Dear Government, Just Do One Thing….

Dear Government,

I’m really only talking to the Northern Ireland government here, but if the rest of you want to take a leaf, then do something about it.

Everything is “Covid-Paralysed”. I just see inactivity in every area. People holding their breath. It’s not good enough. We have to be pro-active. But as a “cultural hand grenade”, I figured I’d write a list of things our government departments could do while they’re waiting for society to re-open.

  1. The Executive Office. – frankly, I have no idea what you do anyway other than argue and be ineffectual. This isn’t a personal dig – the EO has always failed to deliver. Look at the unspent social investment fund.
  2. Department of Education. – We have been constantly training more than 200 teachers than we need every year and we have a large bank of supply teachers. So rather than having parents killing themselves trying to educate children, get your act together and use this resource. Yes, not everyone has and iPad or whatever, but that doesn’t mean you do nothing. Find out who needs resources and work together. Use the existing teacher pool, the supply teachers and the unemployed grads to deliver education over Zoom or your tool of choice and take the pressure off parents.
  3. Department for the Economy. – Every skills program that can be opened over Zoom should be opened over Zoom. The lecturers are being salaried. We are in exceptional circumstances and much of it can be delivered over Teams or Zoom. So do it. Make it free and allow people to upskill quickly.
  4. Department of Health. – Be honest, we haven’t yet sorted this crisis. So make sure there’s enough PPE, find more staff to re-open the wards force to close because of sick nurses and doctors and let’s beat this thing.
  5. Department of Justice. – Start preparing law suits against employers who fired or made redundant workers rather than furlough them. And maybe a case against the UK government for wilfully endangering millions of people resulting in the deaths of thousands of people
  6. Department of Infrastructure. – You know, I’m never going to step into a taxi and I’m damn sure it’s going to be a while before I’m on a bus or train. So change the narrative. Convert parking spaces into bus and bike lanes. Do it now while you still can. And while you’re at it, a Greenway from Lisburn to Belfast would cut down on traffic. Plan it now. Execute when lockdown opens up a bit.
  7. Department of Communities. – it’s time for more parks, more leisure facilities, more public art (by local people, not half a million quid to somewhere else). You have a month before the summer starts properly. Are you going to watch the tourist industry completely fail? Get a move on.
  8. Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Take some leadership and sort out broadband. Thousands of families are struggling without connectivity and if Education get their act together then the families will need it. Do it now.

The Realm of the Possible: Inventing a New City

After DRIVING past the new “death trap” paint on the Sydenham Bypass that’s meant to be a “cycle lane”, I am comforted to see that some cities have leaders who are prepared to re-make the world as we would like it, and not just rely on what has been past. .

Seattle to permanently close 20 miles of streets to traffic so residents can exercise and bike on them

Nichola Mallon, our Infrastructure Minister, isn’t being advised on what’s in the realm of the possible. It’s the problem with that department (and in particular Roads Service). When you ask a road engineer on what would solve a problem, they think in terms of roads.

I tend to think of the realm of the possible extends from impossible to impossible!

So how do we get people cycling and walking more?

Is it impossible to make cycle lanes which are more than paint?

No, plainly not. Here is a part of the Sydenham Bypass with a kerb! This would make cycling much safer. So, why is the department so happy with a line of paint? If we have it for part of the Sydenham Bypass, why not all of it? Why not extend it to Bangor and Ards?

Is it impossible to close BT1 to private street traffic?

No, it’s not. In fact, a lot of that is in the Regional Transportation Strategy including deflecting traffic from hope street straight to the Ormeau/Cromac area via a new road at Bankmore Square. Essentially the only cars in the centre outside of emergency services and buses, should be taxis and disabled vehicles.

Is it impossible to turn every non-disabled parking space in that area into cycle lanes to protect cyclists from buses, lorries and taxis?

No, obviously. We will see a decrease in traffic overall after the pandemic passes as a lot of people-intensive businesses will be re-looking at their leases for commercial property (some large businesses are closing multiple sites and having their workers work from home because working from home can improve productivity (as long as the kids are at school!) If you think about it, all of the streets in the CBD of Belfast are host to “car corpses”. Cars which are driven in and just lie dead all day. Our streets are littered with them. What are the knock on effects of that?

So we don’t need as many parking spaces? Or commercial parking lets? Or office buildings?

No, we really don’t – so that frees up huge amounts of space for cycling and pedestrians. Think of the lives saved from cars not careening into people.

What about those offices? Will they lie empty?

Well, Belfast City Council has been trying to square the circle of getting people to move into the centre of the city, but there just hasn’t been the space. So, if we are talking about maybe a million square feet of unoccupied office space right now and perhaps up to five times that in two years, that’s a thousand 1000 sq ft apartments now, and 5000 in the next decade. That solves the “Belfast is a graveyard” problem every evening as well as fostering small business in the city centre – including the eateries in the city which really deserve a bit of an uplift after the runaway rates and Covid-19 related collapse.

Thousands more living in the city would be a massive uplift for the city economy. And we have the space.

Are there other things we can change?

Of course, with decreased traffic and more reliance on public transport, we don’t need that M2/Westlink Exchange upgrade. That’s a waste as it is, it’s doubly so after the pandemic. We could invest that in live/work apartments in the city centre. We could invest in arterial segregated cycle lanes from four quarters of the city as well as dedicated cycle freeways along the M1, M2 and A2. With the decreased pollution of decreased traffic, Stockman’s Lane might be bearable to cycle through.

Anything else?

Well, I’m always going to say “free public transport”. The fact that it would decrease pollution and particulate matter, reduce the burden of road repairs on the taxpayer, increase social and economic mobility for just about everyone, equalise some of the society and put cash in the pockets of low and middle income workers is just the tip of the iceberg.

We have an opportunity to change the city and be an exemplar. Wouldn’t it be great to be proud of Belfast for things that were great and that worked? Stuff we could boast about that was good on a global stage and not just “better than what we deserve”. Can’t we aspire to greatness as a city? Celebrate our best and brightest?

Rather than a ship that sank, forty years of civil war and an alcoholic footballer?

How til vote in Norn Iron in 2017

Time of the year when we start to discuss the voting system here.
How it’s okay to start numbering candidates at the ones you like and stop when you hit a sectarian party. For some of you that means you only have one choice. For some of you it’s no choices. Then it’s okay to just put A, B, C or write a Happy Birthday message. (That’s called spoiling your ballot and it’s an extremely valid method of protest).


3…stop when you see a bigot…

Yeah, that pretty much eliminates DUP/SF/SDLP/UUP/TUV/PUP….
I base this on designation. We have to deplete the ranks of parties who describe themselves in terms of being unionist or nationalist. It’s the things that hold us back. It’s the ultimate expression of “us versus them” and we built it into government.

3…stop when you see a bigot…

Is it time?

I met my friend Stephen for coffee (actually sparkling water with lime) the other morning to talk about some impactful work that we might want to do together and I found myself echoing some opinions (about myself) that I had repeated to friends before.

I struggle with politics.

I struggle because in my old age I have shed the trend in my family to become increasingly right-wing and instead have become solidly in the “progressive Left” camp.

I find myself being increasingly impatient with the needless compromises of our politics and I find myself unwilling to shake the hands of elected representatives who are standing in the way of progress (and by this I mean the unwillingness to bring the province in line with the rest of the UK in, for instance, a 40 year old law on female reproductive decisions.). How can I shake hands with these people if the things that should be the most basic in our society (that a woman is entitled to equality of opportunity and independence) is denied by them?

I’ve come out strongly in the Remain (in the EU) campaign not because I am a particular Europhile but because I want to maintain the ability to travel freely in the countries nearby (and as I just had to fill out another ESTA, I’d like to reduce or avoid that necessity in future for popping to France or Spain). I want to be able to get out-of-season fruit (despite their environmental impact) and have reduced costs of mobile roaming (something the EC Digital Commissioner has been very successful with). These are little, selfish things, but they are the things that really matter to me about Europe.

But, I wonder if I am too extreme for politics or not extreme enough. Where should I hang my hat. – as a progressive Left independent/activist or as a member of one of the Lefty parties. I’m arrogant enough to believe that I should be wooed and yet I feel pretty much pushed away by most. I don’t need a red carpet or to be bought a pint, but I need to see some rhetoric from them that I agree with. I need to know that the things I take issue with would be possible to address. And now, under three years from the next election, I think it’s time to start work.

My last election campaign had me walking the streets alone and not managing to cover much ground even though I expended much shoe leather. Everything was just so last minute and rushed and while there was plenty of grassroots support, it didn’t have enough time to be exercised. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, goodness knows.

But is it time to try again?

Lack of remorse is the reason that rational people leave

It’s not respect between the traditions we need, it’s an iota of remorse.

I don’t respect the right of Republicans to name play parks after murderers nor do I respect the rights of Loyalists to parade anywhere they damn well please. Both of them can just "get off my lawn". Calls for the other to respect their culture is not only falling on deaf ears but it’s like a red rag to a bull. And those who bleat loudest for their culture to be respected are, unsurprisingly, the greatest perpetrators of exactly the same foul against their imagined opponents.

But both traditions need to express remorse not respect. We need to see some remorse from the "PUL" community for 50 years of Unionist domination and some remorse for thirty years of mayhem and murder from the Republicans would go a long way.

if you’ve chosen a side you owe the rest of us an apology

It doesn’t matter to me which side you’re from; if you’ve chosen a side you owe the rest of us an apology for being party to a dirty little skirmish that has left thousands dead, tens of thousands traumatised and despite the platitudes of a peace process, continues to inflict harm on the population.

Neither side is willing to accept they have ruined the lives of millions of people.

Neither side is willing to admit they continue to inflict their bile upon the young and create more victims of this dirty skirmish every day.

Neither side is prepared to admit they were wrong.

And that’s why my advice is to leave.

Christianity is at a crossroads.

A call went out from a local Pastor to support a bigot and racist.

Christianity is at a crossroads.

Behind it lies the sins of their forebears, from child abuse to witch burning. From the denial of science to their role in subjugating Africa and appeasing the Nazis.

Straight ahead lies oblivion as the same tired doctrine of exclusion and resistance to progress dooms them.

But turning at the crossroads represents and opportunity. If God is real and God is love then the Churches need to re-evaluate their default position.

The Churches were wrong about heliocentric models, they were wrong about the earth being flat and they were wrong about gravity. They were wrong about inter-racial relations and civil rights, they were wrong about organ transplant and class structure.

Christianity doesn’t have to doom itself to following demagogues into obscurity and they can accept secular life and equal marriage just as easily as they have ignored the Bible on whether or not it’s appropriate to eat Steamed Mussels in a White Wine Sauce.

I’m left with the question; What would Jesus do?

And I find myself unwilling to believe that he would rally himself with hatred and riots. Or would preach condemnation based on race. The only time I read about his wrath was when usurers turned the Temple into a market place. I think Christianity needs to have a deep reflection about what it has become.

A&E in NI: a problem of emergent use versus public service development

I have always been fascinated by emergent development. This is the unintended design from actual use rather than the laid down design by architects or town planners.

We see this in everyday life in the development of “cow paths”.

An architect or town planner says you should walk this way? And the public use a slightly different route and that’s because the people know best. They aren’t wilfully destroying carefully coiffeured grass ways, they’re trying to get somewhere. Planners and architects need to think about this.

The same goes for public services. This is an article from BelfastLive.

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Just under half the people who turned up at Northern Ireland’s A&Es last year were not emergency cases, shock figures have revealed.

Statistics provided by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) also show only 14% of patients arriving at casualty units had suffered major trauma and needed immediate care.

And yet we hear nightmare stories of people being kept on trollies for hours or how our emergency medical services are completely overburdened. It’s obvious the problem is one of design, not one of staffing.

In light of this, we should be re-designing our public services to meet what the public plainly want. They want to get seen by a medical professional.

I’ve previously proposed that a better solution might be to put a paramedic station in every town, maybe built onto the side of a health centre or GP practice. Somewhere where local people can flock and always be seen in an emergency. The current system of A&E and Out of Hours GP plainly isn’t working so we have to start to think smarter. If every large business tends to have a first-aider on every floor, why doesn’t every town have an emergency station?

The naming of the place is important too. What may be a sprain to you or me, is a break in the mind of someone who is hurt. It has to be described as the place you go when you have a medical emergency and the definition of emergency is entirely subjective.

Remembering… Northern Ireland in 1998

As I parked my car yesterday, I caught the eye of a middle-aged woman standing waiting nearby. In a typical “up-the-country” Northern Irish accent, she blurted out “I hope your car is okay, the wee skitters have taken mine.” Her frustration was palpable.

I was reminded of the weeks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement and I remember my girlfriends car being stolen. We were parked outside a friends house and the arrival of the police prompted a flurry of opening windows and beating the air with magazines. Two days later, on the day of the vote, the car re-surfaced with a heavy weight in the back along the Grosvenor road and was duly exploded in a controlled fashion by the Army.

I mentioned that may have happened to her car. Same time frame, same size of car (small hatch back with R plates). She shook her head and continued to tell me all of the business of the day; the make, the model, that her brother was coming to get her, that it still had R plates and the first couple of letters from the registration. I smiled politely and decided to wait until her brother arrived which he did about 2 minutes later.

I bid her goodbye and scurried across the road towards my next meeting and something made me look across the road where I spotted a small, recent model white Fiesta with R plates and the same first numbers on the registration. Of course, I did what any normal human would do and ungracefully loped back across the road, waving my arms like a lunatic to an extremely grateful lady.

Yesterday a man was also shot. There’s no doubt that as a former IRA commander and the various implications in his life that he was no innocent. And there’s no doubt that as a “community worker”, he had an army of people rallying around him. But someone walked up and shot him. I’ve heard rumours of loyalists, or republicans or drug lords or turf wars but really I’m left with this single thought.

In 1998, most of us turned out and voted for peace. And then most of us switched off again. Because we switched off, we have moved barely an inch forward from that vote and barely an inch forward from the supposed ceasefires of the past.

We have to switch back on and vote for a civic society because the alternative is a world where cars are turned into bombs and men, whatever their background, are shot in the street.

Thoughts on Unity (the principle, not the games engine)

I am musing about the concept of unity.

I never really thought about Irish unity until recently. The Republic of Ireland has always been a foreign land, somewhere to visit, somewhere to holiday, but not home. It is a land populated by friends and good memories.

From what I can tell the province of Ulster has always been people apart. Reading the Ulster Cycle it was clear our myths and legends diverged.

The concept of Irish unity therefore needs to be on multiple fronts; cultural, economic, social and national.

The first issue is that as an outsider I see the Republic of Ireland as united. There may be issues with the haves and the have-nots, there may even be issues between the city folk and the rural folk, the people of the west and those in the east but they are one people, secure in their identity.

It’s not the same in Ulster. We have three cultures at war – nationalists, unionists and everyone else; corresponding roughly to the discrete identities of "Irish", "British" and "why does it matter?"

Our economies could not be more different. Ireland is a sovereign nation prepared to do what’s necessary. Northern Ireland is a province of subjects, beholden to London for any creature comforts.

There are other differences; the Irish are hungry for business, buoyant in their humour, liberal in their attitudes and optimistic in their outlook. The subjects of Ulster are self-deprecating, suspicious of outsiders, conservative, risk-averse, and pessimistic about the future.

Ireland is not haunted by the constitutional question. Beyond a few, the attitude of the Irish to a United Ireland seems to be "Aye, grand"

Northern Ireland is haunted constantly by this. We are categorised by either being for or against. Our media refuses to recognise the rest of us who ultimately could care less. And it’s holding up progress, it’s causing poverty, division and violence.

2015 Elections

When you don’t want to vote for a sectarian party in Northern Ireland, you’ve always been limited. When I was growing up, the only realistic choice was the Alliance Party because it was the party of people who were just not happy with the “situation”. It was a safe harbour but it never really got anywhere and their fortunes have waned as participation in voting has decreased.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The Good Friday Agreement showed that the people do care. There were 200,000 people who voted Yes who then never voted again. They cared enough to turn out and vote but they were totally turned off by voting for our local parties. Could it be that the choices were just bad and ugly? You could vote for the same old crap, the same old crap or the same old crap. And it ushered in a whole new series of complaints, corruption and, possibly worst of all, the Petition of Concern. That weapon has been used to inflict the worst travesties of injustice I have ever seen.

Left, Right, Left

Obviously last year a group of mostly lefty lunatics banded together to create NI21 in the hope it could give more choice, no, a better choice for everyone. It was easily conceived, attracted more than its fair share of criticism from the media and was endlessly attacked by political rivals (especially those who were from non-sectarian parties). But for those of us who helped, it cemented some friendships but really it showed us that we, the disaffected, were not alone. But we were quickly leaderless and while that Titanic mess was sinking, the senior members of the party were bailing out with thimbles.

All Things Are Not Created Equally

I feel we have been let down most of all by some of the non-sectarian parties in our midst. Those who would quickly remind us they have heaps of LGBT members (and even some politicians), have failed multiple times to whip their elected members into supporting the Marriage Equality bills that have been considered by the Assembly. At the last count, Alliance (the part of equality) managed to field only 50% of their MLAs with a Yes vote and even that was whipped by their leader (the party whip was conspicuous in his absence from the vote).

The Grass is Always Greener

Thankfully things are a little better now. In North Down (where I live), we have managed to carve out a bastion of anti-sectarian politics in the form of the Green Party. It’s clear that I’m not going to agree with all of their policies*, especially the anti-science policies.

  • The Green Party would increase funding into the research of holistic medicine, oppose regulation of complementary and alternative medicine. Why not regulate?
  • The Green Party would oppose GMO foods because they are unquantifable, rather than increasing research to it. What?
  • The Green Party are opposed to Stem Cell research. Full stop. Because of unknown consequences. What?

And many of their economic policies like their EU stance and their party policy on taxing goods from outside Britain. Which is fine if we’re going to return to a mostly agrarian economy. And their ideas on a wealth tax, although welcome, are completely out of touch with reality; they could be well served to look at France in that respect.

I can’t vote for the SNP in Northern Ireland. I had hope, last year, we would see the creation of a new country in Europe which would usher in a new exemplar to follow. I’ve been incredibly impressed with Estonia and Croatia in ways that Northern Ireland could have emulated. But even with a £10Bn annual gift, Northern Ireland couldn’t pull itself out of poverty.

  • I’ll be voting for aggressive investment in renewable energy to establish energy security for the UK and reduce our dependence on nuclear energy and remove our need to get involved in Middle East turf wars.
  • I’ll be voting for better legislation for Electric Vehicle adoption and introduction of legislation for personal electric vehicles (which interestingly enough was a manifesto point of the current coalition – something they failed to address while selling off the NHS.)
  • I’ll be voting for Steven Agnew, not for the Green Party.