It’s official: The planning system in Northern Ireland is broken (in so many ways)

Prehen Ancient Woodland

You would think that in a small place like Northern Ireland prioritising the environment would be a critical government concern, but seemingly it is the opposite.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) review of planning in Northern Ireland published this month is damning, to say the very least. The PAC was “alarmed” and “appalled” by the planning system. It is failing in its role to protect the environment, be an economic driver or deliver places that people want to live and work in.

The review vindicates the views and experiences of all the campaigners who have raised problems with the system over the years. The report notes that the planning system in Northern Ireland is not working, suffering from entrenched problems.

Like my father-in-law George McLaughlin, some have been trying to get these issues recognised for decades, particularly in relation to the Prehen Ancient Woodland. Finally, some acknowledgement.

Some specific findings include:

  • the planning system lacks transparency and public trust; the PAC was “alarmed by the volume of concerns around transparency”
  • the PAC was “appalled by the performance statistics”
  • there is a lack of accountability for poor performance; the PAC was “alarmed by the Department’s misunderstanding of accountability”
  • the planning system is one of the worst examples of silo-working within the public sector
  • the Department’s leadership of the planning system has been weak
  • members of the public feel excluded and often believe they have no choice but to launch legal proceedings
  • the planning committees appear “to take an interest” in particular developments; the PAC was “alarmed to hear that lobbying is happening, even though it shouldn’t be”.

The PAC recommends that a Commission is established to undertake a fundamental review to ascertain the long-term and strategic changes that are needed to make the system fit for purpose.

Let’s hope this Commission is established, and proper planning can be put in place that protects the environment. The current dysfunctional bureaucracy with its unaccountable and untransparent governance that routinely supports destructive (lobbied-for) development must go.

Well done the 60-strong group, the Gathering, who have shone a light on this failed system.

Just A Dog

Let me be clear that I dont equate the lives of people and animals.

It makes me feel guilty that in the western world, we treat our pets better than we treat Humans in the Third World. And it disgusts me to see photographs of pampered dogs wearing jewelry in Beverley Hills.
But nevertheless many of you reading this will have pets. You might as a cat person be sitting there with Daisy between you and your lap top or you might as a dog person just be home from taking Rover for a walk.

And again I emphasise they are not human…not even close…but we grow attached.

We usually have cats.

It wasnt easy taking Alf on his last trip to the vet. Made harder by the vets callousness. But Alf was cremated and “sleeps” on our hearth.

It wasnt easy when Buffy went missing in action, probably to a predator that was flying about for days.
Keano will be 19 in the summer and is still going.

We have all been changed by the last few weeks. Family life totally disrupted up to the point that we cant even say goodbye to loved ones or even attend their funerals.

But Family Life is not just made up of Births, Marriages and Deaths. Thats just the headline events…hatching, matching and despatching.

Mostly it is routine, interupted by good stuff like a grandson being under 14 player of the year. Or bad stuff, the loss of a pet.

Our second son is a dog lover and a few years ago made the trip to the vet with Apollo.

Our granddaughter (7) was crying her eyes out when Simba (her kitten) went AOL for 24 hours. Happily he came back.

And this morning our first son (in 12 week lockdown with his family). Smokey their labrador has been in decline for over a year. My daughter in law got some medication from their vet this morning. And he didnt expect it to work. And it didnt work.

So before 10am, my son phoned me to say that the vet would be making a house call to see Smokey for the last time. We did not get the chance to see him one last time.

I will miss big lovable Smokey. In between houses, Smokey lived here and Keano and Smokey ignored each other happily.

But CoronaVirus intrudes on everything.

Smokey could not get up. Could not move at all.

So my son and grandsons put him on a blanket and brought him out to the back garden. The vet could not come inside the house. And he put Smokey “to sleep”

Again I emphasise that animals are not human.

The humanity is within us, caring for a creature and sharing fun and sharing (a degree of grief).

And around 1.30pm, the Family Whats Up group had a text “Smokey is playing with A****” (our other granddaughter).

A lot of people will get worse news today…a man, a woman, a child……or “an elderly person with underlying medical conditions”…that grotesque phrase that we now live with.

We are now in a world where grief is a community thing. Global even.

That should never be the case.

Grief should not be a daily event. A news story.

We need it to get it back to being personal…a family thing.

Like it was for us today.

But Smokey was…just a dog.

The DUP made little difference to the withdrawal agreement. And now they are only 10 among May’s many critics

The DUP have already started to polish up their narrative of victimhood.  Ian Paisley jr has been recalling his Dad’s roars of “Never, Never, Never,” at Thatcher’s betrayal of unionism in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The Brits have done it again! The Shinners were right all along.

“Back then we were on the edge of the union, there were major atrocities ongoing and all of that was feeding into the mood. We also didn’t have the political engagement we have had over the last 15 years, the IRA were the IRA then, things were black and white, with the emergence of Sinn Féin that changed things in terms of political engagement.

“However, I do think in terms of relations with the Republic of Ireland we are in similar territory, largely because Leo Varadkar has changed the dynamic, he has ostracised and angered unionists to a similar level.

“Enda Kenny forged positive relationships, Leo and (Simon) Coveney (Tánaiste) on the other hand have managed to create angst, and that wasn’t and hasn’t been the case for many years.

“That makes it similar politically, in that Dublin is acting as the enemy instead of a passive neighbour, but we must always remember this is a political crisis not a security one which is what we had back then.

But glee at the DUPs discomfiture should be resisted. Paisley jr had the grace to acknowledge differences.

The DUP didn’t ask to hold the balance of power; and when they did, the script was already mainly written. Their exposed position encouraged  a false sense of security. But behind the veneer of confidence, they had their suspicions from the moment Arlene Foster hauled Mrs May out of a lunch with Commission president Juncker to approve the first draft of what became the backstop and required her to insert “no border in the Irish Sea.”

Undoubtedly, the DUP won tactical victories. Would the insistence of no border in the Irish Sea have been quite so effusive without them?

Today they appear to have strength in numbers among the unholy alliance that is the massed ranks of May’s critics. But those very numbers mean that their edge has lost its sharpness. Who can identify the real assassin if so many are willing to plunge in the dagger?

In the marathon three hour battering Theresa May took in the Commons today, the DUP spoke more in sorrow than in anger – nothing like their old lord and master. The exchanges show how the prime minister and the DUP have been talking past each other. They spoke as if they knew that by their own standards they‘d failed and half expected to.

Sammy Wilson DUP

The Northern Ireland protocols make it clear that Northern Ireland will stay under EU single market law and will also be economically separated from the rest of the United Kingdom. Articles 7, 9 and 12 show that, even if the EU allows the UK to leave the single market, Northern Ireland will remain under single market arrangements, and any border down the Irish sea will be subject to the willingness of the EU to allow that to be avoided. How can the Prime Minister give us an assurance that Northern Ireland will not be constitutionally separated from the United Kingdom and economically separated from GB? Or is this not a case of Northern Ireland being put on a platter and abject surrender to the EU?

The Prime Minister

No, that is not the case. Throughout this discussion and these negotiations, the interests of Northern Ireland have been one of the key issues that we have put at the forefront of our mind, because of the particular geographical circumstances of Northern Ireland and its land border with Ireland. Northern Ireland will leave the single market with the whole of the United Kingdsom. There will be specific regulatory alignment, which I recognise is uncomfortable. It will be in that portion of the single market acquis that relates to matters that ensure that a frictionless border can take place between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are already some regulatory differences between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There is a question in the future, which I know has raised a concern, as to whether there will be regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in relation to that issue—because we are talking about a temporary period—of no regulatory divergence. The checks and controls actually relate to the degree of regulatory divergence, so if there is no regulatory divergence, obviously, that has an impact on reducing the necessity for any checks and controls. Crucially, the EU wanted to say that it would determine whether a good that was produced in Birmingham could be sold in Belfast. We were very clear that the EU could not determine that in the future. It will be the UK Government who make those determinations.

Hard to follow, isn’t it? This is the kind of nuance the DUP refuse to take in. She’s saying the less the regulation the harder the border, adding that there will be no disruption to trade in either direction across the Irish Sea. Is this really the slippery slope to Dublin rule? Should we not wait and see and complain if need be to the new oversight body?

If the DUP had never existed the  draft withdrawal agreement  would have been much the same. In truth whatever outcome is finally reached, there will always be pressure to avoid a physical  border  between the UK’s only land frontier and the EU.  And it is a basic error to assume the pressure comes only from the south.

Now they are looking a No Deal in the face that would guarantee new barriers no one wants by next March and risk serious damage to the whole island.

Apart from no Brexit, the practical alternative is to make the common customs area and regulatory alignment within the island a success and revive the moribund relationships of the Good Friday Agreement. If the DUP refuse the opportunity, the two governments should fulfil the pledges in the Withdrawal Agreement and do so themselves.

What do the DUP hope to rescue out of the present mess? We can hear a note of caution in their condemnation of the prime minister.  But the argument that a hard Brexit need not mean a hard border was lost a long time ago. Do they really believe they can muster the ranks for one last heave under her or  another Tory leader?

There will be mixed feelings at Westminster if the confidence and supply pact really does come to an end.  When it was concluded, many rank and file Conservatives felt a certain fastidious distaste  at the idea of dependence on what they regarded as reactionary “backwoodsmen” in the old term of  1912, whose idea of the Union was very different from theirs. Although  usually personally courteous, the DUP were never thought of as ” one of us.” I remember  being invited to an end of session DUP party for lobby journalists to find myself the only person present. These are Tea Party unionists who had no chance of dictating  events.

The essential difference between the cause and its advocates  was only  emphasised by their outright opposition to abortion and same sex marriage when an ad hoc cross party coalition of women MPs  rode to the rescue  to recognise a distinction between the  people of Northern Ireland and its representatives, a distinction which of course  includes the absent Sinn Fein.  Pact or no pact, that distinction has been maintained over defending the “precious Union.”  In this arena Northern Ireland has  been treated generously in spite of, rather than because of, the people they elect.

It’s a fallacy to suppose that there’s no such thing as gratitude in politics. When the dust has settled, the majority in the Commons that eventually emerges may ask themselves – why were the DUP  so ungrateful  when we’d gone through the contortions of an all- UK barebones customs arrangement whether it survives or not, in order to protect Northern Ireland’s position  in the Union? Not entirely fair and not the whole story. But a little acknowledgment and graciousness would go a long way.