Archive for the ‘Northern Ireland’ Category

How detached from reality are the Northern Ireland politicians?

Peter Robinson wrote an interesting summary of the situation with politics in Northern Ireland last week.

For those that don’t know, the government in Northern Ireland is a mandatory coalition that requires agreement on major issues. That agreement is proving to be impossible to get in the very central area of welfare reform which poses particular difficulties as Peter pointed out.

Welfare is a major proportion of the overall Stormont budget so any adjustments required to the welfare budget tend to involve large sums of money. Historically Northern Ireland has mirrored any changes in the welfare system on the mainland and the problem now is that they’re moving to universal credit and putting a cap on the benefits that a family can receive but Sein Fein don’t agree with that as they say that it imposes cuts on vulnerable sections of society. To an extent, they are correct if you take the assumption that people living on benefits are by definition vulnerable. However, to pay people what is in some cases considerably more than the same family could gain through working seems fundamentally wrong. Also worth noting is that average salaries in NI are lower than in the rest of the UK so it can pay people not to work.

In that the rest of the UK are cutting benefit payments, they are reducing the amount paid to NI by the amount that they estimate that welfare reform would save. As noted above, these are big numbers and without welfare reform these reductions are having knock-on effects in the public services provided by other areas of government in NI so, for instance, the reduction in payments to the Department of Regional Development means that they can’t afford to maintain all the street lights anymore.

However, a bigger problem is that the computer system which makes the payments is in England and supported by IT staff in England and both are in the process of being wound down as those benefits transfer to universal credit. In principle, the NI government could take over both but the money required to do that is quite staggering: Peter had been quoted £200-£300 million pounds per year to maintain them. They’re also quite old systems and he’s been quoted £1.6 billion to replace them. That’s a lot more than the NI based systems which preceeded them cost but going back to those systems isn’t a runner as the teams which supported them have long since dispersed. To give an idea of how different the scale is, the model of computer which ran all systems in the NI civil service just before they were moved to England was the same model as was used in England just to control the printers. Hence, natually, the IT teams were somewhat larger eg a typical benefit support team in NI was three people compared to 30 in England supporting their version of the system.

Finally, there’s the time issue. A decision to change to universal credit or to take over running the old systems needs to be made quite soon or those benefits affected will simply stop being paid and the deadline for that decision isn’t far off.

So what will they do? They can’t continue to not make a decision for sure but there doesn’t seem to be any clear way out of the impasse. Peter’s suggestion that they hand back welfare to Westminster is going to meet strong opposition from a range of parties. Westminster taking it back either voluntarily or compulsorily may not be easy to do either and also has a deadline as staff need trained and systems updated not to mention the reintegration of NI welfare.

What’s clear is that they need to make a decision and soon.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

So what will happen if Northern Ireland doesn’t accept welfare reform?

The social security system has been, up to now, fairly standard UK-wide. It wasn’t that the system was exactly the same as historically there have been different sets of laws in the mainland and in Northern Ireland. However, the laws were arranged so that the amounts paid in the various benefits were the same even when there were different computer systems making those payments.

The operational aspects of that changed about 20 years ago when the computer systems were amalgamated so that, for example, the computer system which calculates and pays your retirement pension in Belfast is exactly the same one that calculates and pays it in Birmingham. Prior to that there was a system in Northern Ireland which paid the pensions in Northern Ireland and a different system on the mainland. However, the amount calculated to be paid was the same thus the changeover was seamless.

Historically, changes in social security payments in England were always reflected in corresponding changes in payments made in Northern Ireland. This time around though the policitians in Northern Ireland haven’t, yet, reached agreement to make the necessary changes which in turn means that Northern Ireland has been subject to penalty payments corresponding, roughly, to the amount that would have been saved if they’d made those changes. Those penalty charges are starting to mount up and we’re now starting to see the start of the effects of such penalties being imposed.

First off, it’s worth noting that the budget for the social security department is usually the highest of all the departments so penalties imposed on it that need to be spread amongst the other departments hit the other departments quite hard. Secondly, the Northern Ireland executive have resolved that neither education nor health will have cuts imposed which leaves fewer departments to shoulder the cost and that cost will be quite substantial.

This week, we’ve already seen the announcement that DRD won’t have enough cash to repair all the street lights and that DOJ will be suffering a similar major cut. They are only the first to make their announcements and similar cuts will be happening in public services over the coming year if agreement on welfare reform doesn’t happen. Of course, without agreement, it’s not just this year but every year to come that will have cuts. They’ll be increasing in scale too: it wouldn’t just be “tens of thousands” of street lights that would go out this year, but rather that a similar additional number would go out each and every year thereafter.

What’s also a looming problem is that the ability to pay the benefits affected will gradually dwindle as time goes on. Despite what some of the politicians think, the computers currently making the payments will be switched off in due course or rather the ability to support them will be. In fact, the ability to support them is already diminishing as the support teams are being transferred to other duties. For a change there really is a firm end date for them to work to and unmissable deadlines are approaching very quickly indeed. Even basic training for those in the benefits offices takes time and, without agreement, that won’t be done. Changing over to the new system is something that will take time to do and the time available to do that changeover is running out.

How’s it going to look if some key deadline passes and it isn’t possible to changeover in time? How are they planning on explaining to the thousands of recipients of the affected benefits that it’s no longer possible to pay them?


Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

The Somme parade

Every year in Northern Ireland, there’s a Somme commemoration parade on the evening of the first of July.

It’s not such a major production as the parades on the 12th and, since it’s not on a public holiday, it has to be in the evening. Net effect of all that is that it’s a simple round-trip parade with none of the speeches that you get on the 12th day in the “field” and because of that it’s quite a bit shorter. That said, every year it seems to throw a number of people who aren’t expecting roads to be closed along the route with the loop format tending to strand a number of cars in the middle for 20-30 minutes.

In Belfast, the parade starts and finishes around Templemore Avenue, moving along Beersbridge Road, turning up the Bloomfield Road (with the road-works stopped for the day for the second year in a row), then on the North Road, taking a diversion along Kirkliston before heading down the Newtownards Road to the starting point.Since it’s a Somme commemoration, a number of those in the bands or lodges taking part dress in period costume.

The one earlier in the week was surprisingly short. In years gone by, it’s run for over an hour but it seemed to be more like 40 minutes this time around. That wasn’t particularly due to there being fewer bands or lodges but that they seemed much more organised this year and there were none of the regular stops due to other bands or lodges grinding to a halt. It was also a relatively late start and it was starting to get dark towards the half-way mark.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

The Spring continental market in Belfast

Having a continental market in the grounds of Belfast city hall is a tradition started a number of years ago to liven up the city.

It’s expanded over the years and the original Christmas market has been joined by a similar production in the Spring and, I think, there’s another one or two variants at different times during the year. I say “I think” because the city hall grounds have developed over the years to the point where they host a considerable number of events of various types almost right throughout the year.

The Spring market is quite similar to the Christmas one, being mainly a varied collection of food stalls from various (not just European) spots around the world. Thus, not only do you get the various French style fast food outlets with their crepes, croque monsieurs, and the like but there’s alsor representation from Germany, Poland and even Lebanon plus I’m sure a number that I didn’t identify.

Mixed in with the food stalls are a number of rather expensive sweet outlets and an eclectic mix of gift stalls selling everything from native American wares through to several that sell handmade woodwork productions.

Anyway, it’s open from Thursday the 15th of May through to 6pm Monday the 19th of May this year.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

End of an era in Killinchy

My grandparents on Mum’s side were from the Killinchy area originally. Although they moved to Belfast in the 1920s, they still rented a cottage just outside Balloo village, moving once or twice and by the time I was born they were in a cute little thatched cottage on the top of the first hill out of the village.

We spent from two to four months a year from the 1960s through to the early 1980s and it always felt like home. Each summer, we’d basically up sticks and move to the country. Gone was the electricity, gone was the mains water in the kitchen and gone was the indoor loo! Still, it was nice and I managed to get through an awful lot of reading there over the years.

In 1969, we paved the front and as part of that Dad put a little square of plain cement so that I could put a handprint, footprint and some details for posterity, all of which were still readable up to a year or two back. But no more, as we found out when we called by last week as a big weed has grown through the little square. The flush toilet arrived in 1974 and comes with a fetching string vest pattern all around the septic tank courtesy of the vest my Dad was wearing that day. The thatch became increasingly difficult to maintain as the thatchers are dying out and it was replaced with a corregated iron roof sometime in the 1990s I think.

It’s seen better days for sure but is doing pretty well for a cottage that was built over 150 years ago.

However, the flush toilet has now gone as the garden has been bulldozed for the construction of a new bungalow.

The cottage is still there for now, but probably not for a whole lot longer.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.