya in order to prevent Gaddafi or his son wreaking revenge on those who dissented. If that happens the troops involved will be able to undertake that task partly thanks to the arms trade. Who would have a problem with that?

Daily Mail not fans of Law & Order

The Daily Mail love a story like this: Boss payouts to Thief 

An employer who found out one of his employees attempted to steal from him has been fined and ordered to pay out £5000 to the thief and cover court costs in excess of £8000. Why? Well, because when he found out about the attempted theft, he convened a couple of his mates, tied the chap up and, after some alleged (by the thief) physical assualt and intimidation, frogmarched him to the police station through the town whilst wearing a sign saying that he was a thief.

The spin on this story in the Daily Mail is beyond ridiculous. The outrage of the employer is quite something to behold. He genuinely believes he did nothing wrong and thinks he has been harshly punished. For me, he's lucky he isn't in jail. False imprisonment is an incredibly serious crime. To restrict someone's freedom and liberty is not something to be done lightly; it's why we use it as our ultimate punishment for crime. This individual took the law into his own hands, without cause or justification and set about punishing his victim completely disproportionately to the crime he believed he had committed.

That sort of activity cannot go unchecked and cannot go unpunished. The fabric of our society is held together by law and order. We invest that power in our government who in turn delegate it to the Police & The Court. There will be many who think this man is some sort of hero and deserves the ubiquitous medal that right wingers love to award. They are misguided. The law must apply to all and not just those whose crimes you happen to find more distasteful than others.

The employer attempted to justify his actions by saying that he was angry that the thief would most likely just end up with a slap on the wrist. That doesn't wash with me. Yes, the law isn't perfect and it does seem like many small crimes go relatively unpunished but it remains the law and it must be obeyed. If he wants to bring about a change in the law then he has an option to do that and it's an option available to every citizen: stand for election or vote for someone who who will best represent you. It may not get the result you want but that's democracy.

Justice Bill - David Ford not happy with McCrea

A quick post to say I was a little confused by the Justice Minister, David Ford when he spoke about the Justice Bill with Basil McCrea on the Nolan show this morning. Speaking first, David Ford seemed more than a little annoyed that Basil was raising issues with the bill in the first place and equally annoyed that he was only raising them now.

Putting aside the particular issue that Basil McCrea had a problem with - that of Sex Offenders having the right to appeal for their name to be removed from the register - I genuinely can't understand what exactly has annoyed the Justice Minister so much. Firstly, the bill was presented to the assembly for consideration and debate, which is what I believe Basil is doing. That is exactly what he should do and that's the purpose of the consideration stage. Secondly, Basil was not on the committee for this bill, as David Ford was keen to point out, so this is his first opportunity to raise his concerns.

Now,  for the same reason as above, Basil was wrong to complain about only just finding out about the particular amendment he queries. Instead of pointing this out however, Ford uses Basil's lack of involvement at an earlier stage as an avenue of attack. I'm confused, Minister, are you saying Basil should have been on the committee or are you saying that once it's out of committee the consideration stage should just be a rubber stamp exercise?

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Community Groups: Fund them, Direct them, Support them.

There are community groups all over Northern Ireland. Some are fantastic, others not so much, but there is one thing they all have in common; there is not enough of the community involved with them.

In my mind, every household should be aware of their community group and should be encouraged and welcomed into taking part. The best way to ensure this happens is for local authorities to provide leadership and where necessary, financial support. Too often, community groups are viewed by councils as a problem and represent an obstacle to be overcome instead of as a valuable asset in formulating strategies endorsed and supported by the public.

Strong communities provide and promote security & safety, they are a comfort when tragedy happens and they make celebrations bigger and better.

If I was on council I would look to create a specific set of targets to be met by community groups and council accompanied by regular review. As a councillor I would want to know that every household had been communicated with by their respective community group. I would want to know that a monthly public meeting had taken place with an agreed agenda and agreed outcomes. These groups should be organised by Ward and District and there should be regular meetings amongst the Chairs of each group. We can all agree that a councillor does not have the time to speak with every constituent and so were I a councillor I would want to know that I had at least engaged with the representative groups of my constituents.

This will only happen if Council agrees to provide direction where requested and required.

Views on uprisings

Like most, the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and now Libya have fascinated me and to a certain level, excited me. What has really intrigued me about the events though is that all 4 countries are completely different. Yes, there are some commonalities which tie them together but then there are also many things that we in the UK share with most of the countries within Europe but were Germany or Spain to play host to similar uprisings, would anyone really predict that the UK would naturally follow suit?

I guess the most rational explanation for the trend is that the biggest common denominator is Oppression and a lack of genuine democracy. It would certainly explain why 4 countries with entirely separate cultures and identities have all 'erupted' at the same time, but I'm not convinced it is as simple as that because it would then suggest that the problem is solved by giving the public what it claims to want - democracy and freedom from oppression.

David Cameron has today said that to say the Arab world can't handle democracy is bordering on racism. He may well be right. But this isn't a question of whether the Arab world can handle democracy but whether they really want it at all. It is an arrogant man to claim he knows how Arabs think but I  suspect that these uprisings would not have happened were the people employed, comfortable and secure. That indicates that it is not so much democracy that they crave but prosperity. They will most likely end up with a form of democracy but if they believe it will automatically bring about prosperity then they will end up disappointed.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Welfare Reforms: Labour must work with Tories.

The coalition government have announced their intention to reform welfare and the plans have been met with the expected derision and scathing criticism from most in the Labour Party. As the official opposition, Labour may feel that they have a duty to, well, oppose. It's not always the case though. On this particular issue, it is most definitely not what is needed.

That is not to say that the reforms should go unchallenged, there are no doubt several issues of concern, but this does not mean that reform on the whole should be so heartily opposed. Those who have paid attention to this issue over the last few years will know that Iain Duncan Smith has poured his heart into coming up with strategies to reduce the burden of welfare whilst making life better for those that genuinely need it. He approached the issue without prejudice. In fact, he almost went the opposite way and tried his best to see things in a completely different perspective. Yes, the end results are not devoid of ideology, but the man deserves credit for at least approaching his task in the right way.

This is where Labour need to step up and pay heed. The objectives of the governments welfare reforms are almost unquestionably endorsed by all; lessen the burden on the state, put an end to generation after generation living a life on benefits, improve quality of life for those that require state help. How this is achieved is key. Those that put enormous effort into providing ideas and proposing solutions should not be derided, should not be attacked and should not be opposed by default.

Labour have an golden opportunity now to work with the Conservatives and IDS in particular to bring about genuine and radical welfare reforms that really do meet the universally agreed objectives. It is unlikely they will face another Tory with the same amount of understanding on this issue as Iain Duncan Smith. By attacking him, by rubbishing his proposals, they push him further back into the safety net of his party where he will modify his proposals to suit. It would be the very worst thing Labour could do. The reforms will get through one way or another. It would be better for Labour if they actually had a say in what those reforms were.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

If Tom Elliot wants Opposition, he can have it.

Tom Elliot has made clear that he feels there should be a system of voluntary coalition in Stormont and effective opposition. Well, Tom, someone should have told you that both of those things are available to you now.

The DUP must be delighted that Tom has given them yet another stick to beat him with; he is paraphrasing DUP policy. That they have been utterly unwilling to follow through with it themselves is irrelevant. They are proposing from a position of power and Tom is not. No one would expect the DUP to voluntarily leave their place at the top of the table to form an opposition, but the UUP are not AT the top of the table and so are in the perfect position to do so.  It's no good for Tom Elliot to say 'this is what we think should happen' if he can't the answer question; why aren't you doing it?

Granted, for the UUP to give up 2 ministerial posts and the status and financial reward that goes along with that is not overly attractive. Surely though, a party that has just set out a four year plan has someone capable of looking beyond the immediate disadvantage of leaving the executive and envisioning the longer term benefits such a move would reap. It would provide the DUP with a major headache if, after the elections, the UUP actually had the courage of their convictions and refused to take a seat in the executive. Oh, how different a world it would be.

A rejuvenated UUP (no doubt boosted by defections and increased membership) would be able to launch all out attack on the executive and the DUP in particular. Governments do not like strong opposition because it applies added pressure to work, harder, smarter and with more consideration for the consequences. Qualities this current executive has been severely lacking. The DUP would no longer be able to label the UUP as a disruptive and uncooperative partner in government when the UUP have genuine criticisms.

However, none of this is likely. There is still the chance that Tom will recall his ministers before May but it will be, and be seen to be, little more than gesture politics. After the election, the UUP will take their place in the executive and the electorate will be reminded once again that the UUP are mostly talk. For Unionists who haven't bought into Peter Robinson's centre ground claims, it means they will stay largely disengaged from the political arena with the Alliance offering a choice best described as 'all that's left'.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

How the UUP lost the 2011 election in 2006

After the election in May there is every chance that the First Minister will be Martin McGuinness. This is only possible in this election because of the actions of the DUP at St. Andrews. That is fact. Had they not changed the rules, the First Minister would remain a Unionist while Unionists were the largest delegation which is a near certainty in May. Now, the First Minister is nominated from the largest party.

Although there can be no question that the situation is entirely the fault of the DUP, they stand most to profit from it (considered by many to be the intention all along). Despite the bleatings from Alliance and others that Northern Ireland is moving on and people don't care about Green/Orange politics, for many, the sight of Martin McGuinness as First Minister will not be one they care for and is enough to sway casual voters and first time voters. The only way they can be sure to prevent this from happening is to make the DUP the largest party because the DUP are the only Unionist party that stand a chance of being so.

For Tom Elliot, this represents a real problem. He has no avenue of attack on this issue. He can not attack the DUP for changing the rules because it highlights to his electorate the issue at hand - that every vote for his party makes it more likely that Sinn Fein will end up as the largest party in the Assembly.  He can't ignore the issue all together because it will appear he either hasn't got his eye on the ball or worse; thinks it a non issue.

The best Tom can hope for is that the DUP don't play on the issue which is only likely if they fear massive public backlash for being the ones to create the problem in the first place. As that is unlikely and any backlash will probably be tempered by a more stronger feeling of preventing the worst from happening, I think the DUP will play more on this issue the closer we get to May.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Sinn Fein: The masters of 'On Message'

In all his years at No 10 and despite all the effort and bullying that he put in, Alastair Campbell never completely managed to get all of Labour singing from the same hymn sheet. Sinn Fein, however, seem to have perfected it. What's more, they've added a fanatical edge to their propaganda; they're not just right, they SO right that everyone else is against them.

The leaders debate for the Election in the south was held last night and if you only listened to Sinn Fein's take on events, Gerry Adams absolutely destroyed his opponents and he did so in a truly statesman like way for he is the greatest leader Ireland and possibly the whole world has ever seen.

Now, I will declare now that I haven't seen the debates yet so I can't comment on his performance from my own point of view. What I do know however, is that it is unlikely to meet the level described by Adams party members and reps. In fact, I would say most people know that and so ignore the propaganda. This is where it gets dangerous for Sinn Fein. Elected reps have a duty to inform the public. If the public are subjected to blatant propaganda then it starts to become harder to ascertain what is fact and what is spin. When this happens, as Alastair Campbell well knows, the public start erring on the side of caution and turn to other sources when they want facts and the unvarnished truth.

Sinn Fein have every right to put across their opinion, but they should be careful that they don't try to play opinion as fact. They may not lose any of their vote, but if they want to govern in Ireland, they will need to gain votes. This isn't a great tactic to employ in that battle.

UUP: Fix the pipe and the flow of problems will ease.

Charges levelled at the UUP are, more often than not, that of a party of indiscipline and indecision. It is, unfortunately a fair accusation on the most part and one the UUP have had little success in dealing with mostly down to a reluctance to admit there is a problem. They can't understand why the media haven't responded to their insistence that party moral is fine and everyone is working together in harmony. The UUP have put plenty of effort into peddling this line so in their eyes, there must be some agenda in the media. What they fail to realise is that if they put their efforts into actually fixing the problems then the media would have nowhere to go. To use an analogy, if the UUP were a water company and a pipe had burst, they would put all their efforts into convincing everyone that the pipe hadn't burst rather than actually fixing the pipe.

If Tom Elliot is serious about taking the UUP forward then he needs to speak to ALL of his members, particularly his elected ones, and find out what they feel needs to happen. The onus is on him, not them. While things are still so fractured in the party and cabals are still so prevalent, those who feel left out and ostracised will continue to speak out. Tom Elliot cannot solve that problem by then attacking them via the same medium. Instead of getting involved with in a tit for tat spat played out in the media, Tom should speak privately to the individuals involved, found out their concerns and if possible address them and if not, arrange for the member and the party to part company amicably. By doing this he can leave the member room to make amends on their own terms in the media or prove to the rest of the public that when differences are irreconcilable that the party can be mature enough to accept that and wish their colleagues all the best.

This approach shows to all that when there is a problem the Party Executive are prepared to listen and provide solutions. Those who choose to vent in the media rather than make use of the party structure to air grievances will come across as the bad guys rather than the Party. If Tom has genuinely done all he can, he may find the media treat him a little differently. 

Friday, 11 February 2011

Prisoners Voting - Is it a Human Rights issue at all?

Something which I think has not been properly addressed throughout the debate on Prisoners Voting is whether the right to vote is or should be considered a Human Right. For my part, I think not and here's why; voting is required for democracy and so by extension, the right to vote means the right to democratic government. Whilst I would love to see all states adopt democracy, I don't feel it is for other sovereign nations to impose in the same way that we should expect and demand all states to respect freedom of religion, protection from persecution based on sex, sexuality or race and the right to life in general.

Those are the kind of rights that I feel are universal and they can be applied no matter what form of governement is in place. This is not the case with the right to vote. Human Rights were never established as a way of changing governments and regimes but as a guideline as to what the minimum requirements were for civilised nations to treat their citizens. By adopting the right to vote as a human right, the ECHR are in effect, advocating democracy as a human right and one which should be adopted. I think that is going beyond their remit.

There has been calls of 'shame' from both sides of the fence on this issue which is frankly ridiculous. This isn't a black and white issue and one which is so morally clear that to be for or against represents shameful behaviour. Those calling names would do well to display a little civility on the matter and a little less arrogance that their opinion is so obviously the right one.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The small issue of Health.

Michael McGimpsey, the Health Minister is at loggerheads with Sammy Wilson, the Finance Minister. This in itself is not surprising nor it is it unique to Northern Ireland. Every minister wants more money and every Finance Minister tends to not want to give them it without a fight. Unfortunately for us in NI, the consequences of this spat are likely to be significant. I firmly believe those who warn the Health Service is in close to being effectively bankrupt (though i'm not sure it's the best phrase for it) and I also firmly believe that Sammy Wilson is right that there are efficiency savings that can be made in the Health Service.

What has to happen when such a situation occurs is that the Minister for Health must act and act decisively. Our minister has made it clear he intends to do nothing. Michael McGimpsey's absolute number one priority is to get re-elected in May. He knows he damages his chances of doing that if he makes unpopular decisions regardless of the need for them. 

Sammy Wilson refers to the numerous reports that say the Health Service needs reform. The reports say we need less hospitals and more specialised units. They say that we have too many beds in the wrong places. Sammy Wilson knows that while McGimpsey refuses to act on those reports he can with some justification say that the funds McGimpsey has are not being utilised correctly. He can also point out that in May of last year McGimpsey was campaigning for the party that imposed the cuts to the NI Budget.

What both of them have failed to address is the issue of inefficiency in processes and procedures that are endemic in the NHS. Yes, there may well be big money to be saved in strategic reform, but that doesn't address the wastage on a procedural basis. Anyone who has been transferred from one unit to another will be well aware of the duplication, time wasting and unnecessary  process that gets you from A to B. Administrative procedures are legion in the NHS, when really, they need to be as lean and simple as possible. Sourcing information is often a battle in an environment when having accurate and up to date information is vital. 

Changing and streamlining the little issues doesn't always save hundreds of thousands of pounds by itself but a culture of that kind always does. Without fail. Unfortunately for us all, it's an area for improvement that is largely being ignored by all who have a hand in the debate. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Why Gerry Adams has let Sinn Fein down.

There has been much comment recently about Gerry Adams recent responses to questions on the economy. His opponents say that his inability to provide the answers to simple questions on child benefit & VAT rates show he is not knowledgeable enough to provide economic leadership. His supporters say that he doesn't need to know the minutiae of the economy to be able to offer an alternative. 

Whilst I agree in principle that being able to recall certain facts and figures doesn't disqualify someone as competent in a field, I think in Adams case it highlights to the electorate a certain ignorance of the situation that is wholly unacceptable in someone who is, at least technically, a candidate for premiership.

Gerry Adams has been, with some justification, hailed as a brilliant political campaigner. Unfortunately for him he made the cardinal sin of not being prepared. This led to him sounding like a blow in, a tag which his opponents are going to do their best to make stick. Sinn Fein, in my eyes, are actually offering a real economic alternative to the people of Ireland (though it may not be one I entirely agree with). Whilst Adams ignorance of Child Benefit rates or VAT rates don't have an impact on the validity of SF's economic agenda, they have a massive impact on his chances of implementing it. 

That is the issue at hand and that is why he has been so derided.