Stormont parties lack the courage to do a deal
15 December 2014
Last week, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach walked away from the cross-party talks with what appeared to be disillusionment and disgust. How do they think the rest of us feel?
The Good Friday Agreement established the political institutions that are now at stake as part of the cross-party talks involving the five Executive parties. I turned 18 in 1998 and the referendum was my first ever vote. I voted yes, to peace, devolution and cross-community, cross-party co-operation.
For many years I really believed it was two steps forwards, one step back. In other words, progress was frustratingly slow, but at least there was progress.
Until the flags protests at the end of 2012; or perhaps more accurately, until the DUP lost their Westminster seat in east Belfast to Alliance. The irony being that the success of a cross-community party has arguably done more to destabilise the political institutions of Northern Ireland than any other event since 2007.
It would appear that progress in Northern Ireland was conditional; forward steps could be taken as long as the DUP and Sinn Fein did not have to pay an electoral price in the same way the UUP and the SDLP had post-GFA.
And this is where I get as frustrated as any other citizen shouting at the TV. All sight seems to have been lost of the common good of the people of Northern Ireland. The question should not be “Is this what we wanted, is this a deal that will increase our vote”? Instead the question must be “Is this deal better for all the people of Northern Ireland than no deal?”
A deal based on compromise, give and take, something for everyone and everything for no one, may mean parties having to face a backlash from their core vote. But the alternative is further disillusionment, despair and distrust. Parties may protect their vote but in turn they (further) damage the legitimacy of politics in Northern Ireland.
And if the potential backlash really is too much to bear – give the people the responsibility back. Give them the power back. Publish your best compromise and put it to a vote. Let us all decide if the compromises are worth making – share the power and the responsibility.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/stormont-parties-lack-the-courage-to-do-a-deal-30834970.html
Wind farm shock: Important project had the potential to create thousands of local jobs
02 December 2014
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment must shoulder some of the responsibility for the collapse of a huge renewable energy project off the coast of Co Down.
I was shocked and disappointed to hear First Flight Consortium is ceasing its development of an offshore wind farm. I blame a failure of government for the collapse of this important project.
I intend to raise this issue with Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster at the earliest opportunity. DETI have not persuaded the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to be flexible regarding how renewable incentives will progress in Northern Ireland.
The failure to anticipate the knock-on effect of this heel-dragging has rendered this project no longer viable.
Millions of pounds have already been invested in this project and it had the potential to create and sustain thousands of local jobs. It is disappointing we are lagging so far behind GB in the arena of renewable energy. This lack of momentum is now having serious effects on the ground with the loss of important projects as these.
Large-scale renewable energy products have been left in a state of limbo and uncertainty and this makes it impossible for them to remain confident in terms of financial investment.
This is a huge blow to the renewable energy industry as the scale of this project meant it could have supplied a fifth of Northern Ireland’s energy requirements by 2020.
It would have been one of Northern Ireland’s largest infrastructure projects and it would have provided jobs and also helped us hit the target of 40 per cent of electricity coming from renewable sources by 2020.
It is frustrating to hear political leaders cheerleading for a cut in corporation tax to persuade multinational firms to come to Northern Ireland, while failing to protect the viable projects we actually have here now.
There is too much focus on chasing a mythical pot of gold while ignoring the resources we actually have here.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/wind-farm-shock-important-project-had-the-potential-to-create-thousands-of-local-jobs-30789877.html
‘Shared’ education isn’t the same as integrated and could move us in less helpful direction
27 November 2014
After several years of wrangling, and two previous failed attempts, Stormont has finally passed an Education Bill that, with some reservations, I welcome. On the plus side, it could be a step in the right direction; it is particularly good to see that the integrated sector is at last to be represented on the strategic body.
But ‘shared’ education – the model we have opted for – is not the same as integrated, and could, if we are not careful, move us in another, less helpful direction.
Think about the overall power structure set out in the Bill, and ask yourself if it does not sound uncannily familiar. The two larger sectors (let us say ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ schools, for short) have the largest say. Each remains at liberty to shore up its own position. And those interested in pressing for a genuinely integrated education system are given the distinct signal that their views somehow count for less.
Those of us in Stormont, unfortunately, have to put up with this sort of institutionalised stalemate, but let’s not take it out on the children too!
Ending educational segregation would go a long way towards building a new kind of community in Northern Ireland: yet we appear to have decided to maintain the segregated system for at least another generation. This seems to me to indicate that true and genuine integration is still not at the heart of government policy, and that too many still cling to the notion that we should have two communities, not one. If we’re going to teach our children division, let’s keep it to maths class.
All too often the very structure of our schools teaches social division, and this could be entrenched under the shared system.
Genuinely integrated education, on the other hand, is actively inclusive, not divisive. It’s about children growing up together, in all their rich variety, without being regimented into two main ‘sorts’ – with an extra, vaguely defined category for exotic ‘minorities’.
An integrated system would allow our children to encounter those from other backgrounds, and show them this need not be seen as a threat to their own identity. Encounter others as classmates early enough and there’s less room for negative stereotypes to grow.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/shared-education-isnt-the-same-as-integrated-and-could-move-us-in-less-helpful-direction-30777487.html
I declared I ‘aspired to be a feminist’…I look forward to the day when I can do what David Cameron didn’t
4th November 2014
When David Cameron refused to be photographed in a Fawcett Society t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’, it sparked a bit of a dispute.
Did he refuse because he does not believe feminism is worth supporting? Did he not consider himself feminist enough to be worthy of the garment? Or did he simply make the calculation that it would do him more harm than good? To many Conservatives (and indeed conservatives with a small ‘c’) feminism appears to be something of an ‘f’ word, with some suggesting it is outdated and unnecessary.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The World Economic Forum released their Global Gender Gap Report for 2014 on October, 28. It shows that, if on some measures the world has made progress on gender equality over the last few years, it is equally clear that there are still huge disparities between women and men, all across the globe, including in many of the more prosperous countries.
The Assembly released a research paper in June entitled ‘Who Runs Northern Ireland?’ – showing, among other things, that over two-thirds of mayors in Northern Ireland are men; that four-fifths of our MPs are men; and that three-quarters of our councillors are men. The statistics show that, for whatever reason, though women make up just over half the adult population, they make up a far smaller proportion of those who reach senior levels in the economy, in the legal system, and in politics – everywhere that important decisions are being made.
The Green Party in Northern Ireland believes that affirmative action is necessary to redress the imbalance in our society, but also within our own party; because despite our feminist principles, we have not made as much progress as we would like. It is true that our Party Chair and the Chair of the Young Greens are women. And, with Noelle Robinson’s election in North Down, one of our five local councillors is a woman – which puts us, statistically, on a par with the other parties in Northern Ireland. However equality is where we set the bar; as good as other parties is not good enough.
On Saturday, November 1st we took an important step in electing Clare Bailey as deputy leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. We chose to create the new role of deputy leader as, like the other Green parties on these islands, we are seeing a surge in membership and support, and the workload is growing as a consequence.
In selecting Clare Bailey the Party is making a bold statement. Clare, who narrowly missed out on becoming a Belfast city councillor in May, was the driving force behind GPNI becoming a pro-choice party. Whilst individuals within our party had been pro-choice for some time this was a brave step, marking us out as the only pro-choice party within the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Clare works for Nexus, the Northern Ireland charity which supports those who have experienced sexual abuse and violence, and volunteers for Marie Stopes. She also organised the Alternative Ms Ulster event which I hosted in Stormont earlier this year. In short, Clare is a card carrying feminist.
She was also part of the first intake of pupils at Lagan College, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school. Like the Green Party, anti-sectarianism is something that Clare takes for granted.
In the Assembly I recently declared that I “aspired to be a feminist”; I look forward to the day when I can do what David Cameron didn’t, and wear, with pride, a (Fairtrade) t-shirt that declares ‘this is what a feminist (party) looks like’. With Clare Bailey now in a leadership role, the time is nigh.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/i-declared-i-aspired-to-be-a-feministi-look-forward-to-the-day-when-i-can-do-what-david-cameron-didnt-30717375.html
A Slash and burn approach to taxation is the wrong answer
29th October 2014
It seems as though everyone’s avoiding tax. Well, everyone who can afford to that is.
Facebook is the latest large multi-national company to make the news for avoiding paying any corporation tax in the UK. They do this in part by funneling revenues through Ireland to take advantage of much lower tax rates.
Michael Noonan, the Irish Finance Minister, has promised to close the loopholes enjoyed by multinational giants like Apple, albeit under intense international pressure. But he seems set on promising tax cuts in his forthcoming budget.
The Conservatives, during their party conference, told us that, if they were re-elected, they would give us all tax breaks. This despite the fact that they spent the last four years banging on about how all-important deficit reduction is. The Tories, however, can’t even tell us where the money to make the cuts is going to come from – beyond promising to squeeze still more out of benefit recipients of course. And here’s the problem with this whole debate.
The more you take a slash and burn approach to taxation, the more you portray it as a ‘burden’, a ‘cost’, something to be cut or avoided wherever possible, the more you eat away at the whole fabric of the social contract.
Those at the top start to resent handing over ‘their’ money for public services they have no need for – precisely because they can afford private services of their own. Those in the middle start envying those above and resenting those below them. Private sector workers, insecure in their temporary posts, ill-paid and overworked, start resenting public sector workers, because public sector workers are apparently so ‘feather-bedded’. At the same time public sector bosses seek to get around workers’ protections through the use of temporary staff and zero hour contracts. Those at the bottom of the scale, in receipt of welfare payments, face being incessantly told they are spongers and scroungers; how could they not come to feel alternately humiliated by and resentful of everyone ‘above’ them?
The Tories, like so many parties of the right, like to portray themselves as capable of taking ‘tough’ decisions. So how come they have decided to make these deeply irresponsible promises to the electorate?
Irresponsible, because the majority of us need public services. It is public money that pays for the education of our children; public investment in health care that assures us, if we fall sick, we will receive medical care; that keeps us safe in our workplaces and homes, that gives us a chance of justice through our legal system, regardless, at least in principle, of whether we are rich or poor.
You want to give the electorate something to vote for? Promise them the sort of society where we all chip in so that, if we hit hard times, there’s a system in place to look after us; the sort of society where you offer kids not an unfunded tax break, but the best possible education and training, so they’ll be able to go out and innovate, and build the companies of the future. As American Democrat politician Elizabeth Warren puts it, “You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Tough decisions? Who, among our leaders, has the true courage to come out and defend the idea that what really counts in the long run is not narrow self-interest, but the common good?
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/a-slash-and-burn-approach-to-taxation-is-the-wrong-answer-30702125.html
Northern Ireland’s arts scene including Ulster Orchestra becomes latest pawn in Sinn Fein and DUP ideological struggle
21st October 2014
A week before the Executive parties were to enter talks, it was announced that the arts events funding open call for the following year had been cancelled. This is far from a coincidence.
In a recent statement the Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, spoke about waiting to “see what happens in the 2014-2015 budgetary discussions” before a decision could be made about future funding. A more cynical person might wonder if she means a future when welfare reform has been implemented. The arts scene collectively just became the latest pawn in the DUP/Sinn Fein ideological struggle.
The arts scene, like much else in Northern Ireland, has been transformed over the last decade or so. People want to come here – artists, musicians, actors, film-makers, but also audiences. Nor is it just a matter of so-called ‘highbrow’ culture; we recently witnessed the incredibly vibrant sixth Belfast Culture Night, with some two hundred events and around thirty thousand people thronging the streets, generating an exciting and inclusive atmosphere.
Just before that was the Mela, grown from small beginnings to a massive celebration of cultural diversity, with as many as 25,000 people of all backgrounds packed into Botanic Gardens. There’s the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. There’s the Open House Festival. There’s Belsonic. There’s the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. And we haven’t even started on the legacy of Derry-Londonderry’s year as City of Culture, or any of the lively local arts scenes across Northern Ireland, let alone the buzz about the new Venezuelan Chief Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra.
As a result our cultural wealth has grown and diversified.
So the news that some 37 arts organisations – including that newly reinvigorated Ulster Orchestra – are to have their funding withdrawn must make a lot of hearts sink, and not just those directly involved in the scene.
Nothing brings people together like arts and culture – at least when you do it right. Do it wrong and you’ll find a whole wave of our most creative young people taking their talent elsewhere. It’s not as if they have far to go – look at Dublin’s creative scene, never mind London.
There is an economic argument too, of course – generally you get a good return on your investment when you fund arts and culture, in terms of added tourism, additional spending and other knock on effects.
But to focus on narrow economics is to miss the real point. You just have to think back too far to remember Belfast City Centre emptying just after the shops shut. Wander in much after that and the only things moving were the chip-papers blowing like tumbleweeds. It was bleak, forbidding, anti-social.
In the end, it is a question of what sort of society we want to build together. Our political leaders have, rightly, put a lot of emphasis on ‘Building a United Community’, combatting racism, fostering inclusion and so on. Nothing will help us achieve those aims better that culture and the arts.
You can stand up and lecture people all day on the moral and political case for a non-sectarian, non-racist society, and they will go away with a bit more information. Put a drum in their hands, let them jam with an expert African djembe player, and people from all backgrounds will come together in a living, breathing encounter with another culture, an experience that is not available any other way, and one that contributes to a kind of wealth not measurable in pounds and pence.
There is so much at stake in the current cross party talks that cuts to arts funding may seem like a side issue. However the arts scene is a barometer of how far we have progressed in Northern Ireland as a result of the peace process. Both are in jeopardy as a result of the irresponsible governance of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/northern-irelands-arts-scene-including-ulster-orchestra-becomes-latest-pawn-in-sinn-fein-and-dup-ideological-struggle-30678183.html
TTIP: Some important controls could be taken away from you if new EU and US partnership is agreed
8th October 2014
If the Government came to you tomorrow and asked you to sign away the right to prevent corporations from contaminating your water supplies, would you agree?
If they asked you to sign a form allowing companies to sue the government for stopping them selling untested drugs, would you give them the go-ahead? How about letting a company overturn our health regulations? Or letting companies rather than elected representatives, decide what health-warnings go on cigarette packs? No? Well, that may be why they haven’t asked you.
In effect this is what could happen if the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) is agreed between the EU and the US in behind closed doors negotiations. Were it not for the Greens in the European Parliament leaking secret documents relating to TTIP we would effectively know nothing about it.
It is billed as a boring old trade agreement between the US and Europe, merely a mechanism for removing regulatory differences between the two trading partners. Campaigners claim it is a slow-burn disaster for our democracy, a secretive sweetheart deal, between US and European technocrats and multi-national corporations, of Faustian proportions. We supposedly get to enjoy the fruits of free trade – higher profits and allegedly higher GDP growth – and the corporations? They get to sue governments if they don’t like the law of the land.
The supporters may or may not be right about the benefits: there’s a lot to be said for well-regulated trade. But the whole point of TTIP is to let corporations decide what constitutes good regulation. The old phrase about putting foxes in charge of chicken coops springs to mind.
The greatest threat posed by TTIP is the ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS) mechanism, under which large trans-national corporations are given an equivalent legal status to nation states. If this deal goes through, any regulatory barriers that restrict large corporations from boosting profits run the risk of being overturned in court.
TTIP poses a threat to regulations that protect our privacy, the environment, food safety and the economy, as well as posing a threat to public services such as health, education and water.
One possible outcome is that NHS services would have to be opened up to private tender. This could lead to the complete privatisation of the NHS with the UK government left powerless to stop it.
TTIP could also have a devastating impact on employment. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 caused the net loss of over one million US jobs and a significant decline in the wages of workers, with a loss of jobs in trade, goods and services as well as an intended undermining of trade unions.
Green MP Caroline Lucas tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament in November to raise her concerns about a deal that the other UK parties seem quite happy to support.
Given that the negotiations have been taking place out of the public eye, we need our MPs and MEPs to ensure there is democratic oversight before the deal is signed sealed and delivered.
Saturday October 11 has been declared a Day of Action by the #noTTIP group.
Perhaps a place to start would be to ask your MP and MEPs what they know about TTIP and more importantly, what are they doing about it?
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/ttip-some-important-controls-could-be-taken-away-from-you-if-new-eu-and-us-partnership-is-agreed-30649627.html
Northern Ireland has role to play in tackling climate change
29th September 2014
Always wary of disappearing into the ‘Stormont bubble’ I like to try to take a look around every once in a while and see what’s going on in the world.
As interesting as the internal wrangling of the DUP is, in week when the UK government has once again decided to go to war in Iraq, this was nothing more than a distraction. In her statement against going to war my colleague Caroline Lucas MP argued that “killing people rarely kills their ideas”. I couldn’t agree more.
While there is little that we can do in the Assembly to solve the various crises in the Middle East, there is something we can do about another issue of major international importance; climate change.
Last week, global leaders from governments, finance, business and civil society converged at the United Nation’s New York HQ to discuss the climate change crisis. Hundreds of thousands of citizens also took to the streets of capital cities across the world in marches to urge those leaders to take the issue of climate change seriously.
There is general agreement by the IPCC, the United Nations and the European Union that global temperatures must not rise by more than 2ºC by 2050 if we are to avoid irreversible global warming and the consequences that would bring.
If the rise in global warming is not kept below 2ºC the potential results are 228 million people at risk from malaria, 20 million people at risk from coastal flooding, 12 million people at risk from hunger as crop yields fail, 2,240 million people at risk from water shortages, serious drought in Europe and extinction of up to a third of land-based species.
The issue of climate change goes beyond a bit of irregular weather.
Northern Ireland has a responsibility to be part of the solution to a problem which is already affecting the lives of millions of people.
The Stormont Executive has yet to produce a Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill, which would commit us to legal targets for greenhouse gas reduction and climate change adaptation.
Such an act would give a clear signal to both the private and public sectors about the direction of long-term government policy, provide greater certainty for future investment decisions and promote a green economy.
Regulation can drive innovation and legislation can act as a spur to kickstart renewable energy solutions, as well as other initiatives to tackle climate change.
A non-legislative approach may ultimately have a detrimental impact on, or result in, Northern Ireland losing opportunities that may accrue from the transition to a low carbon economy.
Increasingly, there are economic benefits of moving to low carbon living.
We have the opportunity to develop local industries which would create jobs in a sustainable economy. Historically, innovative engineering and developing scientific solutions are fields we excel at in Northern Ireland.
The Green Party has always advocated that we think global and act local because in seeking to save the planet, we can also help ourselves.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/northern-ireland-has-role-to-play-in-tackling-climate-change-30623781.html
Scottish referendum: Following vote the question arises whether we will have say on any changes in Northern Ireland
23rd September 2014
Following the Scottish referendum and Peter Robinson’s call for a St Andrews Mark II, the question arises as to whether the citizens of Northern Ireland will get to have their say on any proposals which may emerge.
In April 2013 I called for a formal process to review, reform and revitalise the Good Friday Agreement, 15 years after its signing. Over a year on I may get my wish.
Martin McGuinness’s statement that he is supportive of a reduction in the number of MLAs and Stormont departments means it is likely there is an agreement between the First and Deputy First Minister that change is required. Peter Robinson has been clear he wants all Assembly parties involved, and he is open to other parties being involved. The Green Party will be keen to join in. Central to its platform will be the need for better public involvement.
In our analysis the greatest failure of the peace process has been the lack of genuine engagement with citizens. The Good Friday Agreement was dubbed the ‘People’s Agreement’ but, once it was signed, the people were excluded.
The DUP saw the St Andrews Agreement as a sufficient departure from the Good Friday Agreement to allow it to enter government with Sinn Fein. The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by 71% of those who voted, but given that St Andrews was signed after the 2007 Assembly elections, no one could claim it was ever put to the electorate.
The Haass process produced a set of proposals, but again there was no opportunity for the public to give its verdict. Recently, when the Republic reviewed its constitution, a process was established that brought together a sample of citizens and their politicians in a deliberative process. Issues such as same sex marriage, votes at 16 and the role of women were discussed.
Ultimately the Irish constitution can only be changed as a result of a referendum. Given that the Good Friday Agreement is in essence the constitution for Northern Ireland, I feel the same rule should apply. While referenda are by their nature divisive, Scotland has reminded us we can have civil disagreement without resorting to violence.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/scottish-referendum-following-vote-the-question-arises-whether-we-will-have-say-on-any-changes-in-northern-ireland-30606289.html
Welfare reform: For once, the DUP and Sinn Fein are both right
15th September 2014
Welfare reform has divided the Northern Ireland Executive down the middle, with the First Minister suggesting the impasse is threatening the sustainability of our political institutions.
The DUP claims we must implement the UK Government’s welfare cuts because we cannot afford the cost of the status quo. Sinn Fein argues that the poorest in our society can’t afford to heat and eat as it is, never mind after further cuts.
For once, both sides are right.
But there is a third option, albeit one our Executive parties may be too afraid to consider; we could raise more revenue. This could allow us to maintain welfare spending in Northern Ireland whilst reducing the cuts to our block grant, and ultimately to our public services.
Take the long-deferred issue of water charges. The Green Party outlined a solution in its 2011 manifesto: bring in water charges on the lines of a progressive tax. Those on the lowest incomes would be protected, and perhaps £200m in block grant savings could be freed to improve public services.
When water charges were introduced in England, the funding earmarked to run the service in Northern Ireland was taken out of our budget by Westminster. So each year around £200m is reallocated from public services like health and education to pay for our water services. In effect we are already paying a £200m penalty for not introducing water charges. Can we afford that? Clearly not.
Again, there has been absolutely no discussion of the tax break that the Executive introduced in 2009 for the very wealthiest in our society by capping the rates payable on property valued over £400,000. Effectively people in working class estates who own their own homes are subsidising the rates of those in million-pound mansions. Can they afford that? Again, clearly not.
I have submitted a motion to the Assembly on this; we will see if any other party will endorse the idea that those who can afford more should pay more.
If we get the power to vary the rate of corporation tax, will those currently emphasising the costs of refusing to cut welfare also highlight the costs of reducing corporation tax – estimated to be anywhere between £200-700million per year? Don’t hold your breath.
When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable in society the cost, we’re told, is prohibitive. But tax breaks for big business? Money is no object. One plank of the third option has to be that we offset the costs of maintaining welfare support by rejecting the bill for corporate tax breaks.
Northern Ireland politics can sometimes be like the Dr Seuss story about the ‘north going zax’ and the ‘south going zax’. When the two come face to face they both refuse to move because each has a rule to only go one way. The world moves on and builds a bypass around them.
If we don’t reroute the discussion on welfare reform the world will move on while Northern Ireland remains stuck.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/welfare-reform-for-once-the-dup-and-sinn-fein-are-both-right-30587513.html
It appears as if the DUP does not have much time for democracy
10th September 2014
I find myself writing to criticise the DUP again. It’s a habit I want to break, but they don’t make it easy. I’m thinking of two cases within the space of a week.
First: Edwin Poots is criticised by Northern Ireland’s most senior judge for comments likely to be ‘detrimental to the rule of law’. You know the story.
Mr Poots had upheld a ban on gay men giving blood, and a judge ruled that decision ‘irrational’. Mr Poots then said he would not take the matter to the Court of Appeal because the judges might ‘circle their wagons’ against him. This implication of judicial bias is what moved the judge to deliver his critical judgement.
Second: the DUP themselves circle their wagons around Nelson McCausland to neutralise the threat of a vote in the Assembly over whether he had misled them deliberately or not. Again, the background is well-known; Mr McCausland claimed to have met the Glass and Glazing Federation about NIHE contracts, when in fact the meeting was with only one company. The DUP successfully blocked the Assembly from passing a critical vote by means of a petition of concern.
The Green Party’s positions on equality and on transparency in politics are well known, so I’ll not repeat them here. What I will address is the underlying problem; the need for greater public scrutiny, as the DUP appear not to have much time for democracy.
Responding to the controversy over Mr Poots, the DUP’s Paul Givan warned the judiciary not to get ‘too precious about their status’, adding ‘Politicians ultimately are the lawmakers which the judiciary then need to enforce through the courts’. Is this the DUP’s understanding of the rule of law? Politicians, on this reading, are there to lay down the law, judges to act as enforcers. We call the shots, you make it happen, and don’t get too precious about it.
Well, here is the news: politicians are not above the law. Not even if they are in a majority – indeed, especially not then. Otherwise you don’t have a democracy, you have the dictatorship of whoever happens to be elected. My fear is that the DUP appear not to have understood the difference.
From the first case, then, they appear to believe their decisions should not be subject to judicial oversight; from the second, they appear not to have much time for political oversight either. The petition of concern is a device designed to protect minorities: here it appears to have been used to get a Minister off the hook.
The DUP, with enough seats to trigger this device unilaterally, have form on using it for party political ends – and have form on accusing critics of a ‘witch hunt’.
Sinn Féin’s use of Petition of Concern has been tempered only by the fact that they need at least one other party on board to trigger it.
Such partisan use of the law contradicts the spirit of the very law invoked.
Those entrusted with making laws must see it as a privilege and duty exercised on behalf of all the citizens of their jurisdiction – not as a chance to boost their own support-base or protect their own ministers from public scrutiny or censure.
Democracy calls for lawmakers to be subject to the laws they make, and subject to the testing of their decisions in open debate. Democracy requires both the rule of law and transparency. What we have seen this week is a party trying to put itself beyond the reach of both
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/it-appears-as-if-the-dup-does-not-to-have-much-time-for-democracy-30577128.html
Reading about sectarian violence and parade disputes it’s easy to think Northern Ireland is as divided as ever – but this isn’t the case
26th August 2014
When we read news articles about sectarian violence, disputes over parades and the failure of politicians to cooperate with each other, it is easy to think that Northern Ireland is as divided as ever. But this is not the case.
The focus and attention given to division in our society, particularly when it manifests itself in violence, can often lead to a collective despair. The violent and sectarian actions of a tiny minority of individuals affect us all.
However, there is a significant constituency in Northern Ireland who are quietly living in a ‘shared now’. They do not make the headlines, they do not call into radio shows, they may not yet be in power; but for them a shared future is no longer an ambition but a reality.
Their work place is diverse; not through any form of cross community initiative but through a natural evolution. Their social circle is mixed perhaps because they were part of the generation that saw a huge increase in access to third level education, and inevitably they built relationships with people from different community backgrounds. Their children may or may not attend an integrated school (though they would like them to) but it is less likely that they will grow up without mixing with children from different backgrounds.
The last census showed that 29% of respondents saw being ‘Northern Irish’ as their national identity, either in conjunction with another identity or on its own. It would be a worthwhile piece of research to delve into the 29% Northern Irish population and to see whether this is a shared identity across traditional communities. If so it could be a key indicator of the scale of the ‘shared now’.
National identities are important to people and they should be celebrated and respected. However it is when we define ourselves in terms of difference; “we are not you”, rather than a celebration of “who we are”, that identities can become a tool of aggression. Our identities are our own and should not be used as a comparison or as a weapon against ‘others’.
The political parties, divided along unionist and nationalist lines may believe us to be as divided as ever, they may portray us that way, but it is in their interests to do so. Heed not what you hear on the radio or what you see on the news, but look around you – do you live in a divided society?
If not then quietly celebrate, for then we have made progress in Northern Ireland. That is not to say that we forget the still too many examples of segregation and division in our society, or those whose lives are being destroyed by it. But if we forget how far we have come then we allow the narrative that no progress has been made to take hold. Getting us to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, is the first step in dragging us back.
I am both proud of how far we have come in Northern Ireland and frustrated by the fact that we can’t move further faster. I will access that pride in the times of despair and use my frustrations to help will the changes I want to see. The peace process is too important to allow it to be hijacked by those in whose interest it is to keep us divided. We need to build on the progress we have made to extend the ‘shared now’ to all in our society.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/reading-about-sectarian-violence-and-parade-disputes-its-easy-to-think-northern-ireland-is-as-divided-as-ever-but-this-isnt-the-case-30534909.html
Accusing people of being anti-Semitic when they criticise Israeli government over Gaza is a serious charge
20th August 2014
There is a common tendency to accuse those who take up the cause of Palestinian victims as supporting terrorists, of being anti-Semitic if they criticise the actions of the Israeli government or somehow being unconcerned about victims in Israel as if the two things are mutually exclusive
It’s a serious charge precisely because anti-Semitism is always wrong, always stupid, always indefensible. Not an accusation to be made carelessly, then.
It could hardly be argued, for example, that the Holocaust survivors who published a letter in the Guardian on Saturday, August 16 are anti-Semitic; yet in the letter they unequivocally condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
As I argued before in this column, you can’t judge the morality of an action by first asking which ‘side’ it came from: if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. And there is wrong being perpetrated by both Hamas and the Israeli state. I am not being anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic or supporting terrorism by saying that, any more than I was anti British when I protested against the UK and US invasion of Iraq.
I distinguish the actions of a state and its people. Equally, I don’t assume that every Palestinian supports Hamas any more than it would have been right to assume that every Irish Catholic supported the IRA.
In this context the moral debate over which side is right and which is wrong is irrational. We are faced here with two wrongs: Hamas for shelling Israeli civilians and the Israeli state for responding in such a brutal, indiscriminate and disproportionate manner. We must condemn both.
But this does not mean that in some well-meaning attempt to be even handed we suggest the conflict is evenly balanced and symmetrical. Where we should be focussing our attention is on human suffering, and when we do so our eyes turn to Gaza.
The Gaza strip has the same population as Northern Ireland, but covers an area smaller than Lough Neagh. A single month of intense bombing of densely populated civilian neighbourhoods has resulted in thousands of injuries, the destruction of hospitals, homes, and vital infrastructure, and the deaths of some 1,900 Palestinians. There is a debate over how many of these were ‘combatants’, but to put it in perspective, the most recent UN figures suggest perhaps two thirds were civilian; and in any case, over 450 were children.
On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers have been killed, as well as three civilians, by Palestinian forces.
But we don’t arrive at the ‘correct’ ethical result just by ‘keeping score’, so to speak. This is where the question of responsibility comes in. The state of Israel, as the occupying power in the region, has a responsibility not only to its own citizens, but to those under occupation.
It is simply not good enough to undertake such massive bombardment of Gaza and then blame Hamas for ‘hiding among civilians’. The question is: would the missiles rain down with such intensity if the civilians were Israeli? I think not. I think the Israeli leadership would work night and day to find another way.
When human suffering is taking place on such a scale we cannot in Milton’s phrase, stand ‘eyeless in Gaza’, turning a blind eye to the actions of state of Israel.
We say Israel must treat Palestinian civilians with equal concern as if they were Israeli: and this is no more anti-Semitic than opposing the Tory government is anti-British. Nor does it equate to supporting Hamas or their actions.
In this conflict, the only side we take is that of humanity.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/accusing-people-of-being-antisemitic-when-they-criticise-israeli-government-over-gaza-is-a-serious-charge-30519900.html
We can’t afford to go through the Great Crash of 2008 again: We need a new economic model, and we need it today
13TH August 2014
Anyone listening to Radio 4’s Today Programme on Monday morning would have been able to piece together a pretty good idea of the dominant economic and political model of our times.
We had the news of a report from think-tank Policy Exchange urging the government to ‘save millions’ by cutting benefits to those outside London, and for those with more than four children.
We heard about the government report on the costs and benefits of shale gas mining – where all the bad bits had been blacked out. And we heard from a business-oriented think-tank that, although the recovery was well under way, the benefits were not being seen in higher wages at the bottom ‘because productivity has not gone up’.
So where have the benefits of growth gone, if not to those at the bottom of the income scale? The obvious answer – they’ve gone to the relatively wealthy – was as much redacted from the discussion as those inconvenient bad bits in the fracking report.
According to the dominant model, nothing must be allowed to get in the way of increasing profits – not even the facts. ‘Benefits’ must be cut for those at the bottom; wages haven’t gone up, but how can employers be expected to raise wages when workers just aren’t being productive enough? The side-effects and toxins from fracking? You don’t need to read about them, nothing to see here, move along.
Our dominant economic model works by dumping the toxins ‘elsewhere’. All you are allowed to see is the price of the goods on display, not the costs paid by others – the low wages, the poor conditions, the effluent in the river, the horsemeat in the burgers – throughout all the processes involved in getting it to the shelf.
Well, there is no ‘elsewhere’. There is just us and our neighbours. And no corporation should be able to reap higher profits by off-loading harm onto the neighbours and saying ‘it’s nothing to do with us’.
For too long we’ve been told there is no alternative; but there are many other ways of organising our economy.
In the US, spiritual home of the free-market economy, alternative models are gaining momentum. Some 27 states have passed laws allowing companies to incorporate as ‘benefit corporations’. The directors are given legal protection to consider the interests of all stakeholders rather than just the shareholders. This used to be a common business model; it was ditched in favour of boosting profits, regardless of the cost.
When the Great Crash of 2008 came, it was hard to open a newspaper without reading someone ask ‘Why did no one see this coming’? The truth is, many did see it coming, and kept raising the alarm about it. However that is an inconvenient truth for those who simply wish to return to business as usual.
We can’t afford to go through that cycle again. We need a new model, and we need it today.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/we-cant-afford-to-go-through-the-great-crash-of-2008-again-we-need-a-new-economic-model-and-we-need-it-today-30507261.html
We need to tackle racism and xenophobia across the board in Northern Ireland
6th August 2014
The Green Party welcomes OFMDFM’s long-awaited launching of consultation on the Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland. We will certainly be digging in and engaging wholeheartedly with the process.
Racism is part of a wider problem. It’s a form of xenophobia, fear and hatred of the ‘foreigner’, the ‘stranger’, the ‘other’. We have a tendency in Northern Ireland to take a suspicious stance towards people who are not ‘like us’, people who are somehow different, marked off as not our ‘sort’.
We need to tackle this across the board. Political leaders, formal and informal, need to show everyone in their respective communities that it is OK to be different; whether that means coming from another denomination, another ethnic group, being LGBT, having a disability or even simply being a woman: don’t forget, many of the recent racist incidents have also been deeply misogynist, featuring gangs of men intimidating women. But the positive example of the weekend’s Pride parade in Belfast shows that at least some of us get it. The bullies with the spray-guns and petrol bombs appear not to know any better; their leaders ought to.
If it weren’t so utterly outrageous, some aspects of the recent spate of racist attacks in east Belfast might offer a lesson in irony. Judging by the graffiti, the racists appear to have decided that everyone they attacked was ‘Romanian’, even the Slovakians. Then there was the little soundbite doing the rounds on the internet: a woman claimed that the area was ‘definitely not racist’, and that the only reason racist incidents were occurring was because of ‘all the foreign nationals moving in’.
Apparently neither facts nor basic logic appear to matter much when it comes to racism. But this is not to say we shouldn’t look long and hard at the reasons for the surge in such attacks. And if anything, it shows that solving the problem will be far from easy.
Look across the world and you’ll find xenophobia rises where financial security falls: we should recognise that social and economic inequality are deeply interconnected.
If we’re serious about ending xenophobia in all its forms we have to start investing time and resources in areas of relative deprivation, places where skilled jobs once provided not only income, but a sense of purpose and discipline. We need to revalue manual work, and ensure sustainable jobs pay a living wage. And we need to invest further in education, showing people from the start of their lives that embracing the whole rich spectrum of human variety is a good thing.
Paradoxically, it might just be that when we start to enjoy the riches brought to us by people who are different, we’ll start to find we have a lot in common. And who wouldn’t want to belong to a rich, diverse, yet close-knit society like that?
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/we-need-to-tackle-racism-and-xenophobia-across-the-board-in-northern-ireland-30488282.html
First Minister Peter Robinson is a leader who’s not doing his job
9th July 2014
Increasingly I find myself listening not to what First Minister Peter Robinson actually says, but waiting for his office to tell me what he really meant. For instance, his recent comments about Muslims were quickly followed up by a more considered written statement
Then he said the housing protest that kept a Nigerian man out of his new home wasn’t racist. The subsequent reformulation, this time, came from his party colleagues in the DUP.
So when Peter Robinson repeatedly tells us that the institutions we collectively set up to run this place are “under threat”, is he speaking as Peter Robinson the individual, as the leader of the DUP, or as First Minister? When we are told that the controversy over OTRs, and then over parades, risks collapsing Stormont, which Mr Robinson is speaking? We need to know who exactly is crying wolf.
Mr Robinson appears to be making a bid for the mantle of ‘First Unionist’. Take his recent talks with Theresa Villiers – or rather, her meeting with (take a breath) the DUP, the UUP, the TUV, Ukip, the PUP, the UPRG and the Orange Order. An impressive display of unionist unity, to be sure; but all the more reason to be clear about the separation of roles.
When the flag protests began, those involved were seen as the ‘hardliners’, on the fringes of unionism. Perhaps because of the rise of the TUV and a revived PUP, mainstream unionists appear to have moved over to get behind them, showing not so much great leadership as great ‘followership’. But Peter Robinson is the First Minister of Northern Ireland; and as long as he remains so he must live up to the duties of the office to represent all the people of Northern Ireland, unionists, nationalists, and others.
As things stand, the concerns of the ‘others’, indeed of most of us, are about economic and social issues – flatlining wages, precarious jobs, cuts to vital public services and so forth.
We need our leaders to stop crying wolf over our cultural differences, because there’s a social and economic wolf out there – and it’s rapidly nearing the door.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/first-minister-peter-robinson-is-a-leader-whos-not-doing-his-job-30465780.html
Ukraine and Gaza are proof we need politics of non-violence more than ever
23rd July 2014
One of the four fundamental principles of the Green Party in Northern Ireland is ‘non-violence and peace’.
Recent atrocities in Ukraine and Gaza show that we need a vigorous and active politics of non-violence more than ever.
Peace is not just the absence of violence; it is a willingness to resolve conflict in a constructive manner with a spirit of good will and respect. By contrast, the politics of violence perpetuates itself by creating a spirit of suspicion, hostility and contempt.
If peace is our goal then violence can rarely be justified, as it only serves to cement the very divisions that cause conflict.
When faced with unbearable situations like Gaza, or the downed airline in Ukraine, we tend to respond by seeking someone to blame. This often results in grouping of individuals on the basis of religion, ethnicity or nationality – or more simply, ‘us’ and ‘them’ – to the point where acts of mindless thuggery, such as the recent attacks on a Belfast Synagogue, become possible.
The ambition of peace and resolution is quickly reduced to a simple mentality of winning or of asserting ‘right’. If your side is right then any action can be justified especially if it is deemed necessary to win. Of course both sides will believe they are ‘right’ and therefore conflict persists.
Such oversimplifications are invariably wrong, precisely because they are oversimplifications; and they are almost certain to perpetuate and deepen, rather than help resolve, the conflict in question.
Long before he became Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin spoke of defending the interests of ‘the Russian people as a great nation’. It is in the name of the ‘responsibility to protect’ the Russian ‘people’ that Putin seems to have decided to annex Crimea, and is now trying to exonerate the pro-Russian militia in Ukraine.
It is a good example of the way reading conflict through the lens of national or other group identities obscures, rather than clarifies, issues of violence. Decisions tend to be made, and actions ‘justified’, on the basis of which ‘side’ we support, and which ‘side’ we blame.
This is not the World Cup and we are not playing football. There can be no winners in war and death and suffering is no trophy.
While history is littered with examples of politicians playing games with people’s lives, this does not have to be the story of our future. Different choices can and should be made.
We cannot justify acts of violence in the name of ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’ or any other kind of ‘denomination’. We cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility by blaming the other like the boy in the schoolyard who, caught beating another, says ‘but he hit me first’.
Violence is the true enemy, and must be opposed regardless of which ‘side’ it emanates from.
We must each take responsibility for our own actions; stand down the violence of our own ‘side’, and indeed learn to stop thinking in terms of ‘sides’ at all. Rather, we must come together, for all our differences, not to try to defeat our ‘enemies’, but to solve the problems themselves.
In the words of the remarkable Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian doctor who lost his three daughters to an Israeli army shell, conflict ‘is the result of fear, mistrust and suspicion. We need to smash these artificial barriers we have created in our minds because nothing will change until we change what is in our own hearts, minds and souls’.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/ukraine-and-gaza-are-proof-we-need-politics-of-nonviolence-more-than-ever-30455043.html
It’s clear that the English Premier League will not be the destination for the top stars of the World Cup
16th July 2014
Whether it is the most exciting league in the world is up for debate, but it is clear that the English Premier League will not be the destination for the top stars of the World Cup.
I was struck by a blog I read online of how there were so few Premier League players making a big impact on the World Cup. Top stars such as Messi, Robben, Rodriguez, Muller and Neymar all apply their trade in Europe, but none of them in England.
There are of course counters to this such as Van Persie for Holland and dare I say it, Suarez for Uruguay – both players made a big impact on the World Cup albeit in different ways.
However it is when you look at the summer transfers that the true status of the Premier league becomes clear.
James Rodriguez, arguably the tournament’s top player, seems destined for Real Madrid with German star Toni Kroos also being linked with a move to the Bernabeu. Messi and Neymar are already with Barcelona who have just signed Suarez from Liverpool. Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich have a host of World Cup stars in their squad including Robben and Muller and a total of seven from the squad of the now world champions.
So which World Cup stars will be featuring in the EPL next season?
Diego Costa has signed for Chelsea from Atletico Madrid for £32m. A brief internet search of ‘most disappointing players of the world cup’ will see his name feature heavily.
Premier League Champions Man City’s first big summer signing is likely to be defender Mangala, who warmed the substitute benches for France.
Man United have signed Herrera, a creative Spanish midfielder who was not deemed good enough to make the Spanish squad.
Arsenal have signed Chile striker Alexis Sanchez for £30m who did star for his team at the World Cup but could be characterised as a Barcelona cast off.
Liverpool have of course sold Luis Suarez and signed Rickie Lambert.
However it is two other Liverpool signings that give us a clue as to the place of the Premier League in European club football. Emre Can and Lazar Markovic are young players with considerable potential. Whereas in the past it the Premier League used to be the place great players went to retire; Klinsmann, Zola, Vialli, Ravanelli and now it appears to be the place for young players to make a name for themselves.
Ronaldo, Henry, Robben and Suarez, all made their name in England before moves to the continent. You can also add Gareth Bale to that list. As soon as each was established as a Premier League star they were targeted by bigger clubs in Spain.
The Premier League is a bit like a selling club, the Southampton of the European leagues. It is the shop front for young players looking to catch the eye of the continental giants.
So we say goodbye to Luis Suarez and possibly Yaya Toure. We remember fondly Bale, Ronaldo and Robben. We look forward to what’s to come from Herrera, Markovic and Can.
Welcome to the Premier League; just think, you too could someday play for a big team like Real Madrid.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/its-clear-that-the-english-premier-league-will-not-be-the-destination-for-the-top-stars-of-the-world-cup-30434397.html
Circus animal ban: Ending the use of wild animals in circuses would be an excellent step forward for Northern Ireland
11th June 2014
The Green Party wants Northern Ireland to lead the way when it comes to protecting vulnerable animals from unnecessary suffering.
In our Assembly 2011 manifesto, we made a commitment to raise standards of animal welfare in Northern Ireland across all sectors from domestic pets, through to indigenous wildlife.
We believe that a ban on wild animals in circuses will be an excellent step forward.
Clear legislation from the Assembly is needed because although councils like Belfast and North Down don’t allow circuses with performing wild animals to use council owned land, often private land owners are happy to accommodate them for a fee.
With the best will in the world, I believe the welfare needs of wild animals cannot be met in the environment of a travelling circus. In the wild an elephant will walk several kilometres per day, while their life expectancy is significantly lower in captivity.
Circus has a long tradition but no longer should it be acceptable to haul wild animals, sometimes endangered species such as tigers, around as a form of entertainment.
The public freak show was once considered acceptable entertainment but thankfully it has been consigned to the dustbin of history as our knowledge and moral sophistication grew.
And so it should be when it comes to using wild animals for entertainment purposes.
Our understanding of animal welfare now means that we know what they need in order to thrive.
Life for circus animals often consists of being housed in trucks of a restricted size and being kept in small temporary enclosures.
Veterinary advice shows that loading and transporting can be stressful, even for experienced animals.
The Green Party is not a lone voice calling for a ban of wild animals in circuses as the majority of the public have consistently expressed a preference to end the practice.
A 2010 Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report showed that 94 per cent of people surveyed favoured a ban, including representatives of zoo and veterinary professions.
In Northern Ireland we have the opportunity to use devolved powers to lead the way in banning wild animals in circuses and that is why we are appealing to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to make this a priority.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/circus-animal-ban-ending-the-use-of-wild-animals-in-circuses-would-be-an-excellent-step-forward-for-northern-ireland-30346539.html
Last week will go down as a proud and historic day for the Green Party
28th May 2014
Thursday May 22, 2014 will go down as a proud and historic day for the Green Party in Northern Ireland.
In doubling its number of councillors, the Party has secured its first seat on Belfast City Council and seen the first group of Green councillors being elected to a single council in Northern Ireland.
If political success is based on numbers then we did very well. If it is judged on goodwill and raising our profile as a Party, then we did even better.
The Green Party NI had an electoral strategy which we worked to and we achieved our targets. With limited resources we outperformed other parties which had a greater media profile and significant financial backing.
Ross Brown led an exemplary campaign in Ormiston. To get elected on his first time out was a phenomenal achievement and was a testament to his hard work, energy and ability. He was tireless in his knocking on the doors canvassing in his area of East Belfast, and his efforts were duly rewarded by voters.
His appearances on national TV and radio increased the positive perception of the Green Party. However it was in hustings debates where now Councillor Brown showed his true class, often outperforming more experienced politicians.
I am also delighted at the success of the Green Party in the North Down area where we secured three council seats. To now be assisted in my own constituency by councillors Noelle Robinson, Paul Roberts and John Barry is a great boost and will contribute greatly to my work as an MLA.
A special mention must also go to Clare Bailey who narrowly missed out on a seat in the Botanic area of Belfast. With a 9% share of the vote she was bettered only by John Barry in terms of the proportion of votes cast for Green council candidates. Unfortunately it was not enough to secure a seat this time but bodes well for Clare and the Party in the future.
The one disappointment was the loss of Martin Gregg in Castlereagh East. Martin fell victim to the reduction in the number of council seats but the Party will sit with him and plan how we win this back in the next election.
These local council elections were one of the most important of their kind for years. The changes under the local government reform will hand over powers to the council such as planning and the ability to introduce services improving well-being.
I am delighted to have excellent Green Party councillors working towards a better more inclusive society for the common good.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/last-week-will-go-down-as-a-proud-and-historic-day-for-the-green-party-30312174.html
The local government and European elections are two of the most important for decades
20th May 2014
These elections are two of the most important elections for decades.
The changes in the organisation of councils will impact on everyone and the European elections will be one of the closest fought in years.
This is a time of change: local councils in Northern Ireland are about to undergo radical restructuring.
We must seize this unique opportunity to ensure that local politics is changed too, and changed for the better.
The Green Party in Northern Ireland is a local party with a global vision.
We stand for transparent, active democracy and for social justice and equality in an inclusive, non-sectarian society.
We believe in clean politics in a clean environment – that’s why we are the only party in the Northern Ireland Assembly that does not accept corporate donations. We publish our accounts online for public scrutiny. We believe the citizens of Northern Ireland deserve to know who funds local politics because without transparency there is no democracy.
We believe in councils that listen and councillors who work not for one or another section of society, but for the common good – for everyone.
Europe can seem a little distant at times and it is easy to forget the influence it has on all our lives. The laws it passes and the rules it adopts affect all of us, every single day: and usually for the better.
Whether it’s setting air quality rules, international climate change policy, business regulations, job creation priorities, or energy generation methods, the European Parliament has a say – and who our citizens vote to represent them in the EU’s only democratically-elected institution makes a real difference.
The Greens are strong in Europe and we make up one of the largest voting blocks. Our MEPs bring experience and policies based on strong principles of democracy and fairness for the common good.
Green MEPs have capped bankers’ bonuses and called for reforms of the banking system to ensure it works for all of us – not just a few bankers at the top.
We have delivered a ‘youth guarantee’ – a promise of a job or training place for every unemployed young person that wants one and have shaped the EU’s farming and fisheries policies – banning the wasteful practice of ‘dumping’ dead fish at sea, and won key votes on climate change policy to ensure that the UK adopts a target on delivering new renewable energy projects – and the jobs that go with them.
This is why a vote on Thursday matters – it’s a chance for the people of Northern Ireland to choose the kind of future they want.
My vision for Northern Ireland is a cleaner, fairer and more inclusive society for everyone.
For it is only through social unity and solidarity that we can all participate in delivering a better future for Northern Ireland.
The Green Party is committed to working for a better quality of life in Northern Ireland.
Together we can create vibrant, socially inclusive communities that are economically dynamic and strong enough to adapt effectively to change.
We stand up for what matters – will you stand with us?
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/the-local-government-and-european-elections-are-two-of-the-most-important-for-decades-30290414.html
It is time to focus on citizenship: Local government reform will be firmly on the political agenda for the foreseeable future
May 6th 2014
Local government reform is going to be firmly on the political agenda for the foreseeable future, with the merger of all Northern Ireland councils from 26 to just 11.
While local government reform might seem like a yawn-inducing topic, it should be viewed not just as a procedural money-saving exercise, but an opportunity to ‘refound’ local democracy.
This transformation could allow the emergence of local government becoming ‘local democracy’ and not simply viewing of local government solely as a service provider.
Service provision and value for money are important, but people are citizens – not just ratepayers.
The concept of citizenship is vitally important for our society, but for it to be successful, it needs to be a two-way relationship. A good example of this potential is community planning.
As citizens with rights – rights to be included in decision-making which affect their lives – community planning will give local citizens more say in how their area develops. This has the potential to really bring power to the people.
But while the Department of the Environment is putting funding towards building officials and councillors for community planning, there is less funding going into up-skilling the community to be able to take advantage of the opportunities of community planning.
Citizens can provide solutions, because they spend the most time confronting the problems and issues of where they live, so they will always have greater insight into the dynamics of a community beyond that of any outside planner, developer, architect, or politician.
So, by not including active and real participation by a community in planning, or development, the structure of government is divorcing itself from a valuable asset.
I believe Government needs to move beyond business as usual; passively consulting citizens, rather than actively engaging them. There can be no innovation without community participation.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/it-is-time-to-focus-on-citizenship-local-government-reform-will-be-firmly-on-the-political-agenda-for-the-foreseeable-future-30245393.html
Shock collars must be banned: We can’t justify causing our beloved pets pain, fear and stress
14th April 2014
We love our pets in Northern Ireland. But we don’t always love the way they behave! Problematic behaviours like straying, excessive barking and aggression towards other animals or people are just not acceptable in our society.
A desire to solve these problems can lead owners to extreme measures, and we still have a percentage of owners in Northern Ireland using electric shock collars to attempt to train animals out of bad habits.
I believe, however, that it’s long overdue that we ban the use of all electric shock collars to control the behaviour of our pets. When we rely on the application of pain or fear of pain to control the behaviour of animals, we are risking the physical and emotional well-being of our pets.
Studies have shown that the use of confrontational training methods is actually likely to increase aggressive behaviour in dogs. Dogs respond fearfully to the application of shocks, showing lowered body posture and even yelping and barking, illustrating that the shocks are indeed painful.
They may start to associate the presence of their owner with pain, and respond fearfully to them too. Dogs can even present with medical problems after training with shock collars: skin irritation, contact necrosis, and serious bacterial infection have all been seen in dogs regularly trained with shock collars.
There is also the risk that shock collars will malfunction, delivering multiple shocks to the animal for no reason. The collar can cease to work at all, meaning the pet in question may return to the problem behaviour.
In April 2012, we introduced new animal welfare legislation into Northern Ireland, making it illegal to cause unnecessary suffering to our pets.
When we consider that all of the behavioural problems mentioned above can be overcome with the use of reward-based training, the use of shock collars and the horrific side effects they can result in are unnecessary, and therefore, potentially illegal under the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) 2011 Act.
When we take animals into our homes as our pets, we have a legal and moral obligation to provide them with a good quality of life. That means taking the responsibility to train them in an ethical and fun way to enable them to fit in with human society.
We cannot justify causing them pain, fear and stress by using punitive training methods when science shows us that these techniques often do more harm than good. Indeed, an animal prone to aggression or excessive barking is often an animal that is frustrated or scared, and causing regular pain and fear to that animal is not going to improve their welfare.
Science shows us that rewarding good behaviour is more effective than punishing bad behaviour. You love your pets. Don’t hurt them in the name of training. Support a ban on shock collars for pets.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/shock-collars-must-be-banned-we-cant-justify-causing-our-beloved-pets-pain-fear-and-stress-30184743.html
The Greens are big in Europe: Other Stormont parties have one or zero MEPs – we have 48…
28th March 2014
So what would you say if I told you that the Green Party heads into the European elections as the biggest and most powerful party in Northern Ireland? You’d probably think I was delusional. But a quick look at the facts shows that this is true.
Currently the DUP, UUP and Sinn Fein have one Member of the European Parliament (MEP), while the SDLP and Alliance have none. The Green Party has 48 MEPs.
The Greens are big in Europe.
Approximately 70% of our laws are derived from Europe making it the most significant Parliament to which a Northern Ireland politician can be elected. The decisions Europe makes affect all our lives which is why we need to elect someone who can actually have an influence.
Having already worked with a select team on the Green Party Common European Manifesto and established strong networks with Greens right across Europe, Ross Brown would have that influence.
Ross Brown is Green Party NI’s bright young thing. As my research officer in the Assembly he has been the driving force behind much of much of my work and has become an expert in fracking and all its ills.
An economist by trade, Ross combines the liberal, caring principles of the Green Party with the harsh reality of real world finances.
Having previously worked as assistant economist in the European Economics team at the UK Treasury he has a strong grasp of European macro-economics.
Headlining his campaign with a promise of politics for the common good, Ross is committed to delivering social justice, sustainability and solidarity.
He offers an alternative to Europe’s austerity programme; his vision is of a sustainable economy which serves people rather than one which creates slaves to the interests of the markets.
Ross Brown promises clean politics. While other parties merely call for transparency the Green Party is still the only party in Northern Ireland to publish all its donations over £500. We are also the only party not to accept corporate donations.
As the only pan European party these are the elections when the Green Party comes into its own. Green Party NI enters these elections with the right message, the right principles and the right candidate.
And as the biggest party, we can make a big difference.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/the-greens-are-big-in-europe-other-stormont-parties-have-one-or-zero-meps-we-have-48-30134864.html
Climate change is the biggest challenge of the century and it’s no longer the greens ringing alarm bells
24th February 2014
Climate change is the biggest challenge of the 21st century. It threatens the well-being of hundreds of millions of people today and many billions more in the future. It is also a significant threat to our economy and critical infrastructure. And one of the main causes of climate change is our addiction to fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas.
No one and no country or region, ours included, escapes the impact of climate change. But it is the poorest people in societies and the world who are the most vulnerable. This is what makes it an ethical as much as a scientific or economic issue. Given the compelling weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, it can be hard to understand why anyone denies climate change or drags their feet about the urgent and coordinated action needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Last September the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated clearly that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that human behaviour is extremely likely the dominant cause. Recent months have also brought examples – from devastating typhoons in the Philippines, to the polar vortex in North America and widespread floods here in Northern Ireland – of the increase in extreme weather events that is the inevitable outcome of climate change.
The costs are already enormous, which is why organisations ranging from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the International Energy Agency and insurance companies such as Lloyds of London have joined the scientific community in warning about the risks. It is no longer only greens that are ringing alarm bells.
Every year we fail to act, to move away from a fossil fuel based economy brings us closer to the tipping point when scientists fear runaway climate change. This is a terrible gamble with the future of the planet and with life itself. But acting decisively now to combat climate change can bring many benefits. For example, if we retrofit our housing with high quality insulation this will reduce carbon emissions, create employment and reduce fuel poverty. We have reached a fork in the road. In one direction, a terrible legacy could be handed to future generations. In the other is the opportunity to set our world on the first steps toward a fairer and sustainable future for the common good.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/climate-change-is-the-biggest-challenge-of-the-century-and-its-no-longer-the-greens-ringing-alarm-bells-30036344.html
I have a dream today … but the reality of shared education in Northern Ireland is a nightmare
16th February 2014
Imagine … children from both a Protestant and Catholic community background going to the same school building for their education. Imagine them going to the same classrooms (at different times), using the same sports facilities (at different times) and going to the same assembly hall (at different times) in different uniforms.
Imagine children going to two different schools, with two different principals and two different sets of principles. Imagine those two groups of children going on their school trips; one school goes to visit the new peace centre at the Maze, the other visits the new peace centre at Long Kesh.
Imagine this is Northern Ireland boldly going forward into a new era of ‘shared’ education.
Is this how you always dreamed it would be?
Green Party NI believes that shared education as proposed by the current Northern Ireland Executive is a misnomer. The education will be mostly or wholly separate, the only thing that will be shared is the buildings.
This is not a model of educating children from different backgrounds together with a common curriculum. So called ‘shared’ education is a way of sustaining the current system of segregated education in the face of falling enrolment numbers and crumbling buildings in need of replacement.
This is a win-win with the Department of Education, only having to fund one new building rather than two (or more) and the controlled and Catholic maintained sectors being able to maintain their (largely) single identity status.
However it could be a lose-lose for the pupils.
I went to Grosvenor Grammar School which shared a site and a canteen with Orangefield High School. While these were both predominantly Protestant schools there was a socio economic and academic divide. Rather than bringing children from different backgrounds and abilities together, being of different schools with different uniforms and different intake criteria on the same site achieved only one thing; an emphasis on difference.
Orangefield pupils were seen as the enemy. They thought we were snobs, we thought they were ‘spides’. I mean they wore white socks!
Just like putting two communities side by side increases tensions, putting two schools cheek by jowl will do the same.
Truly shared education such as that offered at integrated schools goes beyond simply bringing children together in the same building but puts them in the same classroom and teaches them about themselves and each other as well as challenging attitudes that create division in our society. Integrated education brings children of all abilities together from all religions and none for the common good.
Integrated education is a step towards a fully inclusive single education system. So called ‘shared’ education could prove to be a step back and is an example of a ‘shared out’ future. Integrated education offers us a shared now.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King;
I have a dream that my two little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their perceived religious background but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
But the reality of shared education is a nightmare.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/i-have-a-dream-today-but-the-reality-of-shared-education-in-northern-ireland-is-a-nightmare-30014590.html
Fracking in Fermanagh: As for shale gas companies, tell them to frack off
12th February 2014
The process of hydraulic fracturing used to extract shale gas is a contentious issue across the world. The proposal to frack Fermanagh has met with considerable opposition in the local area and across Northern Ireland.
The USA has been voracious in its desire to exploit its shale reserves while countries such as France have actually banned fracking.
The environmental risks of fracking are well established; potential contamination of drinking water and air pollution with the increase of greenhouse gas emissions a certainty if shale gas reserves are exploited.
Those in favour of fracking claim that these are risks worth taking. One of the key claims is that fracking will bring economic benefits such as lower energy prices, but this is an empty promise.
Gas supply in Northern Ireland is connected to the rest of Europe by pipelines. Gas is freely traded in this European market, meaning that the whole continent pays very similar prices. The addition of shale gas extracted from Northern Ireland would be the equivalent of a drop in the ocean in terms of its impact on price.
While political proponents of fracking continue to peddle the myth that it will lead to cheap energy prices, economists such as Lord Stern, former Senior Vice-President of the World Bank, have openly rubbished this claim. Indeed, the claim is so outrageous that fracking companies such as Cuadrilla and Tamboran are not even repeating it.
Fracking is an enormously energy and capital-intensive industrial process requiring strict oversight. It is not cheap. The technological knowledge required to frack has been around for decades, however it is only the fact that gas prices have risen to such a degree that fracking has become economically viable.
Alarmingly, some analysts even suggest that the viability of the fracking industry in the UK may actually require gas prices to rise further.
The consultants Wood Mackenzie estimate that in order to develop UK shale reserves, potential operators would need a gas price of $9.68 per million British thermal units (mbtu) for the project to make economic sense. The current price is around $8.69.
The reality is that cheap energy is a thing of the past and anyone promising cheap energy should be treated with great suspicion.
It is time for the development of an alternative energy strategy focused on energy efficiency and clean renewable energy, produced for the common good.
An energy efficiency programme spearheaded by the Green Party on Kirklees Metropolitan Council in England brought free insulation to over 50,000 homes. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the Government scrapped the Green New Deal home insulation scheme which over 3 years would have brought in £180m into our local economy and insulated 100,000 homes.
There is no quick fix. Only a programme to lower energy consumption through energy efficiency schemes and investment in renewable energy technology can meet our long term energy needs.
As for shale gas companies, tell them to frack off.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/fracking-in-fermanagh-as-for-shale-gas-companies-tell-them-to-frack-off-29999709.html
There is power in a union
29th January 2014
Only 56% of public sector workers are members of a trade union. Only.
During the debate on the Public Service Pensions Bill, DUP politicians used this argument as justification for denying trade unions a guaranteed place on the Pensions Board.
Similar figures have been trotted out in the past to question the legitimacy of strike ballots.
I think some politicians need to be careful they don’t undermine their own legitimacy.
In the 2011 Assembly elections the DUP received 30% of the vote. The party that holds the ministries for Finance, Enterprise, Trade & Investment, Health and Social Development; the party that has the power to block any piece of legislation going through the Assembly and of course the party which appoints the First Minister, only has 30% of the vote.
Combined, the DUP and Sinn Fein only have 56% of the vote yet they effectively control the government of Northern Ireland. The turnout in 2011 was 54.5% of the eligible adult population so in reality their support is much less. So why then was 56% of total employees deemed an insufficient mandate for trade unions?
The Health Minister Edwin Poots has already found himself in trouble with the courts for his failure to appoint a trade unionist to the Health and Social Care Board.
Ultimately the real objection to unionised action is that minority politicians with a majority of power guard it jealously. Whether it is trade unions or bodies like the Consumer Council or the Human Rights Commission, informed, organised challenge is a threat to their power. However it is essential to our democracy.
There is power in a union.
So when politicians like Sammy Wilson make claims like “most people listening to this debate” remember that they do not represent “most people”. Like every politician in the Assembly (myself included) they only represent a minority interest. This is why we have to govern collectively in Northern Ireland.
It is also why when workers collectivise and send us a message we cannot arrogantly dismiss their arguments. On issues like public sector pensions it is they who represent the majority of employees.
It is a shame that Alliance who held the balance of power on many of the votes on the Pensions Bill did not hear the concerns of those workers. As well as joining the DUP in voting down the amendment on the Pensions Board they effectively blocked an amendment which would have seen the public service pension age kept at 65 in Northern Ireland.
We had a chance of choosing a different path from the Tory led government, but like their friends in the Lib Dems, Alliance backed David Cameron.
NI21 were conspicuous by their absence and left us still wondering on their position on another key issue for the people of Northern Ireland.
Green Party NI will continue to represent the needs of workers at all levels to ensure the economy serves the needs of people, not the other way around.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/there-is-power-in-a-union-29961168.html
Haass this process been a failure? Biggest problem not including the public
10th January 2014
I’m sure many journalists have considered a pun this poor but have resisted due to shame, standards or professional pride. However, I’m a politician.
Whether we deem the Haass process to have been a success or failure depends on the criteria against which we judge it.
The most obvious is the objective of the talks; to achieve a cross party agreement on flags, parades and the past by Christmas 2013. Was that achieved? No. Therefore the talks were a failure.
Another measure against which to judge the Haass process is whether we are now in a better place than before the talks started. This is a bit less black and white.
On the one hand progress has been made in that these issues have been the subject of cross party talks with some degree of desire to find an agreed resolution. We have a 39 page document with proposals on which we can build on parades and the past, and a public process to be established on flags and emblems. So a success then?
Maybe. Arguably an opportunity has been lost to show the public that the Executive parties can go beyond self-interest and ‘two community’ thinking to come up with an agreement that is in the best interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. A compromise that no one will be entirely happy with, but one which we can all see is another step forward.
Unfortunately the failure to reach an agreement has fed public cynicism with one person commenting to me on Twitter;
“Can’t help thinking Big 2 just took what they need for May election: DUP get to be no concession tough guys, SF get to blame grizzly unionists”.
For these talks to have been a success in the sense of moving Northern Ireland forward we need the goodwill of the public and I am not sure that it is there.
And that for me has been the biggest failure of this process; the failure to have any effective mechanism to include citizens in the process. This is needed if we want the many diverse communities in Northern Ireland to come on board.
The Green Party has been calling for a formal mechanism for civic conversation from before the Haass process was mooted. A time bound process that brings politicians and other citizens together in dialogue to review, reform and refresh the Good Friday Agreement more than 15 years after its signing. And unlike St Andrews, Hillsborough and now Haass, any proposals must ultimately be endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland. The peace process belongs to the people, not just politicians, and if we wish to see meaningful progress the Executive parties need to realise that.
Haass has brought a set of proposals forward for discussion, but only when that discussion moves beyond closed doors meetings and into communities can it succeed.
It Haass to be done.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/haass-this-process-been-a-failure-biggest-problem-not-including-the-public-29905563.html
Santa’s image has been manipulated … and so have we on party donations
23rd December 2013
We all love Santa – the big jolly guy with the white beard and the red and white outfit. He’s been around forever it seems, as constant and unchanging as the Earth’s revolution around the sun.
As is often the case with what is obviously true, all is not what it seems.
North Pole’s most famous resident originally dressed in green and represented the spirit of benevolence and good cheer.
The current incarnation of Santa was cemented from the 1930s onward through advertising campaigns by Coca Cola, keen to promote Santa in their famous corporate colours of red and white. Arguably one of the most successful ad campaigns in history which is why it continues to this day.
In 1931, artist Haddon Sundblom created magazine ads for CocaCola inspired by Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem ‘The night before Christmas’, featuring St Nicholas as a kind, jovial man in a red suit.
While Coca-Cola did not invent Santa’s red and white outfit, their ad campaign made sure their depiction became the predominant image of Santa throughout the western world.
I find it concerning that something so central to our cultural practice has been so manipulated and so too have we.
This is a great example of how we can all simply take the truth for granted when we can’t see who is pulling the strings behind the scenes.
That is why I believe transparency of relationships is so important – particularly when it comes to politics.
The electorate invests a lot of trust in politicians and their parties to represent their best interests.
However, that trust has not been reciprocated as a veil of secrecy still hangs over who funds local political parties.
Despite commitments to make Northern Ireland politics more transparent the legislation maintaining donor secrecy has already been extended three times from 2007.
The Green Party is the only party that publishes all donations it receives over the value of £500.
Therefore, every political decision in Northern Ireland is open to questions of undue influence from vested interests – from planning decisions to procurement contracts. The question remains as to whether decisions are made in the public interest or in the interests of party funders.
We all know that whoever pays the piper calls the tune – however, voters in Northern Ireland never know who the piper is and therefore can’t have a clear picture of what is motivating the decisions and policies of their legislators.
So, my gift request to Santa this year is to give the people of Northern Ireland the chance to see who funds their political parties.
And regardless of what appears on your Christmas card, the truth is Santa is Green.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/santas-image-has-been-manipulated-and-so-have-we-on-party-donations-29862022.html
The myth that only the private sector creates wealth in our economy is continually damaging
10th December 2013
One of the most damaging myths that is continually perpetuated by the conservative right is that only the private sector creates wealth. This myth has been repeated so many times that even those on the left have started to repeat it.
The myth is based on a false premise – that the Government raises taxes from the private sector and then spends them. In reality it is the other way around. The Treasury forecasts the amount of tax it will receive based on its spending.
If the Government decides to spend more in the public sector it raises more in tax. Tax comes back to the Government not just based on the amount public sector workers’ pay on their income but also based on the multiplier of all the spending of the public sector in the entire economy.
Another reason why this myth has been so successful is that people think that our wealth equates to the physical products that are produced in factories. Since ‘things’ are only made in the private sector, only the private sector creates wealth.
The first thing to say is up until recent times many factories and extractive industries that produced physical things used to be part of the public sector. For example, British Steel (privatised in 1950). BP (privatised in 1977) and Rolls Royce (privatised in 1987).
However wealth is not just a measure of the physical things which we produce but a measurement of the total amount produced in our economy. We create wealth not only when we make a CD player but when music is produced for the CDs and when graphics are designed for the cover.
Governments create wealth when they provide any sort of private or public service – postal services, health services, transport, education or even the devising of policy by civil servants. Wealth is also created when Government money is spent conducting research or invested in innovation. One such innovation which owes its existence to the Government is the internet.
Lastly, it is important to understand what we are actually measuring. Wealth is traditionally measured using GDP which has 4 factors: private spending (consumption) + government spending + investment + net exports
The amount of public services provided by the Government add to wealth as it is measured.
Privatising any part of the economy does not enable it to suddenly start becoming part of the wealth creating part of our economy. The USA has worse health outcomes even though the UK spends far less on the public sector health service as a percentage of its GDP than America does on the private sector alternative.
‘Private sector good, public sector bad’ is simply false.
This was originally published for DebateNI : http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/myth-that-only-the-private-sector-creates-wealth-in-our-economy-is-continually-damaging-29822154.html
I don’t agree with loyalist protest in Belfast over Union flag anniversary but it shouldn’t be called off
29th November 2013
It is anticipated thousands will descend on Belfast city centre on Saturday to protest last year’s decision to fly the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall only on designated days.
Many commentators have cited the impact on trade as a key reason for the parade not to go ahead.
Businesses in Belfast have suffered a significant reduction in sales due to the flag protests, so it is understandable that they face the upcoming protest with a degree of trepidation.
While I agree that where possible accommodation should be reached between any protest group and traders, I am wary of calls to prevent the protest altogether.
Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to freedom of peaceful assembly providing it is within the law. The impact on trade from a protest cannot (and indeed should not) become a justification for restricting anyone’s democratic right to peaceful assembly and peaceful protest. This of course assumes the protest will be peaceful, which I hope it will be.
General criticism of citizens taking to the streets to protest is to be expected from the people who want power and political expression to be from the top down only.
However, what concerns me is the language that has come from some in liberal/left who have been arrogant in their derision of the protesters. I am saddened to see people who lament educational underachievement mock those who may be unsophisticated in their political expression.
I am particularly saddened with the ease at which some seemed to be willing to undermine the democratic right to assemble and show dissent. Like me, these people will have doubtlessly marched through Belfast on various rallies with trade unions or other groups, in support of causes they deemed to be significant to them. In the Assembly SDLP MLA Alban Maginness stated;
“These people have made their point about flags and should therefore desist from future demonstrations.”
Similar logic could have been applied to the civil rights movement, but thankfully they didn’t just pack up and go home.
Of course the comparison only holds up if the protests are peaceful. Ultimately I do not agree with the cause of the flags protests and when they are not peaceful it is right that those involved face criticism. When frustration and confrontation descends into violence then any legitimate political concerns get drowned out and the ends cannot justify the means.
Therefore, if for nothing else but clarity of political expression and promotion of respect, I urge the organisers of this week’s march in Belfast to ensure that it remains peaceful so their real concerns are actually heard and not simply manipulated for the sake of political expediency.
A quote attributed to Voltaire states: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.
We must be wary of attacking the unalienable right of others to protest because in doing so we ultimately undermine our own.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/i-dont-agree-with-loyalist-protest-in-belfast-over-union-flag-anniversary-but-it-shouldnt-be-called-off-29792190.html
Remembrance Sunday has passed and the wearing, or not wearing, of a poppy remains divisive
12th November 2013
Symbols can be very powerful in politics, particularly in Northern Ireland. Another Remembrance Sunday has passed and the wearing (or not wearing) of a poppy remains divisive for many.
Commonly unionists wear a poppy and nationalists don’t. For those of us who do not define ourselves in such terms the decision can be a difficult one.
Personally, I am not one for symbols. I don’t wear a Green Party badge, I don’t tend to go for the charity arm bands and before entering politics I did not wear a poppy. Not because I was making any kind of political statement but precisely because I did not want to make any kind of political statement.
As a politician that is no longer an option. If I do not wear a poppy it will be perceived by many as a political statement and they may conclude that I am a nationalist. If I wear a poppy it will be perceived by many as a political statement and they may conclude that I am a unionist.
As the leader of a party that does not define itself in these terms, either perception could be damaging.
As the leader of a party which promotes peace, the wearing of a red poppy may be seen to legitimise war.
Some feel that Remembrance Day has been hijacked by those wishing to promote current wars. This is a view shared by a number of veterans. We must remember it is politicians who are the perpetrators of war whereas soldiers (and civilians) are the victims. It is the soldiers whose lives we seek to commemorate with the poppy not the politicians.
The white poppy which promotes peace and is a symbol to mark the victims of all conflicts on all sides, can also be viewed as divisive.
Despite the fact that it is inclusive of those who have died fighting on the British side, some see it as an insult to the red poppy and what it represents. And while I disagree with this assessment it is a time of high sensitivity and mutual respect is required.
I have come to the conclusion that the wearing of both the white poppy and the red poppy is for me the best way forward. Most people don’t understand it so they may ask me about it and allow me the opportunity to explain a different point of view.
We need to complicate our history because the simple categorising of ‘us and them’ has not served us well. Protestant and Catholic, nationalist and unionist fought together.
I was delighted that on Saturday I attended a coffee morning hosted by Ploughshare in St Comgall’s Catholic Church Hall in Bangor. There were a mix of those with and without poppies and there was no contention.
One of the freedoms which we should cherish today is the freedom to choose how we remember the victims of war. And of course our democracy allows us the right to dissent.
In 1986, John Baker, Bishop of Salisbury stated,
“Let’s not be hurt if we see a white poppy … there is plenty of space for red and white to bloom side by side.” This Green agrees.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/remembrance-sunday-has-passed-and-the-wearing-or-not-wearing-of-a-poppy-remains-divisive-29747413.html
Does Michelle fit the ‘slacker’ image of civil servants portrayed by the media?
05 November 2013
Michelle works part time for a multi-national retailer lifting boxes and stacking shelves. She works her allotted hours and overtime when she can get it. She relies on the overtime to make ends meet.
Michelle is admitted to hospital for a series of tests. She’s off work for a total of three days after giving years of unbroken service to her employer. On returning to work she is informed that she will no longer be offered any further over time. Her illness was not found to be work related.
Michelle gets a full time job as an admin worker in the civil service. The extra hours mean the pay while low, is sufficient to meet her and her family’s basic needs. She continues to have problems with illness. Her boss is understanding about her taking time off when required.
She appreciates the support and only takes time off when necessary. Michelle is also a very good worker in general and is well thought of by her colleagues.
This is the one of the human stories behind the headline statistics on sick leave in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Look around your own circle of family and friends; how many work in the civil service or wider public sector? Do they fit the ‘slacker’ image of public servants portrayed by the media?
Also sick leave is only one performance indicator. For example there is less pay inequality in the public sector.
It is often reported that workers in the public sector receive better pay and conditions than their private sector equivalents, but this only applies to the lower grades. In 2010 the top paid public servant earned a salary of £288,700.
A staggering sum but dwarfed by the top 0.1% in the private sector (47,000 people) who received on average £780,043.
There are also higher gender inequalities in the private sector with only 10% of the top earners in the private sector being women compared to 30% in the public sector.
So if you are a low skilled worker in the public sector you can expect to have low wages, earn significantly less than those several grades above you, have your workload increase as a result of recruitment freezes with no resulting pay rise due to pay freezes.
If you are a woman you are statistically less likely to get one of the top jobs.
In the private sector if you are a low skilled worker you can expect to have even lower wages, face even greater levels of wage inequality between the highest and the lowest grades and have greater job insecurity. If you are a woman you are even less likely to get one of the top jobs.
I’ve heard it argued that the public sector should behave more like the private sector. Is that really the world you want to see?
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/does-michelle-fit-the-slacker-image-of-civil-servants-portrayed-by-the-media-29725353.html
Pulling Planning Bill was the right move and legal concerns came as no great surprise
29th October 2013
The Green Party was delighted when the Environment Minister Mark H Durkhan pulled the Planning Bill over legal concerns.
The amendments would have effectively allowed a planning free-for-all in areas designated by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and also proposed to restrict the public right to legal challenge.
This announcement of legal problems with parts of the Planning Bill came as no great surprise to many of us. The Green Party and a number of NGOs warned that restricting judicial review was in breach of the Aarhus Convention.
I was consistently challenged on this during the Assembly debate by former barrister Peter Weir, one of the proposers of the amendments. Lacking the advantage of legal training this humble philosophy graduate was pleased to be vindicated by the advice provided to the Environment Minister by David Elvin QC.
Much was made of the fact that the Minister choose not to seek the opinion of the Attorney General, John Larkin QC, prior to making his decision to pull the Bill.
David Elvin QC from whom the Minister did seek advice, specialises in planning, environmental and public law.
David Elvin QC was named as the Silk of the Year 2008 in Environment and Planning at the Chambers & Partners Bar Awards.
Ultimately the amendments to the Planning Bill were an attempt to complete a process to deregulate the planning system that the DUP started when Sammy Wilson was the Environment Minister.
He tried unsuccessfully to remove the Area of Special Scientific Interest designation from the Lisnaragh ice age site as it was getting in the way of economic development. Friends of the Earth took him to court and the then Environment Minister lost the case and it was established that an ASSI designation could only be overturned on scientific grounds, not for economic expediency.
The DUP also failed in an attempt to introduce Planning Policy Statement 24 which would have made economic considerations the overriding factor in planning decisions. This PPS was subsequently discarded by Alex Attwood when he took up the Environmental portfolio.
The Planning Bill amendments were based on an over exuberance on the part of the DUP to deregulate the planning system. Planning regulations are a necessary part of good governance ensuring the right type of development in the right places.
The irony is that the DUP ensured that a Bill designed to fast track agreed legislation to help the boost economic development, was stalled and then scuppered by their drive for development at all costs.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/pulling-planning-bill-was-the-right-move-and-legal-concerns-came-as-no-great-surprise-29708070.html
Edwin Poots’, waste of public money is intolerable’
22nd October 2013
“The Minister’s decision to challenge the High Court ruling that unmarried couples and those in civil partnerships should be allowed to adopt is a disgrace…he is failing those children who have been born into families that are either unwilling or unable to meet their needs. He should be ashamed. As far as I am concerned he is unfit for office.”
This is an excerpt from my October 2012 conference speech in relation to Health Minister Edwin Poots.
Some might have perceived this as cheap political point scoring, but since the costs of the legal challenge have come to light many more have joined the campaign.
In fact at the time of writing this article 8,470 people had signed a petition calling for the Health Minister to resign or be removed from his post.
The Minister took office in May 2011 and the Department of Health has spent a total of £328,521 on legal costs in the last two financial years. As well as his challenge on adoption law there are cases regarding the issues of a ban on gay men donating blood and the guidelines on abortion. Each one would appear to be ideologically driven.
All departments incur legal fees but what infuriates people is not purely the financial costs but the irrational nature of the Minister’s position, and the absence of demonstrable benefit to wider society.
I have questioned the Minister on a number of occasions for the evidence of harm to children of being raised by those in civil partnerships. I am yet to be provided with such evidence. In fact research by the American Psychological Association which reviewed 150 studies on outcomes for children with same gender parents has found no evidence to suggest the children had poorer outcomes compared with those with different gender parents.
There are approximately 2,500 children in care in Northern Ireland. We have seen recently the dangers of sexual exploitation for children growing up in care. Also children from a care background are much more likely to come in contact with the Juvenile Justice System with over one third of admissions to Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre being from a care background.
It is when these facts come to light that the true cost of the Minister seemingly pursuing his own ideology can be realised. This waste of public money is intolerable.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/steven-agnew-edwin-poots-waste-of-public-money-is-intolerable-29677854.html
Cuts to social security benefits will hurt everyone of us in Northern Ireland
14th October 2013
If you are not in receipt of any benefits, why should you worry if the Stormont Executive merrily wields the axe on somebody’s DLA or Housing Benefit at the behest of the Con/Dem Government?
After all, aren’t we are all in this together?
So reigning in this lavish welfare spending on the scroungers in society, a bit of belt tightening and pulling ourselves up by the boot straps while keeping a stiff upper lip seems perfectly reasonable to get us out of this terrible financial mess – right?
According to a recent report commissioned by NICVA and based on the Government’s own data, cuts to social security will cost the Northern Ireland economy around £750 million per year and this will negatively impact on every one of us.
That is because society works in an interconnected way and when you remove massive amounts of money out of the economy, we all suffer.
Much to their irritation, these cuts signal that the Tories have been unable to isolate this class of ‘undeserving poor’ who they want us to believe are simply sponging off the State and from the ‘strivers’.
The reason being is these mythical hoards of scroungers don’t exist.
Of course there are some exceptions to the rule and we all know about them because right-wing biased media trot them out every day.
This is to ensure the ‘them and us’ narrative takes hold and makes those ‘hard working families’ Mr Cameron is always banging on about believe it is ok to target the so called ‘feckless’.
It is both sad and ironic that it is actually those very ‘hard working families’ Cameron speaks of, along with the most vulnerable in our society such as children, the disabled and the sick who will be the hardest hit.
The stance of the Government is those working families who are in a situation of ‘in work poverty’ mustn’t be working hard enough.
It is based on an ideology that taking the benefits away from people will help them find a job. And it is based on an illogical and flawed economic theory that all this extra labour supply will somehow create its own demand and more work.
Even though Northern Ireland already has the highest levels of child poverty and fuel poverty in the countries of the UK and Ireland we are set to be the worst affected region in the UK, with people in places like Strabane, Derry and Belfast experiencing the most severe reduction in income.
Such an income reduction is going to have knock-on consequences on local spending and thus for local employment which will send our economy into a further downward spiral and further widen the imbalance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The UK Economics Foundation recognises that the UK has the lowest spending in Europe on almost every preventable social problem including crime, mental ill health, drug use, obesity and family breakdown and as a result we, as a nation, spend a third more on addressing the consequences.
I believe that the only way to improve our economy is more investment in people and not less.
One thing David Cameron was right about is that we are all in this together.
These reckless cuts will do nothing for our economic recovery and will take money out of all of our pockets.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew/cuts-to-social-security-benefits-will-hurt-everyone-of-us-in-northern-ireland-29658155.html
We need to make work pay with decent staff wages – not by cutting benefits
30th September 2013
I was accused on Twitter of being economically illiterate for my proposal that all workers on public procurement contracts be paid a living wage.
I respect my accuser and think him to be intelligent but he is certainly on the right of the political spectrum. The Green Party isn’t, and our policy was informed by the Chair of the party who is a Senior Economist at a local university, and Ross Brown, a former Assistant Economist at the Treasury.
However it’s a common tactic of the right; accuse anyone offering an alternative economic view as naive, idealist or ignorant of economics. But economics isn’t an exact science. Ask five economists a question and you’ll get five different answers.
Over the past 30 years in-work poverty has been on the rise with approximately a quarter of workers in Northern Ireland deemed to be living in poverty. Between 2009 and 2012 the richest 1% saw their real incomes rise by 31% while it was less than 1% for the bottom 99%, with many of their incomes actually shrinking. These are some of the outcomes of mainstream economics and the dogma should be challenged.
We need to make work pay. Not by cutting benefits and hammering the least well off, but by beginning to pay decent wages to the workers on which our economy relies. Evidence shows that this will reduce staff turnover, increase productivity and as poorer people are more likely to spend their wages in the local economy, lead to a significant multiplier effect.
Contrast this with the proposal to reduce corporation tax to 12.5%. That will take somewhere between £200-400 million (depending on which economist you ask) per year out of our economy, it will take approximately 11 years before we break even (according to economic estimates), and most resultant job losses will be in the public sector where workers are more likely to receive a decent wage.
Evidence would suggest that these jobs will be replaced by low paid private sector employment and continue the growth of in-work poverty. Private sector CEOs who are paid considerably more than their public sector counterparts, will be the big winners.
Right wing economics relies all too heavily on GDP as the sole measurement of societal good ignoring the resultant social ills of growing inequalities, not to mention environmental damage including catastrophic climate change.
Then there is the small matter of the near collapse of the financial system with huge bailouts being required to sustain “business as usual” so we can continue the mistakes of the past. The track record of the right does not read well, so who really are the economic illiterates?
Whether it’s the right of the Conservative Party or the right of Alliance, there is no ‘right’. Just choices. The Green Party will continue to offer alternative choices because business as usual is not the only option.
This was originally published for DebateNI: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/debateni/blogs/steven-agnew-we-need-to-make-work-pay-with-decent-staff-wages-not-by-cutting-benefits-29620941.html
Assembly Speech on Special Advisers Bill
Monday 3rd June 2013
At the outset, I would like to outline the fact that the Green Party has consistently stood opposed to any form of violence in this society to achieve political aims. In that regard, we extend our sympathies to all victims of the violence that was all too commonplace in Northern Ireland in our past and that, unfortunately, continues in isolated instances even today. It is in that context that I speak in this debate and outline the Green Party’s position on the Bill.
The Green Party sees the Bill as a missed opportunity. Having been involved in the Second Stage debate, I find it interesting to hear parties’ positions and how those have changed throughout the stages of the Bill. My party’s view has been consistent. We have major concerns about how special advisers are appointed. At Second Stage, I made the point that special advisers should be appointed on merit and that there should be greater scrutiny and transparency as regards how special advisers are appointed.
Interestingly, although there was some disagreement on whether those with serious criminal convictions should be appointed to special adviser positions, there was almost unanimity in opposition to the idea that special advisers should be properly interviewed and that the merit principle, which applies in other appointments to ensure fairness, should be applied. That is something that I feel should happen given the importance of these positions, given the high level nature of the work, and given, as was said continually at Second Stage, that special advisers sit with the same privileges and many of the same responsibilities as senior civil servants, who we would never think of appointing without such proper scrutiny, openness and fairness.
There is a perception that special adviser posts are, if you will pardon the term, jobs for the boys. That has been at the heart of some of what we have debated today and throughout the other stages of the Bill. While the vetting procedures are one aspect of tackling that, for me, including the merit principle in the appointment of special advisers, would be the other key part.
I very much believe that that is an opportunity missed. I welcome the elements of the Bill that bring the vetting procedures more into line with the appointment of senior civil servants. That is the benchmark of normalising these positions. However, to some extent, the Bill goes beyond those vetting procedures, and that concerns me.
There has been a lot of discussion in the debate about the definition of victims. My personal view is that it should be a broad definition. Many of us are indirect victims of our conflict, although I appreciate that there are those who have been impacted much more directly. I also take the view that there should be a wide definition of perpetrators, which is why I made the point about jobs for the boys. There have been many actors in the conflict in Northern Ireland. Reference has been made to the IRA’s role. Reference has been made to the role of the security forces. There has been no reference to the role of all those, including people and parties in the Chamber, who continually promoted sectarianism, bigotry, division and hatred throughout our Troubles and then washed their hands of the atrocities that were committed and washed their hands when people took those words, that hatred, that bigotry and that sectarianism and used them as justification to commit acts of violence. Those people then stepped back and said that they did not commit the violence. However, we have to remember that many people gave power and weight to those who did commit violence by perpetrating sectarianism, bigotry and division in our society. Whether it is Sinn Féin or any other party giving jobs for the boys, the girls or for the party faithful, we are right to question whether those appointments are based on merit or on a privilege that has been bestowed on the party faithful.
The Green Party is opposed to the Bill. As I said previously, although we see elements of merit in it, it very much appears to my party and me that it is using our past to legislate for our future. It takes us back to old arguments, and we have seen that today. I cannot support the Bill for the key reason that it takes away the principle of rehabilitation. Many have claimed to speak on behalf of victims today; I will not pretend to do that. I do not believe that victims are a homogenous group or that victims speak with one voice. There are many victims in our society with many opinions. I speak only of my best interpretation of how to serve victims. For me, the best way to do that is to reduce offending and reoffending and, ultimately, reduce the number of victims and prevent future victims. How do we best do that? I believe that rehabilitation has to be at the core of our justice system, and I see the Bill as seeking to impose an extra penalty on a certain category of ex-offender. That does not serve our society well. We have to ask whether ex-offenders who are released from prison, having committed whatever crime, are more or less likely to reoffend if they are in paid employment. I do not think that seeking to limit or restrict employment for ex-offenders serves our society well because I believe that people who come out of prison and have been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society are more likely to make a positive contribution than if we simply seek to exclude, marginalise and continually punish them for the crime that they committed.
As a society, we have come to that conclusion with our employment law. When a crime is of material relevance to the job that somebody with a conviction is applying for, it can be taken into consideration. However, when that crime is not materially relevant, it is not because, as a society, we have come to the conclusion that we are better off if we reintegrate former prisoners into society than if we seek to marginalise them. Through the Bill, we are trying to create a special category of employment and a special category of ex-offender outside that. Mr McKay referenced my quote during Second Stage when I said that I see this as an attempt to put the shackles of the past on our feet as we journey towards the future.
I will come to the point about the petition of concern. Mr McLaughlin referred to that. Although the Green Party opposes the Bill, we are not signing the petition of concern. I stand over that decision, and I will give my reasons for it. As I said, I am not opposed to every element of the Bill. At Second Stage, I said that I wanted to see special advisers appointed in ways that are more similar to arrangements for senior civil servants. Aspects of the Bill put the code of conduct on a statutory footing and make the vetting procedures equal to those that apply to senior civil servants, and I support those elements. I have chosen not to put a block on it, and I think, to some extent, that doing so would be a slap in the face to the victims who support the Bill. I disagree with them, and I say that clearly, but to block it would be a slap in the face. I will oppose it. The democratic will of the House appears to be for the Bill to go through, and I will respect that democratic decision.
Sinn Féin has presented an argument almost akin to George W Bush’s argument that you are either with us or with the terrorists, although it is not quite the same, because Sinn Féin might not put it like that. For Sinn Féin, it is all or nothing or black or white. The argument is that, if I do not support Sinn Féin’s petition of concern, my opposition to the Bill is somehow disingenuous. I will be interested to see whether Sinn Féin is consistent on that, because it has not been consistent on that position in the past. It is not so long ago that the House passed the Criminal Justice Bill, which Sinn Féin and the SDLP opposed. They made their arguments for doing so, and, at various stages, I raised concerns about that Bill. Sinn Féin did not seek a petition of concern for that Bill; it certainly did not ask me. Given that both it and the SDLP opposed it, they could have tabled a petition of concern. To suggest that every time we disagree with a motion or a piece of legislation in the House we should seek a petition of concern is a disingenuous position. This was an attempt by Sinn Féin to push my party and the SDLP into ensuring that it gets its way. I will not be pushed in that manner.
I can only speculate about why Sinn Féin did not support the SDLP amendments, which, in my opinion, would have made the Bill better. There are two possibilities. One is that, ultimately, it wanted a bad Bill, so that, when we got to this stage, it would have stronger leverage to seek a petition of concern. Perhaps, as Mr Alban Maginness suggested, it wanted to appear as victims: victims of Jim Allister’s Bill; victims of the SDLP; and even victims of the Green Party.
I do not like to speak about other parties in my speeches. I try to avoid that and stick to my party’s position in promoting my party’s message rather than concerning myself with the views of other parties. References were made to my party’s position, however, and I felt that I needed to defend it robustly.
In conclusion, I am opposed to the Bill, as I have been consistently from Second Stage. While others’ positions changed, the Green Party’s position has remained consistent. We do not believe that the Bill has been sufficiently amended to garner our support. Our position is consistent with Green Party principles, particularly the principle of supporting rehabilitation for ex-offenders. Indeed, that is a position that my party has held consistently.
Full transcript of the debate can be read at:
Why Northern Ireland Needs a ‘Civic Conversation’
Assembly Speech on Civic Forum
Tues 8th April 2013
Democracy has to be about more than simply turning up to vote every four years. I think that we have a democratic deficit, and the low voter turnout in the last Assembly elections should allow no party or Member to be arrogant, because, as was pointed out, even the DUP, as the largest party in the Chamber, is a minority party because it was elected by the small majority of those who chose to vote.
So, we have to look at different ways. I heard the different views on the Civic Forum, but I did not hear any alternatives about what we should do and how we should engage.
Mention was made of the fact that the Civic Forum’s genesis was the Good Friday Agreement and that that was 15 years ago. However, the agreement was voted for by the majority, and much larger numbers came out to vote then than at the last Assembly election. We cannot simply ignore that.
Mention was also made of the St Andrews Agreement. Members across the House may prefer it, but we have to remember that the Good Friday Agreement was agreed before an election, whereas the St Andrews Agreement was agreed after an election with no commitment in advance and no prior knowledge among the electorate that it was coming down the line. So, I think that the Good Friday Agreement has legitimacy. For the Democratic Unionist Party or, for that matter, any democratic party to simply dismiss it is, I think, arrogant and anti-democratic in its stance.
Gregory Campbell: I thank the Member for giving way. He and a number of other Members alluded to this business of the legitimacy of the Belfast Agreement, because of the democratic vote, and its contents, including the Civic Forum. Does he agree that about half the unionist community voted against the agreement, which contained the provision for the Civic Forum? Had there been a proposal that was voted against by half of nationalists, does anybody think that the British Government would have proceeded?
I accept that significant numbers of unionists voted against the agreement. What I do not accept is simply dividing Northern Ireland into two communities. The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted for it, and as far as I am concerned, I am here to represent the whole of Northern Ireland, not simply to divide up the community and say, “These are the people I represent”.
Putting that aside, I repeat that we are 15 years on, and now is the time to go back and look at the agreement. Is it everything? People voted for it in 1998, and we are now in 2013. We can look at it again, but we have to engage people, and we do not do that simply by telling them to turn up to vote every four years and leave us to it.
I support the motion, and I support the Civic Forum, but I considered tabling an amendment because I think that there are other things to consider and there is, perhaps, a better way.
Let us look at what the Irish Government are doing with their Convention on the Constitution, a time-bound process by which they are reviewing their constitution — I feel that the Good Friday Agreement is akin to Northern Ireland’s constitution. The Irish Government have engaged in a civic conversation between politicians and ordinary citizens, teasing out the issues and where change is needed. That is what we need to do with the Good Friday Agreement.
I am conscious that pointing to the Irish example may not appeal to some on the other side of the House. If you do not want to look at that, look at the example of British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly. So we have the examples from British Columbia and the Irish Government of better ways to engage society.
We need, 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, to look at what changes we need. We have heard much talk in the House about bringing in voluntary coalition, reducing the number of seats and making other major changes to the Good Friday Agreement, but remember that it was dubbed the “people’s agreement”. The DUP claimed to have changed the Good Friday Agreement at St Andrews. If they did, they did so without going back to the people to ask for their permission. If we are to change the Good Friday Agreement, we need to go back to the people and ask them whether they agree to our changing their agreement. It cannot simply be a political conversation, and, to date, it has been only a political conversation. We need proper engagement with the public. We need to bring them in, hear them and set up a formal process.
I support the Civic Forum. I believe that an important step would be to look at having a year-bound civic conversation, similar to the Irish Convention on the Constitution or British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly. That would allow us to bring people in and hear in a formal, structured way what they genuinely think about different issues. Even when we come to vote, we vote on whole manifestos, not individual issues. A civic conversation would allow us to look at individual issues. We need to look at that option because there is a democratic deficit: if the riots and protests in the streets were not enough to tell us that, low voter turnout should be.
Note: The motion was passed by one vote. The full transcript of the debate can be read at:
Assembly Speech on ‘Recent Unrest’
Monday 10th December 2012
First, I would like to put on record the Green Party’s condemnation of the violence that has occurred over the past week. In particular, the Green Party would like to stand in solidarity with any political representative who had their home or office attacked or who had threats made against them. We would also like to condemn the violence against the PSNI, which has sought only to protect our democracy.
It is always important that we as political representatives are mindful of the language we use in political debate, recognising that our words can have an impact throughout our society. However, on Wednesday evening, when I got the word that the home of Councillors Michael and Christine Bower and their young daughter was attacked, I became acutely aware of the vulnerability of my family. For the first time in my political career, I felt that I had to watch what I said for fear that my family could face a similar attack. For some in the House, I know that that has been a reality of their political career over the past number of decades. However, when I entered politics, I hoped and believed that Northern Ireland politics had moved on, and I see these attacks as a major step backwards. Attacks and threats against any elected representative are unacceptable and undermine our democracy.
The issue of identity has been at the heart of Northern Ireland politics. We have rightly sought to move away from identity as a source of division to a position where we have mutual respect. Diversity can and should be celebrated, not feared. Speaking personally, there are many aspects to my identity. In Northern Ireland, I have the right to dual nationality, so I can be, and am, both British and Irish. However, I am like many people who probably feel more comfortable with the term “Northern Irish”, but I am also European. I am a father, a son, a brother, and an uncle. I am also a vegetarian. So, there are many things that make up who I am and my identity.
I am proud of who I am, and that includes the part of me that is proud to be British. I am proud of the National Health Service, which is free at the point of use. I am proud of our welfare state, which ensures that we all have a safety net should we find ourselves unemployed, as so many have during this economic downturn. I am proud of our democracy and the freedom of speech that underpins it. I am proud of the freedom of the press to hold us, as elected representatives, to account. Whether the Union flag flies at City Hall, Stormont or anywhere else for that matter, I will be no less British, no less Irish and no less European. Indeed, I will be no less than what I am today.
The real attack on my identity has been the attacks by those who undermine that freedom of speech by making me fear that what I say could result in attack on my family.
The attacks on the social welfare system and the institution of the NHS by politicians at Westminster and in the Assembly have led me to take to the streets. I have taken to the streets and protested with trade unions and other workers who have sought to defend the institutions that they see as integral to their identity and well-being. However, we did so peacefully, and I call on anyone who wishes to protest any decision of our democracy to do so peacefully. However, we must be mindful that riots tend not to happen when we have high employment, high educational achievement and financial security. So, whether it has been the riots in London or the riots in Belfast, we must remember as politicians that addressing those issues is our core duty.
If we are to show leadership in the Assembly, those are the issues that we should be tackling. You cannot eat a flag, a flag will not heat your home and a flag cannot give you self-esteem. If we are to improve the lives of those in Protestant, unionist and loyalist estates, such as Ballybeen, where I grew up, we need to get back to addressing those important issues of economic, social and environmental importance.
Within the Green Party there are members who consider themselves British, members who consider themselves Irish and members who consider themselves Northern Irish. Indeed, we have members from England, Scotland, Holland and Germany, and others from across the world. That diversity does not divide our party and should not divide our society.
Justice for Cody Rally
Stormont 24th November 2012
Voting at 16
This is the first in what I hope to be a regular series of video blogs on my work as an MLA. I recorded this short piece in advance of my Assembly motion calling for the age of voting to be lowered to 16 years old.
The Giants of Creationism
While I think the reference at the Giant’s Causeway is fairly innocuous, I think the real concern is that it’s the thin end of the wedge; especially in the context of Nelson McCausland’s attempt to have creationism presented as an alternative view of the origin of the universe at the Ulster Museum when he was Culture Minister.
The statement that there are those who believe that the world is 6,000 years old is true, the suggestion that the debate still continues is less true. Those who believe that the world is 6,000 years old are a small minority even within the religious community, the debate they are having is largely with themselves.
This is similar to when the media insist on giving equal weight to climate sceptics, despite the fact that the vast majority of scientists recognise climate change as a reality, not as something to be believed or not. At least the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’s Centre only makes a brief mention of Creationism and does not posit it as an equal and valid alternative.
The real question is ‘why was the reference included at all?’ The fundamental(ist) problem is that there are those in senior positions in NI’s government who push the creationist agenda, most notably Nelson McCausland and Edwin Poots, Social Development and Health Ministers respectively.
The reference at the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre does not itself bother me, but the reason for it being there is more of a worry. The fundamentalist views of those in government are restricting gay men from giving blood, preventing the production of a sexual orientation strategy, and more generally helping to maintain Northern Ireland as a conservative state.
Ultimately the totality of what Messrs Poots and McCausland stand for is what I am in politics to oppose, the reference to creationism at the Giant’s Causeway is but a small part of their ideological agenda.