Mark Carruthers looks at the political developments of the week and questions policy makers on the key issues.
Browse content similar to 17/11/2013. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Hello, and welcome to Sunday Politics in Northern Ireland. It's
the newest party on the block, but can NI21 deliver realistic
alternatives? Its leader Basil McCrea says Stormont should be given
more tax powers. It will increase accountability, it will make a
greater propensity for local parties to work together, it will make them
more accountable and I think it will make for better government. Also up
for discussion today - its last incarnation was in 2002, but now the
SDLP wants to see a return of the Civic Forum. Alex Attwood will be
telling me why. Also today: The economy is starting to grow, but
when will people's standard of living increase?
We'll be asking if we're finally beginning to emerge from the
economic downturn. And to discuss all of that and more,
I'm joined by the political correspondent of the News Letter,
Sam McBride, and the University of Ulster's Dr Cathy Gormley-Heenan.
The party political conference season is well and truly upon us.
Yesterday it was the turn of the newest party here, NI21. Its leader,
Basil McCrea, wants Westminster to allow local politicians the
authority to raise or reduce the levels of income tax and stamp duty.
He set up the party this year, along with John McCallister, after the two
men left the Ulster Unionist Party. Stephen Walker went along to the
party's inaugural conference for Sunday Politics.
Outside Belfast's Europe Hotel, NI21 show their colours. Inside they
claimed to have found a new political formula. This marks the
first opportunity for NI21 to map out in detail some of their
policies. But what do their activists and supporters make of
their plans, in particular the idea that the Executive could control
levels of income tax? I think it is an aspiration. If we
want to grow up as a party and a country, we should be looking at
saying we need responsibility for ourselves.
I am happy in my income tax that I am contributing, it involves local
people. Income tax is where the finances
come from, and if you control how you tax people, the more power that
comes to Stormont the better and the more effective parliament can be.
Basil McCrea believes greater fiscal powers will make devolution
stronger. It will increase accountability, it
will help Northern Ireland parties to work together, and I think it
will make for better government. What do the Business Committee
think? We need to be cautious in the steps
we take in that. We have been at the forefront of the devolution of
corporation tax. If you go into more broad measures such as income tax,
it requires a lot more to be done before we can be sure where that
path will go. Other policies included an official
opposition at Stormont and the First and Deputy First Minister becoming
joint ministers. Peter and Martin are joined. One
cannot order a fish supper without the other one. Let's call it what it
is, a joint office. So how should we now view NI21?
You look at people around the room, this is the first time they have
come to politics. But are they ready for the hard slog of standing in
elections, pounding the puck past and knocking on doors? That will be
a challenge to get past this idealism and a vague feeling that
things aren't right and translate it into commitment to do something.
So their first conference is over but another first is on the horizon.
The council and European elections present NI21 with their first
electoral test. They happen next May.
Let's get some reaction from my guests, Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Sam
McBride. Cathy, Basil's big thought, local politicians being able to set
income tax and stamp levelled levels. Good idea?
Yes, I am glad because Northern Ireland has declared itself on the
debate on tax, up to this point we have had some tentative
conversations about fiscal devolution and autonomy but nothing
more substantial. -- has abdicated itself.
Sam, is that how you see it? People talk about this before but it
never happens. The argument for work which was made yesterday is that it
helps Stormont grow up, it lets them raise their own taxes so they cannot
complain about cuts here or there, they need to take responsibility
themselves and that is a good argument. The problem is that
Northern Ireland gets a huge help from Westminster, millions of pounds
each year. -- billions of pounds. In some ways it is masked by the Fife
-- fact that income tax is centralised. If Northern Ireland
raises all its own income tax, it would be obvious how much we get
from Westminster. Those sorts of questions weren't really addressed.
Another notion was getting rid of the office of First Minister and
Deputy First Minister and calling it what it is, a joint office. I
imagine that would inflame matters in some quarters. This was raised by
the Alliance in 2007 and Martin McGuinness had asked the Hansard
team to change the D in OFMDFM to a small D to signify that it is a
joint office, so there have been some moves at signifying that this
is a joint office, which it is but it has never been explicitly said,
and I think the NI21 remarks shine a spotlight on that. The issue of an
opposition was raised. John McCallister's pitch to the leader of
the Austrian party was about going into opposition. -- the leader of
the Ulster Unionist Party. That has not gone away. That is what
differentiates them from the Alliance Party, which is their big
task. There was some meat on the bones of what the opposition stuff
would mean but also the role of the speaker, which is technical but
crucial in making the speaker more like the speaker at Westminster,
where they have less control, the parties have less control of that
process. Did you get the sense it was a
successful conference or will it weather on the vine? It was a
successful conference in the short space of time they had. A lot of
young people, energy, Basil McCrea's speech was a bit rambling but there
were things that enthused people. Liam Clarke's point, lots of
youthful enthusiasm but will it translate to political commitment? I
think it will. One strapline was a post-agreement party for a
post-agreement generation, and most people voting for the first time in
the next elections were born as the agreement was signed, so there is an
appetite there. Thank you both for now.
There's been a lot of talk over the past week about jobs and business in
general, and mention even of the green shoots of recovery. But is
that too optimistic? In a moment I'll be talking to the chair of the
Assembly's Finance Committee, Daithi McKay, and David McIlveen, who sits
on the Enterprise Trade and Investment Committee. -- he is
private secretary to the Finance Secretary. But first, our economics
and business editor, John Campbell, assesses if things are really
improving, and if there are hard facts to back up the feel-good
factor. The economy is recovering but the
pace of growth is slow. We have a long way to go before we get back to
where we were before the recession. There were a couple of bits of good
news, the decline in unemployment is continuing and some evidence that
job creation has picked up. Inflation also fell this week but
other figures show the service sector, the biggest part of the
local economy, shrank during the year, but most economists say the
growth we have seen did not pick up until the third quarter during the
summer months. Next week, with the new instalment of the house price
index, expect that to show an increase in transaction but not
prices, we also get a survey of earnings which will show how much
pressure household budgets are under, because a question for the
economy is how can it grow if people's wages are falling in real
terms? John Campbell setting out the stall
there. The Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay is the chair of the Assembly's
Finance Committee. He's with me now, along with the DUP's David McIlveen,
who's private secretary to the Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton.
John ended his comments with an interesting assessment, which may be
a good place to start. How can the economy grow if wages are static or
falling in real terms? Over the past nine months, there has
been a continuing fall in the employment rate. We have seen more
good news stories, more direct foreign investment and exports are
up, which indicates indigenous businesses are doing well, so the
elephant in the room is the cost of living. People go to the shops on a
weekly basis and spend over ?100 each time, the cost of goods is
another issue, and a lot of these issues can be dealt with if you take
control of fiscal powers, as was referred to in your previous piece.
-- the cost of fuel is another issue as well.
Are you backing Basil McCrea in that demand? They are backing us because
we raised the issue, but income tax and stamp duty were two issues
raised a couple of weeks ago on some commission recommendations so it is
limited in terms of their scope. Do you agree, David McIlveen, that
the parties at Stormont and Simon Hamilton has to get his hands on the
real evils of power, the capacity to raise or lower income tax? -- the
real levers of power. The term green shoots of recovery I
would hope is permanently etched from vocabulary, because we have to
realise boom and bust did not work and we now need a level head to
ensure our economy grows at a sustainable rate. I do not believe
devolving fiscal powers to Stormont is the best way forward, surely
because it is fantasy politics. Conservative estimations indicate we
received ?11 billion more each year then what we sent in tax receipts.
That is around ?6,500 for every citizen of Northern Ireland. I don't
know about Sinn Fein or NI21, but if they want to go to the electorate
and tell them they will give them a ?6,500 greater tax bill, they are
braver men than I. What about stamp duty? These things come at a cost.
We have targeted requests for fiscal powers to areas where we believe we
can gain an overall economic benefit. Corporation tax, air
traffic duty. So should we just soak it up? Wages are static or falling,
you don't want the levers of power to change things, which some people
think would be an important asset. We just have to get on with it?
There are two things we can do. We can keep household taxes low and
this Assembly has delivered that. Second, we can create better higher
paid jobs. We know our economy is too reliant on the public sector.
There have been more private-sector jobs created in the last two years
then in the history of Northern Ireland. That is good news. Daithi
McKay, so you are engaged in in fantasy politics? Dublin had chances
in terms of the taxes down there. We don't have that here, we have
guesses based on the surveys David referred to. They are not based on
actual figures. Dublin is a sovereign state in control of its
own affairs, the reality for us is that we are part of the UK economy.
You have to accept that. I don't accept that. It is backed at the
moment. -- it is a fact at the moment. But to get back to fiscal
powers, what we are entitled to is accurate figures in terms of taxes
we raise so we can go to London with a stronger hand when it comes to the
economy. But look at corporation tax. That was trailed as a great
panacea but it hasn't happened and now we are told it is on the long
finger and will come at a cost. It is a risky thing to engage. We have
to take risks. You cannot keep throwing out estimates and scaring
people off because ultimately this economy will not go anywhere. In
terms of moving this issue forward, we need a proper, mature debate as
is happening in Wales and Scotland. The real problem is the dogma that
has been introduced by Unionist politicians because when Sammy
Wilson, the previous Finance Minister, was questioned about
devolution, he said he would be opposed to it because he is a
Unionist. That does not cut it with the people who want to see this
happen. You should be practical, not dogmatic? We have to use devolution
to our best advantage and it is ironic we have a Sinn Fein
representative saying we should be more like what is happening across
the border. I struggle to find anyone in Northern Ireland today who
would want to be in an economy which has undergone such extreme austerity
as Republic of Ireland has had to face.
Briefly, can you comment on the petrol bomb attack on an Alliance
Party office in East Belfast last night? Naomi Long says it's an
attack on democracy. Is she right? I agree entirely with that. We have
experienced many attacks on our people, on property, we are no
stranger to how that feels. This is an attack on democracy. It not only
was an attack on an elected representative's office but it could
have damaged adjoining premises. I don't see how that is good for East
Belfast. Our thoughts should be with Naomi and all their elected
representatives working in that office and their families because
this has a huge impact that people do not realise, but in terms of
Belfast, we do not want to see a repeat of what happened here before.
We want to see a happy and productive Christmas and see
businesses grow and flourish as they should have done this year.
Thank you both. Time now for a look at what's been
making the headlines in the political week gone past.
Tributes were paid to one of the SDLP's founders. From Cranfield to
Crossgar, everyone had the highest respect for Edinburgh they. -- for
Eddie. Stormont was told to hurry up welfare reform. ?400 million a month
does not sound a lot but it will be 60 million in the first year.
Another bill was killed by Mark H Durkan. I am not scrapping the
National Parks Bill but I am shelving it. Parading talks
continued but there was no breakthrough. They were helpful
meetings. That does not mean there was a miracle. And Edwin Poots gave
us some marriage guidance. Many people who are heterosexual desire
lots of other folks. Those of us who are married should not be doing
that, so people can resist urges. Now, if you've been a keen follower
of local politics for a while, you'll very probably recall the
Civil Forum. It was set up in 2000 to address pressing social economic
and cultural matters. However, its life was short-lived, and it hasn't
met since 2002. Tomorrow, the Assembly will debate an SDLP motion
to recall it by as soon as the end of January. Let's hear more from
Alex Attwood, who's proposed the motion. Thank you for joining us. It
met 12 times between 2000 and 2002, and then slipped away into the
shadows. Doesn't it look a bit like a relic of the past at this stage? I
think the greater strength of society today and over the last ten
or 20 years has been the party of our civic groups. -- the authority
of our civic groups. They held this place together during the years of
conflict and they are the people, and Richard Haass could tell you
this, who have given the wisest advice to this new talks process. I
think it is time now to scale up the input of civic society into our
politics, and doing so will make politics more honest than we have
seen recently. Do we really need a Civic Forum to do that, because you
have said there have been hundreds of submissions from civic society to
the house is all talks without this form? Let's take as an example the
victims form, add all the indications are that while its work
is challenging, it has shaken up well and that creates a better
understanding of the issues around victims and helps politicians to do
what has to be done on their behalf. In respect of civic groups, we need
to build an inclusive society, we need to capture all those who give
good authority and advice. Creating a new Civic Forum is one way of
doing so, and in my view will create a great point of contrast between
the failure of party politics and the strength of civic groups. But
isn't this a spectacular own goal on your part because by calling for the
reintroduction of the Civic Forum, you are admitting our politicians
have failed us. Yes, we have. Look around us at the flags and parades
dispute, look at politics degrading. Some parties clearly had a bigger
responsibility to govern and they have the biggest failure in not
leading or governing. But your party has failed too. It is part of that
overall failure? I think politics has failed people in Northern
Ireland. I think it is more true for some parties than others, but how
are we going to have the image of values of the Good Friday agreement,
that hope, that daring, recreated? One way is to heed their voices in
this document. This is one of four volumes of submissions to the Haass
talks. There are more to come. There is a weight and depth of advice and
wisdom in here that we need to hear in the future if we are going to
reshape our society. At what cost? Bringing back the civic form would
cost money. People say it is another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.
2001/2 cost ?425,000. 2002/3 cost ?328,000. That was over a decade
ago. We have had a conversation about how nobody can afford it. Go
up Twaddell Avenue today and you will see the cost in financial terms
to Northern Ireland people from that dispute. The costs of the four are
relatively minor in giving the opportunity a new form would create.
-- the costs of the forum. If we run civic society the way we have for
the last ten years, society will not move forward the way it should. Alex
Attwood, thank you. Let's get some final thoughts from our guests.
Unusual to hear a politician admit that politicians have failed the
people. It is pretty honest. Alex is being honest in terms of saying all
the parties in the system have built people, which few could argue with
if they are being candid. -- Alex is being general in saying all of the
parties have failed to people. The Dublin Finance Minister, who spoke
at the NI21 conference, made this point that politicians need to be
more honest. -- the junior minister in the Dublin finance ministry. This
Civic Forum has merit in so far as it could give advice to Stormont but
it will only ever be an advice and Stormont gets a lot of advice. It
brings in people and committees about welfare reform and education.
Who would make up this body? Would groups like the Orange Order, the
GAA, big organisations in Northern Ireland? That was not resolved after
the Good Friday agreement. Interesting issues that Sam raises.
But is it a starter or the Civic Forum could be reintroduced? I think
it should be reintroducing. It was a key component of the Good Friday
agreement and I cannot see why it was allowed to fall. The costs were
not substantial. It costs around ?50,000 a day to police Twaddell
Avenue. The costs in comparison to that are insignificant. It was a key
part of agreement and should be brought back. The problem was that
the collective leaderships of the two main parties don't seem to want
it. The argument against it at the time was that it was basically a
talking shop, it wasn't very expensive but it was money for very
little. We will see if it is reintroduced. Thank you both for
joining us. That's it for this week, Albee back tomorrow evening at
11:20pm over on BBC Two. Join me for that. Thanks for watching. Goodbye.