17/11/2013 Sunday Politics Northern Ireland


17/11/2013

Mark Carruthers looks at the political developments of the week and questions policy makers on the key issues.


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Hello, and welcome to Sunday Politics in Northern Ireland. It's

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the newest party on the block, but can NI21 deliver realistic

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alternatives? Its leader Basil McCrea says Stormont should be given

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more tax powers. It will increase accountability, it will make a

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greater propensity for local parties to work together, it will make them

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more accountable and I think it will make for better government. Also up

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for discussion today - its last incarnation was in 2002, but now the

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SDLP wants to see a return of the Civic Forum. Alex Attwood will be

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telling me why. Also today: The economy is starting to grow, but

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when will people's standard of living increase?

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We'll be asking if we're finally beginning to emerge from the

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economic downturn. And to discuss all of that and more,

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I'm joined by the political correspondent of the News Letter,

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Sam McBride, and the University of Ulster's Dr Cathy Gormley-Heenan.

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The party political conference season is well and truly upon us.

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Yesterday it was the turn of the newest party here, NI21. Its leader,

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Basil McCrea, wants Westminster to allow local politicians the

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authority to raise or reduce the levels of income tax and stamp duty.

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He set up the party this year, along with John McCallister, after the two

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men left the Ulster Unionist Party. Stephen Walker went along to the

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party's inaugural conference for Sunday Politics.

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Outside Belfast's Europe Hotel, NI21 show their colours. Inside they

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claimed to have found a new political formula. This marks the

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first opportunity for NI21 to map out in detail some of their

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policies. But what do their activists and supporters make of

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their plans, in particular the idea that the Executive could control

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levels of income tax? I think it is an aspiration. If we

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want to grow up as a party and a country, we should be looking at

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saying we need responsibility for ourselves.

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I am happy in my income tax that I am contributing, it involves local

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people. Income tax is where the finances

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come from, and if you control how you tax people, the more power that

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comes to Stormont the better and the more effective parliament can be.

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Basil McCrea believes greater fiscal powers will make devolution

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stronger. It will increase accountability, it

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will help Northern Ireland parties to work together, and I think it

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will make for better government. What do the Business Committee

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think? We need to be cautious in the steps

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we take in that. We have been at the forefront of the devolution of

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corporation tax. If you go into more broad measures such as income tax,

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it requires a lot more to be done before we can be sure where that

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path will go. Other policies included an official

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opposition at Stormont and the First and Deputy First Minister becoming

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joint ministers. Peter and Martin are joined. One

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cannot order a fish supper without the other one. Let's call it what it

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is, a joint office. So how should we now view NI21?

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You look at people around the room, this is the first time they have

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come to politics. But are they ready for the hard slog of standing in

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elections, pounding the puck past and knocking on doors? That will be

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a challenge to get past this idealism and a vague feeling that

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things aren't right and translate it into commitment to do something.

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So their first conference is over but another first is on the horizon.

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The council and European elections present NI21 with their first

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electoral test. They happen next May.

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Let's get some reaction from my guests, Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Sam

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McBride. Cathy, Basil's big thought, local politicians being able to set

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income tax and stamp levelled levels. Good idea?

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Yes, I am glad because Northern Ireland has declared itself on the

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debate on tax, up to this point we have had some tentative

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conversations about fiscal devolution and autonomy but nothing

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more substantial. -- has abdicated itself.

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Sam, is that how you see it? People talk about this before but it

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never happens. The argument for work which was made yesterday is that it

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helps Stormont grow up, it lets them raise their own taxes so they cannot

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complain about cuts here or there, they need to take responsibility

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themselves and that is a good argument. The problem is that

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Northern Ireland gets a huge help from Westminster, millions of pounds

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each year. -- billions of pounds. In some ways it is masked by the Fife

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-- fact that income tax is centralised. If Northern Ireland

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raises all its own income tax, it would be obvious how much we get

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from Westminster. Those sorts of questions weren't really addressed.

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Another notion was getting rid of the office of First Minister and

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Deputy First Minister and calling it what it is, a joint office. I

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imagine that would inflame matters in some quarters. This was raised by

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the Alliance in 2007 and Martin McGuinness had asked the Hansard

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team to change the D in OFMDFM to a small D to signify that it is a

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joint office, so there have been some moves at signifying that this

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is a joint office, which it is but it has never been explicitly said,

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and I think the NI21 remarks shine a spotlight on that. The issue of an

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opposition was raised. John McCallister's pitch to the leader of

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the Austrian party was about going into opposition. -- the leader of

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the Ulster Unionist Party. That has not gone away. That is what

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differentiates them from the Alliance Party, which is their big

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task. There was some meat on the bones of what the opposition stuff

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would mean but also the role of the speaker, which is technical but

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crucial in making the speaker more like the speaker at Westminster,

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where they have less control, the parties have less control of that

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process. Did you get the sense it was a

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successful conference or will it weather on the vine? It was a

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successful conference in the short space of time they had. A lot of

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young people, energy, Basil McCrea's speech was a bit rambling but there

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were things that enthused people. Liam Clarke's point, lots of

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youthful enthusiasm but will it translate to political commitment? I

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think it will. One strapline was a post-agreement party for a

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post-agreement generation, and most people voting for the first time in

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the next elections were born as the agreement was signed, so there is an

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appetite there. Thank you both for now.

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There's been a lot of talk over the past week about jobs and business in

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general, and mention even of the green shoots of recovery. But is

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that too optimistic? In a moment I'll be talking to the chair of the

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Assembly's Finance Committee, Daithi McKay, and David McIlveen, who sits

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on the Enterprise Trade and Investment Committee. -- he is

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private secretary to the Finance Secretary. But first, our economics

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and business editor, John Campbell, assesses if things are really

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improving, and if there are hard facts to back up the feel-good

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factor. The economy is recovering but the

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pace of growth is slow. We have a long way to go before we get back to

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where we were before the recession. There were a couple of bits of good

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news, the decline in unemployment is continuing and some evidence that

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job creation has picked up. Inflation also fell this week but

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other figures show the service sector, the biggest part of the

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local economy, shrank during the year, but most economists say the

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growth we have seen did not pick up until the third quarter during the

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summer months. Next week, with the new instalment of the house price

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index, expect that to show an increase in transaction but not

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prices, we also get a survey of earnings which will show how much

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pressure household budgets are under, because a question for the

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economy is how can it grow if people's wages are falling in real

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terms? John Campbell setting out the stall

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there. The Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay is the chair of the Assembly's

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Finance Committee. He's with me now, along with the DUP's David McIlveen,

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who's private secretary to the Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton.

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John ended his comments with an interesting assessment, which may be

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a good place to start. How can the economy grow if wages are static or

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falling in real terms? Over the past nine months, there has

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been a continuing fall in the employment rate. We have seen more

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good news stories, more direct foreign investment and exports are

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up, which indicates indigenous businesses are doing well, so the

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elephant in the room is the cost of living. People go to the shops on a

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weekly basis and spend over ?100 each time, the cost of goods is

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another issue, and a lot of these issues can be dealt with if you take

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control of fiscal powers, as was referred to in your previous piece.

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-- the cost of fuel is another issue as well.

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Are you backing Basil McCrea in that demand? They are backing us because

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we raised the issue, but income tax and stamp duty were two issues

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raised a couple of weeks ago on some commission recommendations so it is

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limited in terms of their scope. Do you agree, David McIlveen, that

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the parties at Stormont and Simon Hamilton has to get his hands on the

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real evils of power, the capacity to raise or lower income tax? -- the

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real levers of power. The term green shoots of recovery I

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would hope is permanently etched from vocabulary, because we have to

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realise boom and bust did not work and we now need a level head to

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ensure our economy grows at a sustainable rate. I do not believe

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devolving fiscal powers to Stormont is the best way forward, surely

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because it is fantasy politics. Conservative estimations indicate we

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received ?11 billion more each year then what we sent in tax receipts.

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That is around ?6,500 for every citizen of Northern Ireland. I don't

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know about Sinn Fein or NI21, but if they want to go to the electorate

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and tell them they will give them a ?6,500 greater tax bill, they are

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braver men than I. What about stamp duty? These things come at a cost.

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We have targeted requests for fiscal powers to areas where we believe we

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can gain an overall economic benefit. Corporation tax, air

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traffic duty. So should we just soak it up? Wages are static or falling,

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you don't want the levers of power to change things, which some people

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think would be an important asset. We just have to get on with it?

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There are two things we can do. We can keep household taxes low and

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this Assembly has delivered that. Second, we can create better higher

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paid jobs. We know our economy is too reliant on the public sector.

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There have been more private-sector jobs created in the last two years

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then in the history of Northern Ireland. That is good news. Daithi

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McKay, so you are engaged in in fantasy politics? Dublin had chances

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in terms of the taxes down there. We don't have that here, we have

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guesses based on the surveys David referred to. They are not based on

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actual figures. Dublin is a sovereign state in control of its

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own affairs, the reality for us is that we are part of the UK economy.

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You have to accept that. I don't accept that. It is backed at the

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moment. -- it is a fact at the moment. But to get back to fiscal

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powers, what we are entitled to is accurate figures in terms of taxes

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we raise so we can go to London with a stronger hand when it comes to the

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economy. But look at corporation tax. That was trailed as a great

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panacea but it hasn't happened and now we are told it is on the long

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finger and will come at a cost. It is a risky thing to engage. We have

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to take risks. You cannot keep throwing out estimates and scaring

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people off because ultimately this economy will not go anywhere. In

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terms of moving this issue forward, we need a proper, mature debate as

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is happening in Wales and Scotland. The real problem is the dogma that

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has been introduced by Unionist politicians because when Sammy

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Wilson, the previous Finance Minister, was questioned about

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devolution, he said he would be opposed to it because he is a

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Unionist. That does not cut it with the people who want to see this

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happen. You should be practical, not dogmatic? We have to use devolution

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to our best advantage and it is ironic we have a Sinn Fein

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representative saying we should be more like what is happening across

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the border. I struggle to find anyone in Northern Ireland today who

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would want to be in an economy which has undergone such extreme austerity

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as Republic of Ireland has had to face.

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Briefly, can you comment on the petrol bomb attack on an Alliance

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Party office in East Belfast last night? Naomi Long says it's an

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attack on democracy. Is she right? I agree entirely with that. We have

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experienced many attacks on our people, on property, we are no

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stranger to how that feels. This is an attack on democracy. It not only

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was an attack on an elected representative's office but it could

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have damaged adjoining premises. I don't see how that is good for East

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Belfast. Our thoughts should be with Naomi and all their elected

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representatives working in that office and their families because

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this has a huge impact that people do not realise, but in terms of

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Belfast, we do not want to see a repeat of what happened here before.

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We want to see a happy and productive Christmas and see

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businesses grow and flourish as they should have done this year.

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Thank you both. Time now for a look at what's been

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making the headlines in the political week gone past.

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Tributes were paid to one of the SDLP's founders. From Cranfield to

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Crossgar, everyone had the highest respect for Edinburgh they. -- for

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Eddie. Stormont was told to hurry up welfare reform. ?400 million a month

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does not sound a lot but it will be 60 million in the first year.

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Another bill was killed by Mark H Durkan. I am not scrapping the

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National Parks Bill but I am shelving it. Parading talks

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continued but there was no breakthrough. They were helpful

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meetings. That does not mean there was a miracle. And Edwin Poots gave

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us some marriage guidance. Many people who are heterosexual desire

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lots of other folks. Those of us who are married should not be doing

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that, so people can resist urges. Now, if you've been a keen follower

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of local politics for a while, you'll very probably recall the

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Civil Forum. It was set up in 2000 to address pressing social economic

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and cultural matters. However, its life was short-lived, and it hasn't

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met since 2002. Tomorrow, the Assembly will debate an SDLP motion

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to recall it by as soon as the end of January. Let's hear more from

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Alex Attwood, who's proposed the motion. Thank you for joining us. It

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met 12 times between 2000 and 2002, and then slipped away into the

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shadows. Doesn't it look a bit like a relic of the past at this stage? I

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think the greater strength of society today and over the last ten

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or 20 years has been the party of our civic groups. -- the authority

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of our civic groups. They held this place together during the years of

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conflict and they are the people, and Richard Haass could tell you

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this, who have given the wisest advice to this new talks process. I

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think it is time now to scale up the input of civic society into our

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politics, and doing so will make politics more honest than we have

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seen recently. Do we really need a Civic Forum to do that, because you

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have said there have been hundreds of submissions from civic society to

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the house is all talks without this form? Let's take as an example the

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victims form, add all the indications are that while its work

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is challenging, it has shaken up well and that creates a better

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understanding of the issues around victims and helps politicians to do

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what has to be done on their behalf. In respect of civic groups, we need

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to build an inclusive society, we need to capture all those who give

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good authority and advice. Creating a new Civic Forum is one way of

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doing so, and in my view will create a great point of contrast between

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the failure of party politics and the strength of civic groups. But

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isn't this a spectacular own goal on your part because by calling for the

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reintroduction of the Civic Forum, you are admitting our politicians

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have failed us. Yes, we have. Look around us at the flags and parades

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dispute, look at politics degrading. Some parties clearly had a bigger

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responsibility to govern and they have the biggest failure in not

:19:54.:20:01.

leading or governing. But your party has failed too. It is part of that

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overall failure? I think politics has failed people in Northern

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Ireland. I think it is more true for some parties than others, but how

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are we going to have the image of values of the Good Friday agreement,

:20:16.:20:22.

that hope, that daring, recreated? One way is to heed their voices in

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this document. This is one of four volumes of submissions to the Haass

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talks. There are more to come. There is a weight and depth of advice and

:20:34.:20:37.

wisdom in here that we need to hear in the future if we are going to

:20:38.:20:45.

reshape our society. At what cost? Bringing back the civic form would

:20:46.:20:49.

cost money. People say it is another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

:20:50.:20:55.

2001/2 cost ?425,000. 2002/3 cost ?328,000. That was over a decade

:20:56.:21:01.

ago. We have had a conversation about how nobody can afford it. Go

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up Twaddell Avenue today and you will see the cost in financial terms

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to Northern Ireland people from that dispute. The costs of the four are

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relatively minor in giving the opportunity a new form would create.

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-- the costs of the forum. If we run civic society the way we have for

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the last ten years, society will not move forward the way it should. Alex

:21:24.:21:30.

Attwood, thank you. Let's get some final thoughts from our guests.

:21:31.:21:34.

Unusual to hear a politician admit that politicians have failed the

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people. It is pretty honest. Alex is being honest in terms of saying all

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the parties in the system have built people, which few could argue with

:21:46.:21:51.

if they are being candid. -- Alex is being general in saying all of the

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parties have failed to people. The Dublin Finance Minister, who spoke

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at the NI21 conference, made this point that politicians need to be

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more honest. -- the junior minister in the Dublin finance ministry. This

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Civic Forum has merit in so far as it could give advice to Stormont but

:22:08.:22:11.

it will only ever be an advice and Stormont gets a lot of advice. It

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brings in people and committees about welfare reform and education.

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Who would make up this body? Would groups like the Orange Order, the

:22:19.:22:21.

GAA, big organisations in Northern Ireland? That was not resolved after

:22:22.:22:30.

the Good Friday agreement. Interesting issues that Sam raises.

:22:31.:22:35.

But is it a starter or the Civic Forum could be reintroduced? I think

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it should be reintroducing. It was a key component of the Good Friday

:22:41.:22:44.

agreement and I cannot see why it was allowed to fall. The costs were

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not substantial. It costs around ?50,000 a day to police Twaddell

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Avenue. The costs in comparison to that are insignificant. It was a key

:22:55.:23:00.

part of agreement and should be brought back. The problem was that

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the collective leaderships of the two main parties don't seem to want

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it. The argument against it at the time was that it was basically a

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talking shop, it wasn't very expensive but it was money for very

:23:17.:23:21.

little. We will see if it is reintroduced. Thank you both for

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joining us. That's it for this week, Albee back tomorrow evening at

:23:30.:23:36.

11:20pm over on BBC Two. Join me for that. Thanks for watching. Goodbye.

:23:37.:23:38.

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