17/11/2013 Sunday Politics Northern Ireland


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


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.


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