7 NI political hot potatoes for early 2015

2015 calendar1. Expect Mitchel McLaughlin to be finally elected as Speaker of the NI Assembly.

If the Welfare Reform Bill passes its Consideration Stage by the end of February (as the financial package requires), will the DUP withdraw their objection and allow Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin to be elected as Speaker? They’ll surely not wait until the Bill receives Royal Assent? Mitchel’s elevation will create a vacancy for a Deputy Speaker. Who will the DUP nominate from within their ranks? Realistically the role will go to an older back bencher. And will the DUP and Sinn Féin agree to give one Deputy Speaker (the DUP one) the honorary badge of Principal Deputy Speaker?

2. Can the parties meet their Advent Agreement Stormont House Agreement commitments in the first few months of 2015 while election campaigning starts?

With the Westminster election on 7 May 2015, and the dissolution of Parliament on the 30 March, the campaign will start in earnest towards the end of February, particularly in key seats like East Belfast, South Belfast and Fermanagh & South Tyrone.

The parties – well Sinn Féin and the DUP at a minimum – need to hold it together and in order to agree key decisions and satisfy Treasury demands around the financial package and legislation to devolve Corporation Tax:

  • Final budget agreed in January 2015.
  • Welfare Reform Bill legislation before Assembly in 2015 and passing Consideration Stage by end of February 2015.
  • Opposition arrangements and support to be put in place by the Assembly by March 2015.
  • Establish a Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition by June 2015.
  • OFMdFM to bring forward legislative proposals – including Code of Conduct, criteria, accountability – on parades and related protests (via the Office of Legislative Counsel) to the Executive by June 2015.
  • Establish a compact civic advisory panel by June 2015 that will meet regularly, consider key social, cultural and economic issues, and to advise the NI Executive

3. Is there any political mileage left in poring over On The Runs?

Tony Blair has been summoned to give evidence to the NI Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the administrative scheme for On The Runs on Wednesday 14 January. His answers – tone, content and completeness – are unlikely to build trust between republicans and unionists. But are there any votes to be won or lost this year over the matter?

4. Expect schools to get at least a partial budget reprieve.

In November, schools were informed about budget cuts. (The same week, schools report receiving glossy brochures, thick paper curriculum updates and posters for staff rooms from the department, boards and CCEA, along with outside consultants contracted to DENI booking in to find out about testing paid for and run by schools outside department control … which sounds like there’s still some flab in the core still to be cut before the schools deserve to be hit.)

For large schools, the cut in next year’s budget would be several hundred thousand pounds. Given that staffing makes up the greatest proportion of school budgets, it classroom assistant posts and some teaching positions are at risk. Some schools will not be replacing retiring senior staff, such as vice principals.

However, given that the reluctance to respond to school requests to be furnished with final firm budgets, it seems likely that the officials are holding out for a better settlement in the New Year.

5. Will big house unionism make a fuss over the cancellation of the north Belfast parading panel?

Back on the 7 October, the Secretary of State published the Terms of Reference for her panel of experts who were meant “to examine parading issues in the Ardoyne / Twaddell area of north Belfast”. The panel were to report by 31 January 2015. No panel was ever appointed, and it was alleged that many people approached to chair or serve on the panel refused. While the announcement of the “Twaddell panel” made it to the NIO website, the statement announcing the cancellation of the unappointed panel was not so publicly archived!

The aim of the panel was mediation and dialogue, but effective mediation cannot take place without meaningful engagement from both sides. It has become apparent that there is insufficient support for the proposed panel among some of those most closely involved in the dispute. This is reflected, to varying degrees, on both sides of the community. We have therefore decided, on balance, not to go ahead with setting up the panel. [via BBC]

The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland described Theresa Villiers of showing “contempt” and “will be meeting with unionist political representatives [after Christmas] to discuss the seriousness of the situation, created by a weak Secretary of State”. The Unionist Coalition (with its graduated response) seemed to collapse before Christmas, and the Unionist Forum hasn’t been heard of in public for many months. Will the DUP and UUP have any appetite to go further than verbal sham sparring and put up an actual fight?

North Belfast is pretty safe for Nigel Dodds in the first-past-the-post Westminster election, so unless another party fields a strong and loud candidate, will the parading issues in north Belfast simply roll over to the Parades Commission next summer (assuming parading isn’t devolved any sooner than the next parliament)?

6. Do political parties really want to address economic deprivation in Northern Ireland?

The Shadow Secretary of State’s Heenan-Anderson Commission has less trouble recruiting members and is examining the causes of the current levels of economic marginalization and deprivation in Northern Ireland. (Submissions close on 31 January.)

When the panel’s ideas on interventions to improve outcomes are collated together and printed in black and white, it’ll be interesting to see the reaction of local business/industry, civic society and political parties. The panel will report by early March so Ivan Lewis can feed proposals into the Labour manifesto … and in time for good ideas to be pinched by other local parties!

7. Do NI21 have the energy for one last night of the long knives?

Douglas Bain is expected to report on the complaints made to him by former staff of NI21, allegations which the party leader denies. The NI Assembly Commissioner for Standards will have to judge which allegations fall within the Code of Conduct’s notion of what “Members say or do in their capacity as an elected Member of the Assembly” and which fall under “their private and family life”. While NI21 has already lost more members than I’ve had hot dinners in 2014, the scope and tone – never mind the conclusions – of Bain’s report will strongly influence who remains active in NI21 … those loyal to NI21’s ideals, or those loyal to the current leader.

Bonus 8. If you see Gary Hart, tell him the sham war on welfare  is over … but we might need him before the end of the year!

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • Bryan Magee

    That should be “Principal” not “Principle”.

  • Jag

    Isn’t the first hot potato, whether or not the DUP will sign up to the Stormont House Agreement? “But they already did!” you say before Christmas.As far as I could tell yesterday on the Nolan Show, the SHA needs to be approved by the DUP membership. The same is probably true for the Shinners but, as their enemies would say, the Shinners won’t brook dissent and the membership will agree to whatever the leadership negotiated.

    Previous form suggests there’s a good chance the DUPers will try to chip away at the agreement. “What, no Twadell panel!” is likely to feature amongst the dissent.

    And whilst the Shinners are likely to sign up to the agreement, there are unanswered questions about the impact of the SHA on welfare recipients, and there’s skepticism that the SFers, who are not known for their financial prowess, haven’t in fact squared the welfare reform/cuts to the most vulnerable circle. Dissent won’t torpedo the Shinners’ approval, but the Devil in the detail may.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Very little resort to statistics here and a lot of Unionist chauvinism. The data from the 2001 and 2011 censuses:


    show a rapid rise of Catholics and fall of Protestants in the North and South Belfast
    constituencies. Given that the census was taken in 2011 and it will presently
    be 2015, we can only assume that this trend has continued.

    It is true that we cannot rely on Catholics being Nationalists, but the only
    exceptions to this rule, in my experience, occur in places like North Down and
    Ballymena, where Catholics are well outnumbered.

    It is equally true that we cannot rely on Nationalists being SF voters, but every election shows a decline in the SDLP vote, except perhaps in core areas like Derry and South Down and Belfast.

    So North and South Belfast are rapidly approaching the status, already occupied by
    West Belfast, of being no-winners for Unionists. Consequently the statement “North Belfast is safe for Nigel Dodds” is a pretty foolish one, in my opinion.

  • Nimn

    I entirely agree with your last point on welfare reform or welfare changes as the phrase now seems to be. The SHA mentioned no detail as to how the NI reform system will work and beyond SF saying that no-one receiving benefits would be worse off under welfare changes in NI, they and the remaining parties are offering no clue as to how this might be done. The much talked about DWP ICT system is struggling to embrace welfare changes without the complicated addition of a NI ‘top up ‘system which NI will be expected to pay for. If that doesn’t happen will we then run some kind of dual system which identifies the ‘losers’ and brings their benefits up to what will be in effect a redundant way of calculating the amounts. At what cost? Also what about those who who are expected to stay the same or perhaps benefit under Universal Credit payments system. What if their personal circumstances change after UC is implemented and a reduction follows? Will they also be brought back to previous levels?
    As you say the Devil is in the detail and as we know our politicians, particularly SF, don’t do detail. It will be left to officials to head scratch their way through to some cobbled together solution.
    Like education ‘reform’ SF style,we could end up with an even worse benefits outcome for people that we have at the minute or that UC/PIP would have imposed.

  • Eyes wide open

    I do recall Nigel Dodds getting hit on the head with a brick. Maybe this was the start of his fall from grace in north Belfast.

  • Zeno1

    Since 1998 and the GFA as the Catholic population has increased the Nationalist vote has fallen by nearly 60,000.

    “It is equally true that we cannot rely on Nationalists being SF voters”

    14.7% of the electorate voted for SF last time in the Assembly Election. In other words around 178,000 from an electorate of over 1.2 million.
    23% of the electorate vote Nationalist, say they are Nationalist in surveys,say they are Irish in the Census and around the same number appear in the Polls.

    So like it or not, around 25% are Nationalist and that’s it.

  • Fixed!

  • Bryan Magee

    “The 2015 Hot Potatoes are the worst crop since 1847.”

    I loved this line. (Took me a moment to work out what you were referring to.)

  • Max

    Here we go again Zeno1 or Comical Ali as you should be known, a complete authority on election stats where you set the parameters and only look at half the story. So the Nationalist electorate fell by 60,000? Prey tell us how much the Unionist vote fell by and what election results your looking at?

    God forbid we look at actual facts. You know, you will get arthritis clutching that hard to the NILTS.

    The last Two Westminster Elections were as follows (Excluding APNI and Others)

    2010 Westminster (Total Votes Cast – 673,871)
    Total Unionist Bloc Vote was 296.877 (44%)
    Total Nationalist Bloc Vote was 286,454 (43%)

    2005 Westminster (Total Votes Cast – 717,602)
    Total Unionist Bloc Vote was 371,988 (52%)
    Total Nationalist Bloc Vote was 301,825 (42%)

    Unionist Bloc Vote dropped by 75,111
    Nationalist Bloc vote dropped by 15,371

    The Last Two Assembly Elections (Excluding APNI and Others)

    2011 NI Assembly Elections (Total Votes Cast 661,753 of an electorate of 1,213,136, 54.5% Turnout)

    Total Unionist Bloc Vote was 309,344 (25%)
    Total Nationalist Bloc Vote was 273,665 (23%)

    2007 NI Assembly Elections (Total Votes Cast 690,313)
    Total Unionist Bloc Vote was 334,241 (48%)
    Total Nationalist Bloc Vote was 307,501 (45%)
    Total Others 7 Parties unclear and agnostics 48,571

    “So like it or not only 25% are UNIONIST and that’s it”

  • Paddy Reilly

    14.7% of the electorate voted for SF last time in the Assembly Election.

    Ah, Zeno’s familiar distortion. The only reason that you can get the SF vote down to 14.7% is that you are counting the non-voters as apparently having registered their disdain for SF.

    Non-voters can be dead, or double registered, or moved away, or just not able to vote. Their non-voting is definitely not a promise that they will not, at any future time, vote for SF: should they at some future time manage to present themselves at the urns, the null hypothesis is that they will vote in exactly the same way as the existing voters.

  • Ernekid

    Interesting stats, although with the decline of religious affliation and the growth of secularism, How much can we read into Catholic and protestant demographics and the impact of politics?

  • Bryan Magee

    Indeed. That chart, and quite a lot of other NI official stats, actually *omit* people who are not of either faith. This is especially troubling because the people of neither faith are growing quite a lot and vary a lot across constituencies, and because there is not a good reason to leave them off.

    The Fair Employment reports are particularly bad offenders on this score. They are completely reluctant even to mention the missing third group in their stats (as with the table above).

  • D99

    Is it not more fair to say that most of the 50% of non-voters have registered their disdain or indifference with regard to all political parties here?

    Of course they might change their mind and vote in the future for one of the current parties, but you certainly can predict how they might vote on the basis of how existing voters cast their ballots.

    Indeed, isn’t it more likely that because they currently choose not to vote, they will only decide to do so if, or when, they have a new choice on offer that they feel might better represent them?

  • Ernekid

    Good point Bryan. I’m an atheist and a Nationalist, does that make me a statistical quirk?

    The faith question on the census is flawed because it is a leading question that doesn’t account for levels of religious observance. Religion is a tribal issue here so many people might tick being Catholic or Protestant but haven’t been to a church in years. The census should be structured as

    Are you religious?

    If you answered Yes to the above question which denomination do you regard yourself as?

  • Bryan Magee

    Indeed. Though they do something similar, in that they ask people what religion they were “bought up” as and use that. Though a lot of people were not brought up religious especially in some constituencies more than others. So you still get a lot of “others”.

    Personally I would like them to present three groups: Catholic by religion, Protestant by religion, and “other”. That shouldn’t actually be too difficult to do.

    What is extraordinary is the *name* that the people who write the Fair Employment reports use for people in the third group (“other”, like you perhaps?): they call them “nondetermined”.

    They actually throw away the figures on “nondetermined” so that catholic and protestant always add to 100%.

    “Nondetermined” eh? It’s as though they didn’t manage to work out their true type – a kind of “error” in the data.

  • Paddy Reilly

    No. Part of one’s reasoning in not voting, is that sufficient persons of the right inclination will do so, so that the effort is not worth it.

    A SF voter in West Belfast or DUP voter in Strangford knows that if he does not make it to the polls, he will not wake up the next day and find that SF have lost W.Belfast, or the DUP Strangford.

    Alternatively, a SF voter in Strangford and DUP one in West Belfast knows that, in Westminster Elections, his voting is wasted effort come what may, and so can be forgiven for not making the effort.

    It would need a province wide vote on a matter of great importance (like the GFA) to get the whole electorate out.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Nevertheless, the chart produced is very useful in determining which constituencies will vote which way in Westminster Elections.

    2% of Muslims and 4% of Atheists will not alter the outcome of a FTTP election.

    As you can see from the chart, Catholic majority constituencies vote for Nationalist MPs, and Protestant majority ones for Unionist MPs, with the exception of East Belfast, which votes Alliance.

  • Bryan Magee

    Except that the percentages of “other” are actually quite high in many constituencies, and quite low in others, and the change over time is systematically different in different constituencies, so just leaving off people in the “other” group systematically skews the picture. Better to put up all three groups.

  • Bryan Magee

    If there is no systematic difference between voters and non voters why do they differ in whether they vote?

  • Paddy Reilly

    As both a voter and non-voter myself, I can tell you that I vote when I think it’s important and my vote makes a difference, and I don’t vote when I have moved house too recently, or I live in a constituency which is solidly of one sort, or it’s a local government election.

    But equally, if I were to die, it might be a year before my name was taken off the electorate; I was placed on the electorate before my 18th birthday in anticipation of such and did not vote before I was legally able; and for much of my life I have been registered in more than one constituency, having more than one residence.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Other is highest I think in North Down. No change expected here.

  • D99

    It would be very interesting to know why people don’t vote. Maybe the question should be asked here.

    Part of the reason may be a kind of ‘laziness’ as you suggest; but I still reckon that many are disillusioned, disinterested or distainful of the choice currently available.

    I take your point that it’s highly likely that there will be a bigger turnout on “matters of great importance” like the GFA or like Scottish Independence vote. But you still can’t predict how the majority of usual non-voters will vote on the basis of how the usual voters cast their ballot.

  • Zeno1

    “Ah, Zeno’s familiar distortion. The only reason that you can get the SF vote down to 14.7% is that you are counting the non-voters”

    No Paddy I’m just counting the voters and ignoring the non voters.

  • Zeno1

    The bottom line is Sinn Fein could only get 178,000 votes at the last Assembly election (down about 1500 from the previous).
    The SDLP vote is in terminal decline.
    The electorate is over 1.2 MILLION.

  • Zeno1

    “Here we go again Zeno1 or Comical Ali as you should be known,”

    Is name calling allowed now? I never do it. It’s a sign of weakness and lack of self control.

  • Zeno1

    The concise version of that question is… What Tribe do you come from? They fail to recognise that more and more people have grown up and no longer do the tribe stuff. It’s soo 1980’s.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Well SF got 25.5% of the 1st preference vote at the last recorded election (Euros) so you are being very selective about your figures.

  • Paddy Reilly

    I see. Nevertheless there are elections and about 92% of the electorate vote for Unionist or Nationalist parties. I do not come from a tribe: I am not African. But I have firm views on the usefulness (not) of partition.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Others can be divided into three broadly equal parts, one third Nationalist others, one third Unionist others, one third abstaining others. So when one is dealing with the constitutional question, others have no effect.

  • Zeno1

    I see. Nevertheless there are elections and about 92% of the electorate vote for Unionist or Nationalist parties

    No Paddy, the electorate is over 1.2 million ,just over half of them bother voting. You don’t have to be from Africa to belong to a Tribe.

    Word Origin and History for tribalExpand

    adj.1630s, “pertaining to tribes,” from tribe + -al (1). Related: Tribally Meaning”characterized by a strong sense of loyalty to one’s group”

  • Paddy Reilly

    Here again you are counting the non-voters. The non-voters do not vote because they are dead, in comas, double registered and a variety of reasons. They have not delegated you to speak on their behalf.

  • Zeno1

    Paddy, Happy New Year, But to be fair to you, SF have the support of 178,00 odds from 1.2 million potential voters,
    People under 25 don’t give a fk about that shite and they are the future,,,,,,,, jeez Catholics and Protestants is history, it has moved on. The working classes in West Belfast and East Belfast will take a while to catch on,,,,,,,,,,,, but they will when they become more educated.

  • Zeno1

    Really ? Did no one explain it to them?

  • tmitch57

    Abstainers and others are not necessarily the same group. Probably the majority of Alliance voters fall into the other category. And many abstainers consider themselves to be either Catholics or Protestants, nationalists or unionists.

  • Max

    Hardly name calling, it’s a very accurate comparison. Your propaganda flies in the face of actual real evidence to the contrary. Your measurements seems only capable of measuring anything negative as long as its ‘themuns’, yet completely ignoring that other side of the argument.

    “Comical Ali – He is best known for his grandiose and grossly unrealistic propaganda broadcasts before and during the war, extolling the invincibility of the Iraqi Army and the permanence of Saddam’s rule. His announcements were intended for an Iraqi domestic audience subject to Saddam’s cult of personality and total state censorship, and were met with widespread derision and amusement by Western nationals and others with access to up-to-date information from international media organizations….”

    Spot the similarity!
    The bottom line is THE DUP could only get 198,436 votes at the last Assembly election (down 9,285 from the previous). The UUP vote is in terminal decline, down 15,614 since last Assembly elections. The electorate is over 1.2 MILLION.

    Can you please explain to everyone here why Sinn Fein’s minor drop of 2,349 votes is more significant in your mind than the 9,285 drop of DUP and 15,614 drop of UUP ?

    Also you still have not explained your 60,000 drop for Nationalist votes!

  • Zeno1

    “Can you please explain to everyone here why Sinn Fein’s minor drop of 2,349 votes is more significant in your mind than the 9,285 drop of DUP and 15,614 drop of UUP ?”

    The drop in SF’s vote is highly significant for a party supposedly flying high in polls and elections. It could mean the growth has stopped in the North.
    The reason I post that SF only got 178,000 votes is to inject a bit of reality into the depth of their support. Less than 15% of the electorate vote for them. The reason I don’t mention any of the others is because they are obviously all in decline and no one is claiming otherwise.
    The 60,000 is the difference between the numbers who voted for Nationalist Parties in 1998 when the GFA was signed and the numbers who vote for Nationalist Parties now in the same elections.

  • Jag

    UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt on Nolan Show this morning (some doppelganger in the seat today), claiming the SHA was just “heads of agreement”, it’s a “declaration of intent” which requires legislation (“devil in the detail”) and Mikey couldn’t yet recommend it to his party.

    “Nobody has thrown their hand up to throw this out” says Mikey, but the chipping away has started. And separately, the DUPers have yet to give it the thumbs up, And despite the SF Ard Comhairle predictably ratifying it, when the detail on welfare cuts/reform become transparent, I think there’ll be problems in that camp as well, I just can’t see how that circle has been squared.