Monday, 22 December 2008

Christmas in Belfast, 1978

The BBC has an interesting video clip of an Australian reporting on Christmas in Belfast in 1978. Some things change, such as the level of security, tension on the streets and ongoing threat of violence. Other things remain the same, such as people just trying to get on with their lives and enjoy themselves.

Belfast Christmas 1978

Friday, 19 December 2008

Shoppers at the Frontier

Over on the IoD’s NIcrunchtalk site, the ever-observant Brian Walker has spotted that the story of Newry’s shopping boom in has made it into the New York Times.

The article in the NY Times notes that: “It seems the only ones complaining about the cross-border trade are senior political officials in the economically strapped south, who are bemoaning the loss of sales tax revenues and questioning the “patriotism” of the bargain hunters.”

This comes as the euro reached an all-time high of 95 pence sterling yesterday evening, meaning that the currency in the south is nearly equal in value to that of the north. Taking into account the already lower prices in the north, compounded by the recent drop in UK VAT, it’s clear why shopping centres such as the Quays and the Buttercrane have been packed in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Eamon Quinn, who penned the NY Times article, also had a piece in the Sunday Tribune a couple of weeks ago in which he quoted Quays shopping centre owner Gerard O’Hare as predicting that Tesco or Asda would soon be arriving in Newry, perhaps on the site of my old Alma Mater, and that he would be spending €250m on doubling the current 500,000 square-foot Quays from 2010.

Of course, as residents of Newry will know all too well, the city’s roads and streets simply aren’t fit to cope with the current traffic levels, so ensuring that these proposed developments are well spread-out across the Frontier Town will be vital, not least to ensure that all parts of Newry benefit from the retail boom.

The global economic turbulence could perhaps lead to southern shoppers being joined by American bargain-hunters as well. As the euro strengthens against the pound, so does the dollar, which is now worth over 66p. Brian asks: “Might this start a whole new trend of American heritage shoppers coming over for a last minute quick Christmas raid instead of our now unaffordable Christmas shopping trip to the Big Apple?” Only time will tell. My advice would be to stock-up on your Carlsberg from Sainsbury’s now before Chuck from the Bronx arrives to clear the aisles!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Celtic Tiger- An Endangered Species

The economic bad news continues to flow into Northern Notes HQ with rumours circulating that Dell could shut its European hub in Limerick. It's been reported that IDA bosses, who have pumped over €74m in government cash into Dell since the mid-nineties, are preparing themselves for news in the New Year that the computer giant is to move its operations wholesale to Poland before the end of 2009.

The Limerick Leader says that the European Commission is examining an estimated €52.7m Polish state aid for Dell's plant in Lodz. However, if Dell has already made up its mind to move eastwards, then any legal wrangles will lead to little more than a delay. 3,000 people are currently employed at the Limerick plant, and it is estimated that around six in every 100 people in the region are reliant on Dell for an income.

So what does this mean for the north? Well, with the economy here largely reliant on the public sector, the Executive has vowed to move us towards a more mixed system. Some of the ways they're seeking to achieve this is through attracting American investment and lobbying for corporation tax harmonisation between the north and the south.

However, as the Dell situation has shown, a low company tax rate and having a red carpet laid-out for big US companies is not enough to keep them in Ireland. If the south, which has over a decade of experience of hosting these corporations is having trouble holding onto them, then the north will have a tough time doing any better.

Nonetheless, it's vital that our workforce is skilled-up to make it as competitive as possible. The weak pound will make the north somewhat more attractive than the eurozone as a manufacturing base, so we need to be able to exploit this. There are good lessons to be learnt from the south, which looked at where the market was going in the early nineties and directed its education and traning towards ensuring that its workforce was prepared to meet the needs multinational corporations. The north should do the same now.

As the financial crisis continues, there are opportunities available for the north. But we need to be in a position to make the most of it.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Breaking News: Libertas becomes a political party

Next year’s European elections are set to become even more interesting now that Libertas, the key force behind the ‘No’ campaign in the recent referendum in the south on the Lisbon Treaty, is to stand as a political party in its own right.

The multi-millionaire Chairman of Libertas, Declan Ganley, may indicate that he himself will stand in the Ireland North-West constituency, which includes his Galway base as well as the Ulster border counties which lie in the Republic.

Speaking at a press Conference at Libertas’ newly opened European HQ in Brussels, Mr Ganley said that the new party would also field candidates across the EU on a “common pro-European platform of democracy, accountability and transparency.”

He added: “If people want a strong and healthy Europe that is democratic and answerable to them, they should vote for a Libertas candidate. If they do not want Europe to succeed or if they are happy with the current undemocratic practises, then they should vote for an incumbent party. For those who weren’t given a vote on the Lisbon Treaty, this will be their referendum.”

The launch of Libertas as a party coincides with news that the southern government plans to run a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Earlier this year, the treaty was rejected in a shock ‘No’ vote in the Republic and EU leaders have since been desperately scrambling to find a way of keeping the European project on track. The news that Libertas will be expanding its sphere of influence will not come as good news for those leaders.

Republican Sinn Féin Oppose Mooted Reindeer Strike

Press Release from Sinn Féin Pobtachtach, Luimneach:


The use of Christmas related advertising by multi-national companies to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of young children over the arrival of Santa has been condemned by a spokesman for Republican Sinn Féin.

Mick The Quill Ryan from Ballynanty, the RSF chairman in the north side of Limerick said that some companies are using the upcoming Christmas as a vehicle to sell their products while casting doubts over the arrival of Santa.

The fact that companies like a huge mobile phone firm can use advertising that features the reindeers talking about going on strike is in bad taste and affects the views of children.

We have had complaints from parents who say that their children are concerned about a reindeer strike and the fact that Santa depends on the reindeers to deliver the Christmas presents.

While an adult can appreciate the point being made by the advertising, young children do not have the same perspective and tend to repeat what they see and hear.

Update: Word has just come through that thanks to the Lapland National Pay Agreement, all reindeers have now agreed to return to work.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The Shortest Membership in History?

A month ago the Progressive Democrats decided to call it a day. However, their site still has a recruitment section. With the party likely to finally wind-up within the next few weeks as legal loose ends are tied-up, anyone who signs-up ought to drop a line to the Guinness Book of Records as they'll be in with a shout for the shortest lived membership of a political party.

Meanwhile, there have been rumours that a new party could be set up to fill the void left by the exit of the PDs from southern politics. Former PD councillor Tom Morrissey has said he is in talks to form a 'Reform Party', saying that "given the departure of the PDs from the political scene, the Irish electorate will be served in the future by a centre-left Government with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael as the major partner."

If Cllr Morrissey thinks Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are "centre-left", I think we can take a good guess at where the 'Reform Party' will lie on the ideological spectrum.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Return of the Gods

In a world exclusive today, the NME revealed that Brit Pop legends Blur are planning a massive open air concert in Hyde Park next summer. The news was boosted by the revelation that estranged guitarist Graham Coxon has returned to the fold. Graham has pursued a solo career since leaving the band during the recording of their last album Think Tank.

Each of the band members has taken an interesting path in their lives since Blur topped the charts with Country House and Beetlebum. Damon Albarn had global success with Gorillaz and currently has a Chinese opera playing at the O2 Arena in London. Bassist Alex James makes cheese on his farm and is a judge in Channel 4 show Orange Unsigned. Meanwhile drummer Dave Rowntree stood unsuccessfully as a Labour council candidate.

A massive open air gig like this sets right much of Blur's lost potential and corrects their inauspicious departure from the music scene earlier in the decade.

There's talk that Blur might also agree to headline Glastonbury shortly before the Hyde Park concert and rumours abound of a tour. All being well, we might also see a new album.

Having seen Blur thrice- twice in Dublin and once in Belfast- as well as Graham Coxon playing in Mandela Hall, I'll be first in the queue for tickets for the comeback gig of the year.

In the meantime, here are a few hits to whet the appetite...

How to make a fur coat on a budget

I have to admit that it's never been something that's crossed my mind, but if you've ever harboured a particular desire to fashion yourself a coat from the skins of dead rabbits then you're in luck- Penguin has reissued its 1941 book 'Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps' which, among other things, provides advice on how to embark on such an enterprise.

The no-nonsense guide was first published during the war to provide information on how to get by without breaking the bank. Apparently if you want to breed rabbits for eating but don't have much food knocking about the place to keep them on, dinner scraps will do the job as "there is no known waste from human edible food which is harmful in moderation." However, anyone looking to take this advice literally should bear in mind that the book was written before the advent of turkey twizzlers. Nonetheless, we are advised that the poor craters can be fed tea leaves, coffee remnants, bones, kipper skins and other fish waste, fat, and cheese rinds.

The book also shows how to raise chickens, and with all the subtlety of Brian Blessed turning up in a tutu to audition for a role in 'Swan Lake', it opines that "although left to the last, the unpleasant task of killing hens and chicks must be grasped."

Once you've dispatched the animals and had a thoroughly tasty dinner, there's still more fun to be had- the book also provides guidance on how to skin rabbit carcasses and fashion yourself the aformentioned snazzy coat once you've amassed around 40 pelts. Charming.

So there you have it. If the credit crunch is starting to take its toll, fear not- grab yourself a copy of this little volume and you can eat and dress like a king for next to nothing. The neighbours might think you're a bit odd though.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Dave Speaks

Over two decades after the Ulster Unionists and Tories went their separate ways over the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Conservative leader David Cameron turned up at the UUP's conference at the weekend to speak about the rekindling of the old flame.

The link between the parties goes back a long way. However, the rediscovered relationship may raise problems as the two navigate their way through future elections. Northern Ireland is not as British as Finchley. This part of the world is not 'Simply British'. It has its own unique set of issues and complications, and a manifesto of policies which might run well in Birmingham or Bath may have absolutely no resonance with voters in Belfast. Up until now the Tories have had no impact here, unlike across the water, as they're seen as outsiders. The challenge for both parties now is to combine the history and local structure of the UUP with the financial and political strength of the Tories to win seats in Northern Ireland.

Probably paying due cognisance the minefield before them, Cameron's speech to conference sought to cast unionism in a different light. Rather than really touching upon issues affecting people living here, especially those which are dealt with through the devolved administration, he took an angle which appealed on an emotional level with those who want to see Northern Ireland put on a par with England, Scotland and Wales. With the DUP winning the hearts and minds of the unionist electorate for the best part of a decade, this type of connection is what has been missing from the Ulster Unionists' repertoire. It also made sense for Cameron to speak in broader terms- by leaving the local issues to the UUP and instead focussing on the bigger picture, the Tories may avoid the trap of appearing like ill-advised carpetbaggers.

There are delicate times ahead as the UUP and Conservatives work out how exactly this relationship will provide mutual benefit. However, it's safe to say that the interest shown by potentially the next party of government in the UK has added a spring to the step of Ulster Unionists and will no doubt be a cause for concern for the other unionist party in the north.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Slash and Spend?

The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee has made another bold move by cutting interest rates by one percentage point. This comes on top of the 1.5 percentage point drop last month, bringing the rate down to its lowest level since the Bank was founded over 300 years ago.

But will it work? Well it’ll certainly leave more money in the pocket of many mortgage-holders. It also means that savers have less to gain from leaving their cash in banks, so they may opt to splash out instead, helping retailers and, in turn, manufacturers.

This move by the MPC, which makes decisions on interest rate levels independently but while working towards government targets, is aimed at complementing the recent drop in VAT to the minimum permissible level of 15%. Together the Bank and the Government will hope that increased consumer confidence and higher discretionary income will result in more spending.

It seems sensible to make this move- it’s the simplest way to get more money into the system and unlike the VAT cut, will not create massive debt for the UK. Mortgage lenders, who are already cutting back on the offers they are making to homeowners, may not be too happy. They’re not obliged to pass on the cuts, but with the government buying up a significant interest in several of the highstreet banks and offering unprecedented security backing across the board, the authorities effectively have the lenders over a barrel.

However, problems may arise if the interest rate and VAT cuts fail to have the desired effect on the economy. With both now at rock bottom, there’s nowhere else to go if things continue in a bad vein.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Time to extend Democracy

Figures released today by the Electoral Commission have shown that record numbers of 17-year-olds have registered to vote in the north in the past year. The statistics show that the number in this age category who have put themselves on the register has leapt from 244 last year to 7,738 this year.

This is great news and shows that contrary to popular perception and in spite of a prolonged period of gridlock in the Assembly, young people do have an active interest in politics and the democratic process.

The next logical step is to extend the franchise to people over the age of 16.

Taxation without representation

As someone who has worked to get young people involved in politics for a number of years, it’s always struck me that many of them are a lot more switched-on and aware of issues than people perhaps twice their age. Yet they cannot put that enthusiasm to use by casting a vote at election time. It’s ridiculous that people aged 16 or 17 can work and pay taxes, yet are denied the right to pick the politicians who will spend those taxes.

This quite literally disenfranchises a significant section of the community.

The voting age was last altered in 1969 when it was cut from 21 to 18. Instead of complaining about young people having a lack of civic responsibility, politicians should now take action to also afford people over 16 the right to actively participate in democracy and become part of the electoral process.

Last year, just before the Assembly elections, the minimum age for candidacy here was dropped from a ridiculous 21 to 18. Since then, a number of 18-year-olds have stood for election or been co-opted onto councils. Far from damaging the democratic process, this has shown that young people can play a full role in society and has sent out a very positive message to these young activists’ peers.

The figures released today just add to the evidence that there should be universal suffrage for everyone over 16.