Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Pete’s patronising lessons in parsimony

Anne Cadwallader:

Whatever Gerry Adams' aspirations for Ian Paisley's late conversion to common sense, Peter Hain looks set to be master of all he surveys for the foreseeable future – at least for the day-or-so a week he actually works at Stormont.

When the DUP finally catches itself on and settles into the new political landscape, we will be able to turf out our part-time secretary of state. In the meantime, it's as well to pay close attention to the runes set out in his so-called “keynote" speech.

When you think about it, the scriptwriter could have been penning a sketch for the Hole in the Wall Gang.

“Northern Ireland," he said, (his term, not mine) had to break free from “paramilitarism, grisly feuding, rioting, racketeering, sectarianism and organised crime," Goodness. What’s left?

He used the word “great" seven times in his penultimate sentence, promising to “take the tough decisions" and equip Northern Ireland for a “great" future.

Leaving aside the patronising tone, does he think we are taken in by all this?

After 25 years covering squillions of very similar speeches, you will forgive me for being a trifle sceptical. I've been listening to British ministers blathering on like that since 1981.

I think I can remember Chris Patten promising, as Peter Hain did this week, to reform education. By the way, by “reform" he means close down schools which should earn him some brownie points with the British treasury.

Politically, it was a predictable speech, covering all bases, giving unionists a pat on the head here, a spank on the bottom there.

The people into whose back he really sank a stiletto were republicans. Presumably he feels it was a worthwhile bone to throw the loyalists and that republicans don't listen to anything he says.

“For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland," said Hain, “Sinn Féin has accepted that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK until, and unless, the people of Northern Ireland (we've got the message, thank you) decide otherwise".

“For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland (aaargh!) the IRA have accepted that Northern Ireland (groan) will remain part of the United Kingdom until and unless the people of Northern Ireland (gulp) decide otherwise".

“For the first time in the history of (you fill in the gap), the principle of consent is enshrined in an international agreement. Now, anyone who knows the history of (you know where) and of unionism must appreciate the significance of this".

To give him his due, Peter Robinson was first out of the traps on this one, saying he was “surprised" at the suggestion that the IRA had accepted the union.

“This seems," he said, “to fly in the face of every statement they have made".

“I am aware of no such comment from them. I would like the secretary of state to provide us with the text of these remarks by the IRA on this".

Hmm. Don't hold your breath.

Quite aside from all the political games-playing, the speech was remarkable in what it promised will be accomplished by 2009. Some of it was actually desireable and, if Hain succeeds, I will take my hat off to him. In fact, I will eat it.

He did promise to slim down our top-heavy bureaucracy – the 26 councils, four health boards, 19 health trusts and five education and library boards that service a population of just over 1.7 million.

Only those who think it's a good idea to pay some people dig holes in the ground and others to fill them in again could disagree, but do you believe the money saved will be spent on the poor and deprived?

The money saved by closing down village schools, he said, would go towards quality, affordable child care. Hmm. What's that pink thing with the big nose flying overhead?

Water charges, he said, are on the way and a possible doubling of local rates. Average charges are over £1,200 (€1,768) per household in Scotland, England and Wales. We pay “only" £546 (€804).

I can see his point on cutting the bureaucracy, but the near inevitable outcome is that the money saved will not be spent here and we will descend further and further into an even shabbier social and economic backwater.

I asked Mr Hain if he really believed he could deliver all this by 2009? And what did that say about the length of time that might elapse before the assembly and power-sharing executive was up and running?

“I've given a pledge today of a kind that has not been given by any one of my predecessors for understandable reasons", he said.

“What I am saying now, today, is we will drive ahead with reforms and implement them.”

That all sounds to me like “New Labour-speak" for creeping privatisation and we know what that means – a few fat cats and lots more people working harder and getting paid less.

Skills, he said, would be carefully nourished by money now spent on paying dole. Money would be spent on improving our health instead of paying for more pills, potions and hospital beds.

“If the elected politicians don't like some of this, or they disagree with them, well – get into power with each other and take the decisions yourselves.”

So, we're all going to be punished, and the deprived among us most, for Ian Paisley's refusal to share power with Sinn Féin. Nice one, Peter.

Towards the end of his speech, he became almost apocalyptic. “These reforms will be ambitious. They will challenge the status quo. They will disrupt power bases and vested interests.

“They will lead to a radical shift of resources from the back room to the frontline.”

He could have been speaking to last week's Labour Party conference in Brighton. Only trouble is, at least the British have an option to dump New Labour, and it's their fault if they don't.

We don't even vote for them.

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Congress members to visit North

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Council condemn loyalist violence

Catholics forced to endure gauntlet of abuse

Cemetery challenge to Unionist leaders

Abuse must stop

No laughing matter


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