UUP: The Panel’s Verdict…

The UUP’s manifesto was the first to launch and the first for the Press Association’s Panel to get their teeth into… If their pitch on education were the most important thing, it would provide middle class Catholic parents with what neither of the two main Nationalist parties are providing: undiluted retention of the Grammar School..

ANNE MORAN (EDUCATION): “The proposals on pupil profiling and selection of students by grammar schools could reverse planned changes to purely academic-based secondary school selection. There was also a view around that schools should have access to the pupil profile. Clearly you would be back to the same situation as now, where you have the grammar schools creaming off the best students. The best schools would inevitably focus on academic ability when making their selection. If you are compiling pupil profiles then they should be about rewarding achievement across the range (of criteria), including academic, but recognising wider talents.”

If all other aspects were equal this should be a happy hunting ground for Catholic middle class parents unhappy with both nationalist parties’ opposition to selective education. Moran is critical of the party’s anti government stance, yet it also clearly draws detail from Catholic grammar heads suggestion of using ‘statement of advice’ as a means of informing parental choice. And its recommendation to keep “grammar schools as centres of academic excellence”.

It’s proposal to move “towards every non-grammar post-primary school becoming a ‘specialist school’ – establishing their own distinctive identities and becoming centres of educational excellence in their chosen specialist field”, is in tune with what has already been happening in Britain over the last five to six years.

It also recommends that pre-school education become a universal right (oh the joy of ‘owning’, under d’Hondt, a spending ministry!). It promises to earmark “savings in administration costs for investment in education”: OFMDFM have identified £30m annual savings from RPA. There is little indication in any of the other proposals of where further savings might arise: eg, it urges a cautious implementation of Bain.

MARY HINDS (HEALTH): “This is a comprehensive and innovative agenda for the improvement of health and social care in Northern Ireland. I’m pleased to note the strong emphasis upon public health measures, which will build upon the achievements of the previous executive in relation to Investing for Health. I am also pleased to note the party’s commitments to training the right numbers of nurses and supporting childcare provision for student nurses. It is good to see the references to enhancing mental health services and healthy living centres. Again, this reflects the Royal College of Nursing’s own campaign priorities, particularly in promoting the mental health of children and young people and of older people, and addressing the alcohol dependence and obesity. Violence against nurses and other health staff is a major concern and we are pleased the UUP has continued to highlight this issue. It is also welcome to see the party’s commitments on the implementation of NHS Direct in Northern Ireland, support for nurses in policy-making, care management networks and the enhancement of prescribing by nurses. These will all help to enhance standards for care for patients. That, after all, is what really matters.”

Health actually gets top billing in the manifesto. And it comes with the most detailed references. Is this the party’s pitch for the ministry? Sinn Fein took some flak over closures (Jubilee Hospital) and downgrading (Tyrone County) but had much greater visibility as a result of owning a ministry with responsibility for base line delivery of a public service. The first two paragraphs contain the word ‘free’ along with prescriptions and eye tests. A lot of the rest is about the same kind of long term investment that has been prevalent in Britain.

FEARGAL McCORMACK (ECONOMY): “I think it is a major step forward that they have placed the economy so high in their priorities. Five years ago the economy wouldn’t even have been mentioned. It is very encouraging that Reg Empey has highlighted it as the first major challenge. I think it is very positive that they have identified a competitive tax environment and a simplification of the Research and Development tax credit scheme – the take-up in Northern Ireland has not been high. I welcome that they have identified improving the efficiency and transparency of the planning system as something that would help business. But on the negative side, I am disappointed the manifesto does not reflect the reality of the island economy which the business community has endorsed. I am amazed that in terms of infrastructure they have not recognised it can’t be developed in isolation. They have mentioned the British Isles and Europe but unfortunately they have not recognised the importance of developing an all-island economy. I would not have expected them to have put it top of their list but I would have expected them to mention it.”

That competitive tax environment may be working out to be the most obvious cross party platform in any prospective government, though we will have to see how any emergent proposal runs with the future incumbent of Number 11. A review of Invest Northern Ireland is alos promised, but with no clear criteria for how it might reviewed or what new priorities it might be given. Business and enterprise support is what all western governments want to do, but don’t always do well. All too often they are used to challenge subsidy into failing industry rather than help channel private resources into growth areas. Continuing support for traditional manufacturing sectors may prove counter productive, if it comes at the cost of growing new sector jobs.

SHIRLEY LEWIS (ENVIRONMENT): “Environment is mentioned 47 times in the manifesto, health 32 times and education gets 29. That seems right to me because the environment must come into everything we do. They seem to be saying the right things in most cases but what they say about transport is worrying. Talking about environmentally friendly air travel is a contradiction in terms. We need to get people out of planes and cars and on to public transport. The UUP also talk about a scoping study but how long do they think we have? Plastic bags and rubbish are polluting almost every part of this land. People need to know the urgency of action, what to do and how to do it. They need the knowledge as quickly as possible, whereas a scoping study may take years and will be too late.”

The proposed introduction of an Environmental Protection Agency is promising. The current body, the Environment and Heritage Service is strictly speaking an advisory rather than a regulatory body who’s advice must be weighed in the planning process but is not binding as such. As we have seen, when there is a face off between environment and social infrastructure such as housing the environment is likely to come off worse.

Beyond having an EPA, this area appears to lack serious teeth. Economically, most East West business connections rely heavily on air travel so it is not entirely fair to compare it with train travel. Yet on this whole area, there is a serious lack of detailed commitment on investment in public transport. It has to be said that for many people outside Belfast it remains quicker and easier to fly to Glasgow than commute by train to Dublin, for instance.

SUNEIL SHARMA (CRIME): “It is refreshing to see a greater focus on community safety. The word ‘security’ isn’t mentioned and that surely has to be a first. The manifesto points up the many concerns of the community, particularly with regard to child protection and the requirement to see more police officers on the beat. These are being addressed with new police community support officers and neighbourhood police team structures. It’s the same with the restorative justice schemes and the need to reassure the public. This isn’t rocket science. It’s the right way to go forward now that policing has the confidence of the whole community. The tagging of high-risk sex offenders is essential, but that in itself is not a panacea. The management of sex offenders is an inter-agency issue, and not simply one for policing. There also needs to be a reality check. The policing budget will come under far greater pressure in the future and it’s important that innovative methods of policing crime reduction and best practice are borrowed throughout the rest of the UK and Europe. It is an evolutionary process. There is a good balance to these proposals. I’d give them eight out of 10.”

Interesting shift in focus. I doubt we will see the same emphasis on tackling civil crime and local accountability in the DUP’s document, but this is undoubtedly a first glance at the emergent preoccupations of a post conflict society. The title of the segment is ‘Stronger, safer, fairer communities’, and might be co-annotated, ‘Tough crime and tough on the causes of crime’. It is bundled in with strategies for the elderly, young people, families, the disabled, women, rural communities, anti poverty strategies, arts, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all…

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