Friday, 24 October 2014

I Love Larne

An inoffensive title, certainly not one intended to generate the kind of publicity a BBC Northern Ireland show on the town of Larne elicited this week. I only saw part of the production but it was enough for me to question its purpose. Having worked in Larne in the 1980's (sudden realisation of just how long ago that was) the almost Super 8 quality of the production reminded me of those home movies found in someones attic and televised with a Gloria Hunniford voice over. The Larne I know from my past experience and from my current role on Mid and East Antrim Council is a vibrant manufacturing town with a rural heartland and lots of ambition and potential, not the backward backwater presented by the programme. I look forward to the next Larne production selling the real town.

What does first look like?

There are occasions in life when someone states their objective is to be first. When my children came home from their exams and I asked them how they had done the answer “Ok I was the first one finished” didn’t always fill me with confidence. Rory McIlroy is well known for finishing first. In the course of a golf competition he will play around 270 shots and will win by 1 or 2. That’s a difference of less than 1% between being first and second. That 1% will at times be genius or just sheer talent. But, having the talent to make that 1 shot count doesn’t matter in the race to be first unless the other 99% is right. Rory started to get the 99% right many years ago, people will remember him as a young boy chipping golf balls into a washing machine on the Gerry Kelly show. That’s when Rory got his first 5% or 10% right. On occasions I hear the desire expressed to be first in local government but like Rory and golf being first in local government will depend on getting the basics right. When we have done 99% of what needs to be done and its done well enough then we will be in a position to be considered for first, that is the time to consider the last 1%. Until then being first is only a distraction.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Time to start the recovery

The announcement of the closure of the JTI factory at Lisnafillan has come as a great shock to employees, the local community and wider Northern Ireland society. Despite the threats of EU Regulations which would severely impact on the particular production at the plant and the ongoing growth of cigarette smuggling no-one really believed that such a large multinational could be forced out, not only of Northern Ireland but bringing to an end cigarette production in the United Kingdom. Clearly the impact of these threats has been much greater than expected. For the employees there is the knowledge that the first redundancies will not take effect until May 2016. In that lies a significant challenge for Government at all levels, how do we provide the support for employees to take advantage of any new employment opportunity that may arise including retraining? How do we create the circumstances to attract new major employers to the region? How do we reduce the burdens on existing businesses to ensure the sustainability of those businesses? At the heart of this closure lies nearly 1000 people directly impacted by the loss of employment, £60 million in wages lost to the local economy which will have knock on effects on the sustainability of other businesses, 230 SME’s which had contracts worth £30 million which will be hard to replace and a realisation that recovery will take a long time. Realistically the challenge will be keeping the issue top of the agenda, Invest NI has particular targets in job creation, the NI Executive has competing demands for investment across Northern Ireland and once the shock has receded Ballymena will slip down the priority list. Unless of course there is an integrated vision of the opportunity that Ballymena and the wider Mid and East Antrim can portray, we must make sure this area is the destination of choice for major investors. With some of the best transport links in Northern Ireland to air, sea and road networks Ballymena has much to offer. The skills readily available in the local workforce are transferable and the early commitment to assist in retraining by Government must be followed up on. There is certainly more that can be done to promote investment, economic development zones designed to encourage start up business could be established, the new council when creating local development plans could ensure a rapid planning process for investors, greater investment in research and development for those locating in Ballymena as an incentive and marketing the opportunities available at home and abroad. The time to grieve for what is lost must, by necessity, be short, the emphasis must now be on mitigating those losses within the next few years.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Sinn Fein Agenda

When Gerry Adams suggested recently that Sinn Fein would be happy to see the Assembly collapse and new elections called he clarified the Republican agenda and the shift in strategy which has occurred in the past few years. The outworking of the St Andrews agreement was in reality a political version of the cold war strategy of mutually assured destruction; both the DUP and Sinn Fein had it in their gift to undermine the structures of government but only to the detriment of both. With Paisley and McGuinness at the helm both sides gave the impression of wanting to make the structures work to the benefit of Northern Ireland, they did so well at creating this impression they became known as the “Chuckle Brothers”. The well-known consequences of this tag were the tremors created within the DUP which led eventually to the demise of Paisley as First Minister and leader of the party. Less well recognised or commented upon were the tremors within the Republican movement. A movement driven by the belief that Northern Ireland was a “failed state” was being seen as actively contributing to Northern Ireland’s success and stability. Feted around the world Martin McGuinness was the archetypal terrorist turned politician whose job was to make Northern Ireland work. Just as the DUP had announced a battle a day to mollify the foot soldiers, so too did grass roots republicans believe in something more than the mutual respect that developed between Ian and Martin. Yet the more Martin settled into the role the further away the United Ireland agenda became. With the removal of Paisley republicans had an opportunity to revert to attempting to make Northern Ireland look like a “failed state”. Across a wide range of social, economic, political and cultural issues the republican movement has reverted to type and commenced a process of prevarication and obstruction. The St Andrews Agreement, in which the DUP put so much faith, has shown that where the destruction of Northern Ireland is the key objective of one party, having a policy of mutually assured destruction was a strategic mistake by Peter Robinson and his party. So with Gerry’s comments on bringing down the Assembly and new talks about to start where does this leave Unionism now? First it leaves the clear impression that Republicanism has no vested interest in making Northern Ireland work in the medium to long term. Second we know that if the Assembly were to collapse, a future election, without major changes to the Assembly’s governance, would be of no benefit to the wider community in Northern Ireland. Simply returning to replay the failed politics of the current term will add to Sinn Fein’s contention that Northern Ireland is a failed state. Instead Unionism must be on the front foot, presenting new ideas to wider society and challenging republicanism myths and narratives . Unionism has the enthusiasm and the drive for creating a better society. . Sinn Fein are increasingly stuck in the past, trotting out lines from 1916 instead of working the institutions of 2014. There are opportunities which Unionism should seize and exploit. Whilst the DUP has put party first, the Ulster Unionist Party will put country first. That makes a difference.

Ecos Centre

Ballymena Borough Councillors have received a verbal briefing that a further £300,000 is required to correct deficiencies in the roof of the Ecos Centre despite the building being only 14 years old. Significant additional investment to make the Ecos Centre suitable for economic use is already planned. Currently Mid and East Antrim District Council is undertaking due diligence exercises in relation to transferring functions such as car parks. These exercises are being undertaken to ensure that such services that are being transferred are at no additional cost to the ratepayer. I expect this process to move on to consider the wide range of properties and services provided by the existing councils to maximise the savings that can be delivered. There are many issues in relation to the Ecos centre which require close scrutiny including what return the ratepayer could expect from any further investment and whether such investment is justified. Serving over 135,000 citizens and with an expected staff complement of over 700 priorities will have to be set and difficult decisions taken to provide the most appropriate services at the best value.