Monday, 15 December 2008

Executive Tackles Credit Crunch

They Work For You has a good summary of the decisions announced by Nigel Dodds and Peter Robinson from the Assembly today.

Available on link below

Friday, 12 December 2008

Fuel Poverty and the Executive

Hi sorry its been a while. Place is bit busy in run up to Christmas.

As some of you will be aware from the Lets Make Fuel Poverty History in Northern Ireland/Ireland facebook site things have been getting interesting in recent days. It started with questions to the First and Deputy First Minister on Monday that were being answered by Martin McGuinness. Several Alliance and SDLP MLAs asked why the Executive had not done anything about fuel poverty the response was a fairly non committal we will look at it at our earliest opportunity nothing was coming.

So after some pushing and prompting from some organisations and individuals the parties decided to talk about it at the Executive yesterday! So 176 days since the paper went to the Executive the games have stopped and the issue will be discussed.

Whilst we dont know any details of what will be announced (on Monday) we can guess that a contribution in the region of £150 - £200 will be paid into the electricity accounts of the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland. This will cost approximately £13m.

SDLP Leader Mark Durkan informs us today that there is expected to be an announcement next week on electricity costs being reduced by 10% not much more than a gesture when prices rose by 50%. Also Phoenix Gas prices are expected to be lowered by 20% in the run up to Christmas. So a few gifts to the fuel poor then.

It should be noted that these short term measures will do little to rid us of fuel poverty. This is going to take a massive leap forward in imagination and creativity from politicians, energy companies, charities and others.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Fuel Poverty and Facebook

To the one or two people who might look at this. Following on from the Obama campaign which was impressive in the use of the social media, including Facebook, I have set up a site on Fuel Poverty.

Its called 'Lets Make Fuel Poverty History in Northern Ireland/Ireland'. I hope you will join and send your ideas for action and register your support for calling on the Executive to do something.

Feel free to make suggestions! Thanks.

Monday, 1 December 2008

165 Days and Counting

165 days and Counting. This is the number of days that have gone by since the Executive has seriously considered the issue of fuel poverty.

It is estimated that fuel poverty is affecting at least 100,000 households across Northern Ireland. Given the temperatures in recent days it must be anticipated that a mixture of high energy prices and the weather will mean that many other households will be affected.

The Assembly will be briefed on a very timely and valuable report from Save the Children.They commissioned Professor Christine Liddell from University of Ulster to write a report ' The Impact of Fuel Poverty on Children'. In this report she highlights that

"The fuel poverty rate among families with children here is one of the highest in the developed world...Lone parent families are hardest hit."

So can our Assembly do anything about Fuel Poverty. For once the answer is yes.

The Minister of Social Development Margaret Ritchie has had a paper waiting to go before the Executive for several months. Elements of the paper will have direct financial benefits to the fuel poor as well as setting in place some measures to tackle the problem more widely. It was expected to be discussed last Thursday, however, it was not.

It has to look now very unlikely that any real effort to tackle fuel poverty will be made in time for Christmas. Come on Executive - sit down - talk - save lives in time for Christmas.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Sad Week

I realised today that one of the four police officers who were killed in the crash at the weekend, Declan Greene, was a few years ahead of me in school. He let me play football..when the lads were really stuck!

Many of us, me included, sometimes take it a bit fast on the roads and we arent in an armoured landrover.

This Christmas we need to slow it down a bit and give ourselves that extra 5 minutes to get where we are going.

It will be a heartbreaking Christmas this year for these four families and unfortunately many others this year. Lets remember them by slowing it all down. Lord rest the dead and help their families at this incredibly hard time. R.I.P.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Get on With It!

I attended a business breakfast organised by the Alliance Party this morning. The room at the Park Avenue was heavily attended by the usual representatives from PR and Public Affairs agencies but there was also a good turn out from the construction industry, Enterprise Northern Ireland and the Utility Regulator amongst others.

Both David Ford and guest Brian Ambrose (CBI/Belfast City Airport) had a similar message for our Executive ministers. GET ON WITH IT!

Industries from across Northern Ireland are suffering. The construction industry is perhaps the most high profile sector but soon as belts tighten inspite of a 2.5% cut in VAT other industries will suffer - including manufacturing retail and other sectors. The Executive given the limited powers it has must set aside ALL petty arguments and if necessary leave some debates to a more suitable time.

Now is the time to act together (All Party Lobbying at Westminster, Dublin and Brussels) for the benefit of the communities across the North and across this island. Failure to meet these challenges with new ideas and fully joint action will mean our economy will suffer and families will suffer unemployment and high prices.

The electorate has forgiven much in the past but is there a limit and if so are our politicians approaching it?

World War 2 and Kilkeel

I had the cold and wet pleasure of acting as a tour guide to my brother in law this weekend. His grandfather had served in the American forces in Kilkeel in 1943 for 9 months before being shipped to England and then the Normandy beaches.

An area known as Cranfield was a huge US Air Force and Army base during the war and it also housed thousands of US Troops. Not much remains now but it is easy to see the area around the airbase as all the hedges are made out of bits of runway. A few machinery shops, a hospital, a radar station (now housing nothing more secret than some cows) it even looks like the old air control tower that we used to play in as kids has been knocked down.

We went up into the mountains were the famous General Patton rallied the troops before they headed for D-Day. It was a cold but lovely weekend. Sadly the best tour guide in the family wasnt available but hopefully was looking down pleased I hadnt forgotten too much.

Friday, 21 November 2008

What can we give back?

I read in the Irish News today that the First and Deputy First Minister have been invited to attend the Fortune 500 Business Forum in the United States. This will afford them the opportunity to seek more investment in the economy here. Several times a year our Ministers go to the US to seek investment. One question what are we giving back? It is after all cheaper to get goods produced in eastern Europe - with both production and wage costs lower - making up for the difference in logistics (Dell).

I recently spent several weeks on the Obama Campaign principally in Ohio. An exciting experience. Cleveland has or had an economy that was particularly dependent on the manufacturing industry which is now under significant threat. There are also areas of high deprivation and poverty in this city. Obama has said in several speeches that he needs to protect US jobs by removing the tax breaks on companies that send jobs overseas. How can Ireland remain in the good books?

One way to perhaps give something back, help our US cousins and put Ireland North and South in a good light for continued support and investment comes from the experience of the Celtic Tiger. The Tiger is envied throughout the world. Why not find a way to mix our calls for investment with a commitment to share our positive experiences, business know-how and government policines with areas like Cleveland in the US so that they and us in return can prosper.

If this proves successful then as the world faces global economic recession Ireland may have found a new export as well as creating significant good will to keep our economy on track.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Executive to meet on Thursday!

In the words of the statement from OFMDFM today "the most difficult issues have been resolved satisfactorily". So no more major hold ups over when we will have policing and justice devolved and who will be the Minister - well that is a relief! Hmmm

Right then its time for the Executive to be doing what it should have been doing for over 150 days - meeting and getting on with the job of helping people and business across Northern Ireland face the oncoming recession.

So what will be on the agenda for the Executive Meeting?
  • Irish Language Act - gone but covered in some Minority Langauages legislation

  • Economic Package for Business - part of this could be limited rates relief

  • An Education Review - no the post primary debate has not been sorted - the review will ensure that the new Education and Skills Authority, proposed under the Review of Public Administration can go ahead

  • Package on Fuel Poverty

  • Parking of the Maze Stadium - and any hopes of us getting anything slightly meaningful from the Olympics?

The Press Release also says that following the meeting on Thursday the Executive will revert to their normal fortnightly meeting. Surely the Executive should meet on a weekly basis before the Christmas recess for several reasons

  • Catch up on the back log of work since the summer

  • Do what they can to help the business sector going through recession
  • Provide support for the construction industry by bringing forward already budgeted infrastructure projects

  • Approve the consultation on the reform of the planning service whose delays are preventing investment and employment opportunities here

Finally, meetings on a weekly basis might start to address the great lack of public confidence in our politicians ability to govern.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State?


    The above link is a report from the Guardian stating that Senator Clinton is likely to accept the post of Secretary of State in the Obama Administration.

    Should she be successful following the rigorous vetting procedure that will be carried out by Republicans (the US kind), of her and her husband's finances, this will be a big boost to her second run for The White House.

    This probably will not happen for eight years as Obama will have more than likely secured an agreement from the Clintons' not to run against him in 2012. Could Obama be getting two for the price of one?

    The Clinton Foundation and Global Initiative has meant that Bill and Hillary have maintained excellent relationships with many world leaders including those from countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Could this become a problem if these relationships diverge from the interests of President Obama?

    How should we feel? Senator Clinton said in her campaign that the door to her office would always be open to Ireland. Granted that was supposed to be The Oval Office door but the State Department will have to do for now. Irish American Democrats will be hoping that if she takes the role it will be especially good for Ireland.

    This could be good for us but again it has to be remembered that we are fighting for space on the US Foreign Policy agenda from now on. Hillary will be friendly towards Ireland and given the pressures faced by the US, Ireland will need all the friends she can get.

Progress this week?

Rumour mill has it that there may be significant progress this week on getting the Executive up and running again. The First and Deputy First Minister are due to meet this week in closed session to discuss policing and justice amongst other things.

The quicker this is sorted out the better. There are many decisions that affect the ordinary everyday lives of people that have been set aside by issues that were always going to be tricky. In the present economic climate this cannot be allowed to continue. Issues from fuel poverty to construction jobs need tackled at Executive level now. Or do they?

Travelling with some friends from Dublin this morning we listened to Margaret Ritchie say that she was trying to tackle fuel poverty and that there was a written procedure that did not require the Executive to meet. My friends asked if decisions can be made through another procedure then why is an Executive needed?

This highlights the frustration felt by people who are not even from here so what must it be like for families facing someone in the house become unemployed in the teeth of Christmas?

The Ministers all need to hurry up, meet and take action whilst anyone who has any faith in politics still cares.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Skills, Skills, Skills @Stormont

This week we helped Skills for Logistics host an event in The Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings which highlighted the importance of the development of skills in the sector.

The logistics sector employs almost 41,000 people in Northern Ireland - 5.5%of employment. Think about it a lot of things we take for granted today is brought to us by the logistics sector. The Minister for Empolyment & Learning was unable to join us because of a health issue an abscess (sore! get well soon) and in his place was the very capable Permanent Secretary Aideen McGinley.

She broadened the debate to show that skills development was an all-island responsibility and that several pieces of work had been undertaken including the all-island conference 'Building Skills Together.' She stated

' I am of the firm belief that skills must be at the heart of any dynamic and innovative economy. Only with an appropriate skilled and flexible workforce can we support the growth of our indigenous industries and maintain levels of foreign direct investment that have benefited us all so much in recent years'

The development and investment in our skills base should now be the top priority for the economy. Every day we hear the words recession, unemployment and crises - skills represent the cornerstone of any response to these challenges. Once the euphoria of the Obama win settles down people will realise that the new President will have to focus on employment issues in his own country and this may mean changes to tax regiemes and thus investment overseas.

We can still attract US and other investment but to do this we must invest in skills development and work on an all-island basis to attract investment.

None of this can happen effectively whilst our Executive refuses to meet.

Skills have to be nurtured from the earliest age especially the crucial literacy and numeracy. This cant happen whilst teachers, parents, children and churches do not have a 100% solid blueprint on the way forward on post primary education. Without urgent unquestionable clarity on this issue skills cannot be developed and our economy will eventually suffer.

Cancer Vaccine

Just returned from a successful trip to Dublin. One of the main issues in the papers there is the decision by Health Minister Mary Harney to postpone the implementation of a vaccination programme for cervical cancer.

As somone who has in the recent past been involved with groups who successfully ensured that just such a programme would be implemented north of the border I feel this is a bad decision.

The media have written about this as if the decision was taken to cancel rather than postpone the programme. Whilst postponing will just increase the costs of a programme through catch up the government and the Minister have done a terrible job of defending and clarifying this decision to the people.

Health Departments on both sides of the border require significantly increased funding, and perhaps always will, but no issue including the economic crises should ever come before preventing a deadly disease such as cancer.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Future EU/US Relations

This is the first blog I have ever done. So please be patient. I have just returned from two weeks on the Obama Campaign in Ohio which was fascinating - more later. Its not surprising then that the first post will be in relation to him. Pat Cox has an interesting article in the Irish Times today on the future of EU-US Relations. He warns that whilst many in Europe will be happy and hopeful of the election of Obama there are still challenges to face on both sides of the Atlantic.

Obama will not be a soft touch for Europeans
Wed, Nov 12, 2008

Barack Obama is the apparent incarnation of all that Europeans could wish for but in the end, he is the president-elect of the US and he will approach Europe seeking a greater commitment to sharing America's international burdens, writes Pat Cox

THE DEED is done. Barack Obama's improbable journey, his message of hope and his mantra of change have won the day in the most fascinating US presidential campaign in decades. History, hope and hype all find expression in its wake.
He has released great expectations at home and abroad. These cannot all be reconciled or realised, a fact recognised by the president-elect in his acceptance speech in Chicago. "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term."
Prioritising his objectives and managing expectations are a key early task. In the colour codes of the US election, red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, the EU, if its citizens had voted, would have been almost entirely blue. Europeans have high expectations of the young new president-elect.
George Bush, not least for economic reasons at home, leaves office as the most unpopular incumbent since polling began. America's reputation and credibility in Europe have declined in the Bush era.
The doctrine of pre-emptive strike, the conflation of the war on terror with the war in Iraq, the drift to unilateralism of the "if you are not with us you are against us" form of coalition building, the obscenity of Guantánamo Bay and the validation at the highest level of hostage taking through rendition, and of torture, have all served to bring America's standing to a new low.
Bill Clinton tried but failed to resolve the conflict in the Middle East. Until near the end of his second term Bush failed to try, to the frustration of European policymakers. One can add the absence of US engagement on climate change for almost the entire Bush mandate as an additional irritant. The neo-conservative baiting of the enlarged EU in its differentiation between new and old Europe rubbed Europe up the wrong way. Muscular American security preferences for missile defence arrangements with Poland and the Czech Republic and the proposed extension of Nato to include Ukraine and Georgia have added fuel to the fire. The short but sharp conflict between Georgia and Russia last August is an uneasy reminder of the risks of this visceral logic. Shared anxiety about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the spread of weapons of mass destruction has seen the US and EU on the same page as regards Iran, even if sometimes following a different text.

In spite of what these tensions suggest, the Bush legacy on EU-US relations is more nuanced. His second mandate was more open to outreach. EU-US dialogue deepened. Successive annual summits made considerable progress on transatlantic business dialogue, on extradition, and on regulatory co-operation. High-level dialogue has been initiated on climate change, clean energy and sustainable development, better late than never, and on the sensitivities surrounding the use of personal data.

EU-US economic interdependency has increased radically during the Bush years. Each side of the Atlantic respectively is the other's main trading partner, biggest source and host of foreign direct investment and largest contributor of "in-sourced" jobs to the other side. In EU-US terms foreign policy tension but economic progress are the hallmarks of the Bush years.
Obama promises a new deal and a new dawn. He is committed to withdrawing from Iraq, to ending detention in Guantánamo Bay, to banning torture and to fully engaging on the climate change agenda.

Instinctively he is an internationalist and multilateralist. He is cut, in European terms, from a more familiar east coast intellectual cloth. He is analytical and likely to bring a cool and cerebral capacity to dealing with complexity. His celebrity, with its message of change, carries a transformational potential not just for the US but globally also.
He is the apparent incarnation of all that Europeans could wish for but in the end he is the president-elect of the US. He necessarily will be guided, constrained and held to account first and foremost by how is perceived to have acted by his fellow citizens in the light of their interests, needs and preferences.

He will approach Europeans not just bearing the gifts of change but also inviting and expecting a new commitment to burden sharing. Speaking in Berlin last July he remarked; "My country and yours have a stake in seeing that Nato's first mission beyond Europe's borders is a success. America cannot do this alone."

He was speaking of Afghanistan. This will be an early, perhaps definitive, test of the relevance of Nato in the 21st century. How European states respond to Obama's certain request for more help will contribute to or diminish his capacity to hold the multilateralist line at home on security and defence.

Some intractable problems do not yield to diplomacy or to soft power remedies. America's European allies have a way of coming up short when it comes to hard power projection. The neo-cons had contempt for these perceived deficiencies and so decided to act unilaterally, preferring coalitions of the willing instead.

Pakistan, already a nuclear power, is one place where neither candidate in last week's US election was held in high esteem. It risks becoming a new fault line in the war on terror.
A fragile Iraq with its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish tensions offers no quick fix with or without early troop withdrawal and will demand ongoing international and not just American attention. Iran with its nuclear pretensions, its Hizbullah and Hamas links into Lebanon and the Gaza strip and its president's threat to wipe Israel off the face of the earth will continue to demand concerted efforts, as will the settlement of the core Middle Eastern Israeli/Palestinian question.
More Russian self-assertion as an energy superpower harbouring nostalgia for past glories and feeling or perceiving slights to its integrity will add to the complexity of finding durable multilateral settlements to these issues.

It remains an open question whether the 21st century will be an Asian century but the sum of the foreign policy parts on the president-elect's desk has a decidedly 19th century power political echo. In the end he will value European actions louder than words. A friendly president most likely will not prove to be a soft touch for Europeans.

Global leadership on climate change will become a more crowded space. The mood music will alter but even with an Obama presidency, the EU and the US instinctively will respond in different ways. Europe's preference for managing change through regulation finds its counterpart in US preferences for market driven solutions and technological fixes. Agreeing headline goals almost certainly will produce less friction than agreeing the means to achieve them.

The president-elect's first press conference was a sober and measured affair, stronger on the prose of power than the poetry of hope. It addressed the theme of tackling the economic crisis, clearly his first priority. He favours a stimulus package.

He will take office against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in generations, with record budget deficits and the financial and political legacy and burden of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The G20 initiative favoured by EU leaders to reform the international financial system suggests the possibility of a global order more open to new players and fit for the world of the 21st century. It could be the harbinger of a new system of governance that would retain and promote the benefits of globalisation, while making it accountable. A proposed 100 day deadline seems somewhat breathless in view of the fact that such a radical overhaul of international institutions, if it were to happen, would need the full engagement of the new US administration, which will not take office for 10 more weeks. It will be a fascinating insight into how far Obama's appetite for multilateral engagement will take him. It will reveal even more about the political appetite and constraints of Congress, where the Democrats enjoy a majority in both Houses.

Many were elected on the back of protectionist rhetoric. The president-elect himself was not averse to playing this card during the presidential primaries. There is a protectionist and interventionist mood abroad.
Obama's focus on possibly raising additional US tax on corporate profits earned overseas to promote more jobs at home could threaten unilateral abrogation of existing bilateral tax treaties with dire consequences for Ireland and very significant consequences for transatlantic economic relations.

What an irony it would be if the coming period reversed the hallmarks of the Bush years in EU-US terms by delivering foreign policy progress but economic policy tension.
Obama frequently quotes Abraham Lincoln who famously remarked that "you cannot fool all the people all the time". To paraphrase Lincoln for the present purpose "you cannot please all the people all the time". Whom will Barack Obama choose to displease? By this shall we know him and thereby will hang the tale of EU/US relations in the years to come.

Pat Cox was president of the European Parliament from 2002 to 2004 and served as a member of the parliament from 1989-2004. He is now a consultant for European Integration Solutions.