Friday, April 23, 2010


The week after Easter was a bit frantic for me, as I prepared for both a conference in York and a student field trip to Barcelona. The plan was to go to the conference on Tuesday 13th and come home two days later; on Friday, I would go to the office to deal with any last-minute field trip problems before setting off to Barcelona on Sunday. But strangely enough, my risk analysis didn’t take into account an Icelandic volcano called Eyjafjallajökull.

When I first heard about the eruption, I wasn’t too concerned. After all, how bad could it get? My flight was rescheduled for Friday evening, I’d be able to stay for the rest of the conference; I’d have to go into the office on Saturday.

Well, you know the rest. Other delegates from Northern Ireland headed for the ferry, but I couldn’t bear the thought of the long journey and, once the field trip was cancelled, I didn’t need to be home for a few days. The university extended my accommodation booking and I spent the weekend shopping, reading and sleeping. By Monday morning I’d had enough.

An enforced break isn’t the same as an eagerly anticipated holiday. I’d planned to be away for two days, and didn’t have my netbook or phone charger, or any flat shoes or jeans. I only had two of the many novels I wanted to read (Hearts and Minds, and Brooklyn, both excellent) – the others were at home. I had no internet access, couldn’t blog, had no TV, and worked out how to get Radio 4 on the clock radio after about two days. It was like being a student in the 1970s again, only this time with an en suite.

Anyway, on Monday morning the Centre for Housing Policy very helpfully gave me a desk and PC for a couple of days. I bought a phone charger, got some work done, had comfortable accommodation and a nearby pub served good food. So it wasn’t exactly purgatory. Finally, on Tuesday, I cracked and booked a Wednesday evening ferry after it looked as if the damn volcano would blow again, but then the CAA guidelines were changed and I managed to get a flight home after all - thanks to Nick, who hung on the phone to flybe for me, what a hero.

There’s lots to think about as a result of the experience. On a personal level, I don’t think I’ll ever go away again without thinking that I might get held up. I’ll always take the netbook. And chargers. And jeans.

But there are wider questions. The episode emphasised just how dependent on flying many of us have become. Although of course we should all consider cutting back on our journeys for the sake of the environment, the consequences of not being able to fly at all would be very serious in Northern Ireland. Our economy would suffer, and so would our quality of life more generally.

I was also struck by how many of the stranded passengers were at conferences. I’ve wondered before if there are alternative way of disseminating information that don’t involve overseas trips but which are just as good. I don’t think video conferencing and Skype are substitutes for the face to face discussion and new contacts made at a good conference. And of course it can be great to be paid to see other parts of the world. But if air travel were to become impossible, those us of working in peripheral areas would be disadvantaged: Northern Ireland’s attempts to build a knowledge economy would be jeopardised.

Finally, the story of the changes to CAA guidelines is a wonderful policy and governance case study involving experts, bureaucrats, politicians, capital, and the public. I hope that one day we’ll get to find out more about what actually happened.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Vote for Ciarán McClean in West Tyrone

My old Labour comrade Ciarán McClean is standing as an Independent candidate in West Tyrone. Here is his manifesto:

‘My name is Ciaran McClean. I'm from Sixmilecross and am contesting this election on an independent ticket:

1. To highlight Green/Environmental issues;

2. To give people a non-sectarian option;

3. To demonstrate a new way of doing politics.

I am standing in this election primarily to draw attention to practices in the quarrying industry, taking place in West Tyrone. I wish to shine a spotlight on environmental issues that the sitting MP and other established politicians have ignored for too long, and to offer voters a real option as opposed to Green/Orange choices.

On Pat Doherty's watch various developments in West Tyrone have flourished to the detriment of the environment and of peoples' well-being, e.g. the quarry at Cavanacaw, the quarry in Drumnakilly, the proposed quarry in Mullaslin (which Mr Doherty has supported) and various other dubious developments. Inaction on these fronts needs to be challenged.

I would ask SDLP voters to endorse my campaign this time around as their candidate has been shown to be a weak candidate, given the fact that he was unable to hold his council seat at the last local government elections or indeed his MLA seat at Stormont.

I would ask people, who like me have voted UU in the past, to put the environment first on this occasion as a vote for Ulster Conservative Unionist New Force will not impact upon the status quo. The much publicised arrangement between the Tories and the UU should be reason enough for voters to endorse my campaign for local solutions to local problems.

The two main government parties hope to continue the sectarian carve-up, safe in the knowledge that after votes are counted, they can implement their narrow party political interests, that do nothing for the shared future our community needs.

Both of these parties put themselves and their petty politics before real issues that affect real people.

Neither party is any friend to the environment and they are happy to cosy up with each other after the votes are counted, safe in the knowledge that they can carve up the country in a way that does not reflect the realities on the ground.

Getting an environmental issue onto the ballot demonstrates the real type of politics that West Tyrone urgently needs. From conversations I have had on this campaign, people say they are sick of the circus that takes place at every election time and are crying out for a change to what passes for politics. With choices limited people feel they are being corralled into the sectarian trenches that represent old style politics in Northern Ireland.

I put myself forward as something completely different from the usual suspects. I am a local person with a young family, who knows the area, works in the area and has an excellent knowledge of the people who live here. I have a strong track record on environmental and community issues.

My vision of politics is based on social justice and honesty for those of us who share this small piece of earth in West Tyrone and indeed the rest of the world.

I ask for a chance to take our community away from a type of politics unsuited to a modern & changing world.

On the 6th of May vote Ciaran McClean, Independent, for a better environment, in every sense of the word’.

Please sign up for Ciarán’s Facebook group and consider whether you could give up some time to help him with his campaign. Ciarán may be contacted at

Friday, April 2, 2010

Parliamentary politics and the general election in Northern Ireland

As we wait for the general election announcement, debate is intensifying in Northern Ireland about our electoral options. Attention is focused on the claims from the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (UCUNF):

By standing jointly as Conservatives and Unionists we will be the only party in Northern Ireland at the general election offering people the chance to support and shape truly national politics. We will be giving people here the chance to vote for a party that can actually form the government of the United Kingdom…. Every Conservative and Unionist MP elected in Northern Ireland will take the Conservative Party whip in the House of Commons…. If the Conservatives win the election Conservative and Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland will be able to play a full role in a Conservative Government. That includes being eligible to serve as ministers.

But it’s not that simple. Opinion polls point to a hung Parliament, in which every MP’s vote will count – with the obvious exception of Sinn Féin. And this time around it’s very serious. Labour will cut, but the Tories will cut deeper and in line with their class interests. The reality is that every other party will have to support one or the other on economic policy. There may be some negotiating at the margins, but the battle lines have been drawn.

The other difficult aspect of the general election for voters is that it’s now the only one in NI to use the first past the post system. After ten years of mostly using STV, and having canvassed in the South for a general election under PR, I find it very restrictive to have only one vote and very hard to decide how to make the best of it. So what are the options?

UCUNF: is a partnership, not a merger. UCUNF MPs will take the Tory whip and be eligible for Ministerial positions although that’s unlikely in the short term due to the lack of experience of many of the candidates. The partnership model gives both parties room for manoeuvre in situations where they may be disagreements, for example on social issues, or on measures that would disproportionately affect NI such as changes to the Barnett Formula. A handful of UCUNF MPs is unlikely to have much influence and they are most likely to be used as voting fodder to prop up the Tories’ cuts agenda.

DUP: are a pragmatic, clientilist party, which is why they do so well. They could be very important dealbreakers in a hung Parliament, especially if their vote holds up, and don’t assume it won’t. They will back whichever party’s budget they see as being in the interests of NI.

SDLP: takes the Labour whip, which as a nationalist party they don’t publicise – but should do in this election. It’s interesting that Labour hasn’t chosen to form a closer partnership with the SDLP for this election along UCUNF lines, as there would be more scope for offering ministerial positions to experienced candidates, and it would have been possible to incorporate NI Labour members into such an alliance. As with UCUNF, taking the whip isn’t the same as joining the party, leaving party discipline weaker at a time when Labour will need every vote it can get. I would like to see Labour stand in its own right in NI, but this election is about economics, not territory, so an SDLP vote comes nearest to safeguarding Labour’s budget options.

Sinn Féin: I’m sure SF MPs work very hard at constituency matters, but the next Westminster Parliament is going to be shaped by what happens in the Chamber. The most responsible thing for republicans to do at this time is to make a pragmatic decision to attend (perhaps only for one term), and cross their fingers when they take the Oath, as do English, Scottish and Welsh republicans. The alternative could be that a Tory budget goes through on a few votes because SF aren’t there, and I wonder if their constituents really want that. If SF don’t make that decision – which of course they won’t – they should not get anyone’s vote this time around.

There are some parties that are not in the running under FPTP. It’s sad that Alliance won’t win any seats, because if they did, they would presumably vote with the LibDems, which in a hung parliament would make then part of a powerful voting bloc. The Greens won’t get the necessary votes under this voting system. The PUP is not a serious contender, even in East Belfast, where I suspect the DUP will still win. My own view is that the TUV will be squeezed out through unionist pacts and other forms of tactical voting, but perhaps this is wishful thinking. I sincerely hope not.