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!

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