Tuesday 18 December 2012

They Call Themselves Loyalists

On the night of Wednesday 5th December, the Bangor home of councillor Michael Bower and his wife Christine was attacked, paint was thrown and the front window smashed. Their seventeen-month-old girl was in the house at the time. What was Cllr Bower's crime? He was a member of the party, the Alliance, that had proposed the compromise deal regarding the flying of the Union Flag over City Hall in Belfast.

This was not the only attack on the Alliance Party that night, nor in the following days. Alliance Party Offices have been destroyed and death threats have been made against Alliance politicians.

The decision taken by the City Council was being assaulted with violence by a small band of thugs driven by a disdain for the democratic process.

Inflammatory leaflets and comments made by some Unionist politicians did not help. In the days and weeks that have followed, many criticised a lack of Unionist leadership.

But the actions of this small, pathetic band of trouble-makers is counter-productive in so many ways. The cause that they claim to support, union with the United Kingdom, is being undermined almost to breaking point. The rest of the UK abhors these actions; the Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said that they were discrediting the flag they claim to support. Frankly, these so-called Loyalists are an embarrassment and a burden for the UK.

The rest of the world is watching, aghast and uncomprehending. As the vast majority of Northern Ireland struggles to heave itself out of years of trouble, a small band of hooligans are threatening to drag the province back into the cesspit of days gone by.

And while the trouble continues, tourist numbers are down. The shops and bars of Belfast's city centre are suffering at what should be a busy time of year.

Sunday's peace rally showed the disgust and contempt that the vast majority of Northern Ireland's people share for the idiocy and hooliganism of the last two weeks.

But on Monday there were further violent protests in Belfast, Lisburn, Portadown, Armagh and Carrickfergus, with roads blocked, cars hijacked and set alight, police lines attacked with bottles, bricks and stones. Shockingly, the arrests made last night included many children. Of the 16 people arrested, the average age was 18, with 9 of them between the ages of 11 and 17.

Following a protest in Carrickfergus, about five protesters entered the town hall, disrupted a meeting and threatened councillors. Police dispersed the crowd and people were able to leave the building. Alliance Party Councillor Noel Williams described it as "a full frontal attack on democracy".

As always, the continuing parlous state of the British economy undoubtedly plays its part. Unequal societies are the most unhappy societies. Many people still feel the peace process has passed them by, bringing no real benefit for themselves as individuals or for their families and this includes their own financial well-being. An ailing economy is often a factor in social unrest and the government's failure to get to grips with the country's economic plight brings with it a certain amount of blame for this latest bout of trouble.

As the year turns, Northern Ireland finds itself at a tipping point. If trouble escalates, for example with retaliation from extreme Nationalists and Republicans, the province could find itself staring into an abyss. If however, Loyalist and Unionist leaders find a way to soothe their more extreme supporters, if the economy shows signs of gradual improvement and if there is plenty of rain to keep them off the streets, there may be hope.

I wish you, more than ever, a peaceful New Year.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Green MLA says Executive must capitalise on growth of Green Tech Sector

Green MLA Steven Agnew is demanding that Executive take the maximum economic opportunities afforded by the ‘Green Economy’.

Speaking after today’s ETI Committee meeting, where a letter from the Construction Employer’s Federation expressing its member’s ‘dismay’ at the effective scrapping of the Green New Deal (GND) was presented, the North Down MLA said: “Local companies and large business federations recognise the economic benefits the Green New Deal would have provided.

“The Executive now needs to take urgent action and re-consider its ill-conceived scrapping of the Green New Deal retrofit proposals.

“By deciding to re-directed the funds set aside for the Green New Deal, DSD Minister Nelson McCausland has effectively ignored the considerable economic advantages the GND would have brought to Northern Ireland as a whole and to individual householders.

“The Construction Employers Federation represents around 1000 construction companies in Northern Ireland and it was dismayed at the scrapping of the GND as it saw it as an opportunity for quickly providing significant employment through retro-fitting insulation in old housing stock and the construction of new homes.

“It would have also reduced fuel poverty putting more money in the pockets of hard-pressed families and individuals therefore creating a multiplier effect for our local economy and stimulating broader economic growth.

“The decision to scrap the Green New was wrong and we need urgent action to reverse that decision before the opportunity to capitalise on the benefits of the GND are lost.

“The green economy is delivering more jobs in Northern Ireland than the motor trade, financial services sector and telecommunications combined.

“While the UK's general economy is predicted only to return to 2007 levels by 2014, the green economy is tipped to grow by 40% in that time.

“There is real potential for the Green Economy in Northern Ireland but not enough is being done at an Executive level to harness that and to capitalise on it.”

Friday 14 September 2012

Greens question value of giving Orange Order Freedom of City

Following a recent Lisburn City Council motion to grant the Orange Order the freedom of the city, the Lagan Valley Greens are questioning the value of this proposal, as brought forward by Councillor Paul Givan.

The Green Party in Northern Ireland is the only party that has not been formed in response to the religious divide or the troubles. The Green Party has no agenda to promote the interests of one community over another. This means it is the only party that is able to see the motion to grant the Freedom of the City of Lisburn to the Orange Order for what it really is - a poorly timed waste of precious council money and resources at a time when most families, businesses and individuals are feeling the pinch from the more pressing concerns of the economy. It seems like pointless politics.

Serious questions must be answered. How much time and money has already been spent debating this issue? What would the cost be of staging a gala event should the bid be successful? Is this something that the Orange Order itself welcomes, given the level of controversy it has already generated?

Lisburn does not need this kind of PR for its people, and for its businesses that attract custom from all across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Lisburn should not be seen as the last bastion of the deadlocked days of the past.

Any gesture of granting the Freedom of the City should reflect the kind of city that the council has promoted in its slogans - to make Lisburn a "city for life". If the real aim is to honour an organisations that have helped the community, why not honour Lisburn’s healthcare workers, voluntary groups and charities which have done so much to enrich the community? Lisburn’s Lagan Valley also has a rich history of great and philanthropic individuals to celebrate, such as Professor Frank Pantridge.

This controversial move, timed as it was to coincide with yet more parade related unrest, seem all the more illogical. The Green Party in Northern Ireland is firmly against a return to the days of single issue politics. Everyone is welcome to peaceably express their cultural identity, but this motion does not seem to offer much to the Orange Order, or the people of Lisburn, except bad publicity. We cannot afford the costs of what seems to be a naive attempt at increasing political clout.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Bad service from the banks? Then wave goodbye.

It's been a bad week for the banks. Just when we thought the reputation of the big banks could go no lower, a series of catastrophes brought at least two of the UK's big four to a serious crisis over the last two weeks.

It started last week. RBS, which owns NatWest and Ulster Bank, suffered a software failure, meaning that customers (and you may well be one of them) found themselves unable to access funds in their own bank accounts, although direct debit and standing order payments were being processed as normal.

These issues have created huge problems for the customers of the three banks. For many, it has been only an inconvenience, but for others, the loss of access to their funds has come at a critical time, such as in the middle of a house purchase.

Currently, ten days after the problems emerged, RBS and NatWest customers are now back to a normal service, but problems with Ulster Bank accounts are expected to persist until the middle of the week.

We know that RBS suffered perhaps more than any other UK bank during the banking crisis of 2008-09. Without an 83% nationalisation, the company would no longer be in existence. Hundreds of staff were made redundant and this may have exacerbated the bank's recent troubles.

On Tuesday, Barclays Bank suffered what could become an even bigger problem, with an element of scandal thrown in. It emerged that several of its traders had been rigging the key Libor interest rates during the period 2005-2009. Libor is the rate at which banks can borrow money from each other. Barclays traders, it has been reported, rigged the rate value in two different ways: firstly they increased Libor when other banks were borrowing from Barclays to increase their own profits; secondly they reduced it at times to give the appearance that Barclays was able to borrow money at a lower rate than was really available, hence giving a false impression that the bank was considered healthier than it may have been.

There will be a colossal fine for Barclays of £300 million. The Chief Executive, Bob Diamond, has so far refused to resign. Critics would point out that he is either corrupt if he sanctioned or turned a blind eye to these practices, or negligent and incompetent if he did not know.

The Financial Services Authority's investigations are not complete and there appears to be a real possibility that traders at the other big banks were conducting the same illicit practices.

At best, these two problems of enormous proportion will remain merely hugely expensive mistakes. At worst, there is the real possibility that either, or both, could bring the very future of these two banking behemoths into peril.

On Friday, a third scandal emerged. The Financial Services Authority revealed that Barclays, HSBC, RBS and Lloyds had agreed to pay compensation to customers who were mis-sold interest rate hedging products.

The fine for Barclays is enormous, but compensation payments related to all three of these catastrophes could dwarf any fine. On the back of compensation payments for the recent Payment Protection Insurance mis-selling, the big banks appear to be developing some very bad habits and paying out very large sums when found out. If it is not impossible that the recent scandals could bring one of the banks into serious financial difficulties.

The banks have let us down very badly, everybody would agree with that. In the banking collapse a few years ago, every UK citizen stumped up several thousand pounds in taxes to bail the banks out. Since then we have had the payment protection racket, rogue traders losing billions in single transactions, rigged interest rates, loss of access to our money and now a new mis-selling scandal. If these were ordinary companies, they would have ceased trading a long time ago.

Last year, I changed my bank account for the first time. I had been with one of the UK's big four banks all of my working life. Now I am with Co-op Bank, which to the best of my knowledge, has not been involved in any scandals, is mutually owned, does not have an investment banking division and tries to conduct all of its affairs on ethical grounds.

This is not an advert for Co-op Bank. But if our big banks continue to behave in such an egregious fashion, and if regulation appears to be lax enough to allow it, then there is only one sensible course of action: the customers must vote with their money. Move it somewhere you trust, you respect and that gives you good, simple service without any huge, costly blunders.

It is often said that people change their spouse more often than their current account. Now is the time that this should change.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Social Development Minister must show leadership on fuel poverty and back the Green New Deal

Green Party leader Steven Agnew MLA has called on Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland to re-think his decision on the Green New Deal and to follow Scotland’s example with a National Retro-fit Insulation Scheme as announced by the Scottish Government today.

Last week the Minister announced that the money allocated for funding the Green New Deal home insulation retrofit scheme in Northern Ireland would be used for replacement boilers in Housing Executive properties.

Whereas, this week the Scottish Government announced a massive programme to transform Scotland’s ageing houses into energy efficient homes.

“Given that last week the Annual Report on Fuel Poverty Statistics showed that Northern Ireland had the greatest proportion of fuel poor households in the UK, the Ministers needs to urgently see the bigger picture,” Mr Agnew said.

“The Minister has tried to pass the buck regarding this decision and blame his civil servants on this short-sighted and financially inefficient decision.

“For years under direct rule we had civil servants running the country and now we have local democracy we need ministers to show strong leadership and involved engagement – something this Minister has clearly failed to do.

“The DUP committed to end Ministerial ‘solo runs’ but given that every party stated its support for the Green New Deal by giving unanimous backing to my motion in September last year for more funding for the scheme, Minister McCausland has gone on a solo run on this issue and has acted against the will of the Assembly.

“Stating that it he has taken these actions on the advice of his civil servants begs the question: ‘who is actually running the show?’

“Tackling fuel poverty needs wide ranging strategy and advance planning as it is an issue that is only going to escalate for all households as fossil fuel prices continue to soar.

“The Scottish program will offer a range of free or discounted heating and home insulation measures to people living in older homes across Scotland who struggle with fuel poverty.

“We need a similar scheme which will help tackle fuel poverty across the board in Northern Ireland.

“This will in turn benefit the wider economy as hard-pressed families will have more money in their pockets and this will then filter into the local economy.

“The Minister needs to show a leadership in this issue and bring forward a program measures to actually tackle fuel poverty for all local families and he only has to look to our Scottish neighbours to see how that can be achieved.”

Wednesday 23 May 2012

No New Deal for people in fuel poverty

Green MLA Steven Agnew has expressed disappointment that £12m which had been set aside for the Green New Deal will now be used only for a boiler upgrade scheme for Housing Executive homes.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland made the announcement in the Assembly today when asked to outline the results of the economic appraisal carried out in relation to the £12m budget allocated for the Green New Deal.

“This is not the best use of the money earmarked for investment in the Green New Deal,” Mr Agnew said.

“The Green New Deal attracted all party support because it had the potential to tackle the triple crunch of unemployment, rising energy prices and climate change.

“It was designed to work as full package not in a piecemeal way which is simply tinkering around the edges as it also needs to incorporate retro fitting of insulation.

“18 months after the Executive first promised this money, the Minister has now chosen to support the Housing Executive’s bid and I believe that this is a wasted opportunity.

“The Green New Deal had provided the opportunity to leverage around £70 million of private investment over the next three years.

“By putting the scheme exclusively in the hands of the Housing Executive, this won’t happen now.

“I am of course glad to see any homes in Northern Ireland improve their energy efficiency as we need to urgently  tackle fuel poverty but the initial vision for Green New Deal was to provide a one-stop-shop for households offering a free energy assessment, a competitively tendered installation service and a government grant finance package.

“By awarding the £12m over the next four years to the Housing Executive, the money for the Green New Deal will be kept within one specific housing sector and denies individuals and families who live in privately-rented accommodation or own their homes the opportunity to save around £350 per year on their fuel bills.

“As this scheme is now only going to update old Housing Executive oil boilers and replace them with gas boilers, it further locks Northern Ireland into fossil fuels dependency rather than paving the way for a renewable energy future across the wider housing stock with improved thermal inefficiency through better insulation.”

DSD is failing to tackle fuel poverty in Northern Ireland

Green MLA Steven Agnew has called on the Executive to urgently re-examine its strategy on tackling fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.

The Green Party Leader’s comments came after a briefing by Lord Whitty at this morning’s ETI Committee on his report entitled Energising Northern Ireland.

The report was commissioned by the Consumer Council in 2010 to undertake an independent review of energy policy in Northern Ireland.

It concluded that the Department of Social Development is failing to tackle fuel poverty in an effective manner and makes clear that reduction in fuel poverty and decarbonisation of energy supply needs to be considered as being equally important policy objectives as cost and security of supply.

Mr Agnew asked Lord Whitty directly if it was his opinion that currently in Northern Ireland this was not the case and he stated that in his opinion that it wasn’t.

“Clearly the approach that is currently being taken is not working,” Mr Agnew said.

“Eight of the Northern Ireland Executive Departments plus the Utility Regulator influence energy-related matters and this makes energy policy overly complex given the small size of the market.

“This leads to a piecemeal approach which is not providing direct relief for hard-pressed families which are spending on average over £1000 more per year for their energy needs than households in GB.

“The current approach we have is both ineffective and inefficient as we have a disconnected system with a combination of one-off winter fuel payments and Housing Executive double-glazing window replacement schemes.

“What we need is a comprehensive energy efficiency audit of both private and social housing and then we need to address energy efficiency requirements of the housing stock area by area.

“The Department of Social Development was given a very modest budget of £4 million to pilot the Green New Deal solution which promotes an area by area approach to addressing fuel poverty and energy efficiency.

“But now the Department of Social Development is looking for other ways to spend that money rather than concentrating on an area by area approach.

“The current policy of the Warm Homes Scheme is not efficient because it is too much of a scatter-gun approach and this is not the best use of public money and not the best way to tackle fuel poverty.

“Evidence from other areas such as Kirklees clearly shows that an area by area approach is the best model to tackle fuel poverty.

“Given that Northern Ireland’s level of fuel poverty is the worst in any part of Great Britain and Ireland and there is no chance of the 2016 target for the elimination of fuel poverty being reached, a new joined strategy is urgently required.”

Monday 14 May 2012

Green MLA backs call for Climate Change Act for Northern Ireland

Steven Agnew MLA and Leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland is backing the call for a Climate Change Act for Northern Ireland.

Mr Agnew attended a Stop Climate Chaos event held in Stormont last week to discuss the need for a Climate Change Bill.

“I believe that there are strong moral, economic and social and environmental imperatives for Northern Ireland to cut its emissions in order to play its part in combatting climate change,” Mr Agnew said.

“It’s is not whether or when climate change will happen – it’s happening now.

“Hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable are being put at risk of drought, flood, starvation and disease.

“In developing nations where people are heavily dependent on agriculture, climate change means they are not getting the necessary yields required to survive and flourish.

“This situation was highlighted to me by Christian Aid and Trocaire which are working in these countries and they have seen the impact of climate change first hand.

“But the predicted devastation is not limited to the developing world – key economic centres like London, New York and Tokyo are also threatened by rising sea levels.

“Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not have binding targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions yet our household emissions are 39% above the UK average.

“Tougher targets need to be set in Northern Ireland and we must recognise the role we have to play in tackling what represents a real threat to humanity.

“We have to make tackling climate change a key priority which needs to be taken into consideration when forming other environmental and economic legislation.

“Introducing Northern Ireland Climate Change Act with specific targets in within the next years would ensure that all Executive departments work towards reducing our carbon footprint over the next four decades.

“If we act now, we can help protect everyone’s future. That is why I am backing the call for a Northern Ireland Climate Change act with legally binding targets to reduce our emissions.”

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Turning a Corner

British politics is turning a corner, like a heavily-laden tanker, extremely slowly, but irresistibly.

Let's look at events of the the past couple of weeks. The Tories have hit the self-destruct button on several fronts.

Peter Cruddas first resigned as party treasurer after admitting that he had arranged meetings between the Prime Minister and anybody willing to pay for such an encounter.

Francis Maude made rash comments about the looming petrol crisis. People should stock up, he said, even filling jerry cans in the garage. There were no caveats about the sense or legality of such an undertaking. A woman in York suffered severe burns trying to do exactly as he had advised. Perhaps the cabinet do not even realise that most people do not have a garage.

Then there was the budget. Two main stories emerged: pasty-gate and the granny tax. VAT was added to freshly-baked food products and certain age-related benefits were frozen for the over-65s, eventually to be phased out. With both these tax rises shamelessly dressed up as an attempt to simplify the tax system, George Osborne appeared not only brazen, but cowardly at the same time for not admitting his true motivation. Whatever happened to tough times, that we are all in it together?

What do all these things have in common? The Tories appear out of touch. Cameron cannot shake that public school image. He doesn't see that many pensioners are right on the poverty line already. George Osborne does not know what a pasty is; he has never met anybody who would buy, sell or eat one. Francis Maude is encouraging recklessness out of a lack of understanding of real-life common sense and people's real situations.

Governments always get themselves into trouble mid-term, there is nothing new about that. But where are Labour? Shouldn't they be 15 points ahead in the opinion polls? Ed Miliband's idea of opportunism is to stand blinking inside a branch of Greggs, pretending he knows how to order a pasty.

Meanwhile, George Galloway's Respect party won the Bradford West bye-election with a thumping majority over Labour, who took the seat for granted after holding it comfortably for nearly 40 years.

Galloway is a maverick, some might say a lunatic, but he is a genius opportunist. He is a master of spotting a vulnerable constituency and manipulating the electorate into voting his way. This is his third time as an MP, but it may be even shorter-lived than his second in East London. If Galloway keeps banging on about Palestine and Iraq, which may be valid issues for the young Muslim voters of Bradford West today, he may find he doesn't curry quite so much favour when the more down-to-earth issues of the city come to the fore: grand city centre developments stalled because of the property downturn and grinding unemployment.

And why do we have a coalition government anyway? It's not because the Lib Dems did blindingly well at the last general election. It's because, at the last election, neither the Conservatives or Labour were able to dominate the political landscape any more.

How does any of this affect the Greens? Well, perhaps it's not so bad. Now with one MP at Westminster, there is a true base to build on. And with the tide turning away from the traditional parties, the chances for the Greens to find further footholds in the niches of Britain's political landscape may increase further. Roll on 2015!

Thursday 23 February 2012

Planning approval for hotel criticised by Greens

The Lagan Valley Green Party has criticised the SDLP Minister of the Environment for approving plans for a luxury hotel within Lagan Valley Regional Park.

Green Party Lisburn Town South spokesperson, Dr Luke Robinson, emphasised that the project is opposed by the Lagan Valley Regional Park and by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

Dr Robinson said, “In our opinion the project on the Hillsborough Road is in breach of several of the policy statements within the Lagan Valley Regional Park Local Plan. Specifically within the Park there should be a presumption against development unless strict criteria are met. In addition, there will be loss of habitat and risk to biodiversity. Unfortunately, in this instance, Minister Attwood appears to have given undue weight to economic arguments. Good planning needs to take place regardless of short term economic demands and must always strike the right balance between the concerns of the local area, the environment and the broader economy.

Dr Robinson continued, “More generally we are concerned that if this project proceeds it will continue to shift the seat of economic activity within Lisburn to Sprucefield rather than the city centre. With potentially two hotels operating in close proximity at Sprucefield there is little incentive for an operator to establish a city centre hotel that could be the hub of a rejuvenated night time economy. This decision by Minister Attwood highlights all that is wrong with the planning system in Northern Ireland. This is the right project in the wrong location.”


Photograph features Dr Luke Robinson, Lagan Valley Green Party, Lisburn Town South spokesperson, with the proposed Hotel site in the background.

Lagan Valley Regional Park is Northern Ireland’s first and only Regional Park and lies along the River Lagan stretching for 17.6 km from Stranmillis, Belfast to Union Locks, Lisburn. Read more about the Lagan Valley Regional Park at http://www.laganvalley.co.uk/

Thursday 16 February 2012

Green MLA highly critical of Wilson’s attack on proposed Climate Change Bill

Green Party MLA Steven Agnew has hit back at Finance Minister Sammy Wilson’s attack on the Environment Minister when he branded the Climate Change Bill a ‘madcap policy’.

“We are all well aware that Mr Wilson is an unashamed climate change denier which he clearly demonstrated during his stint as Environment Minister.

“He carries on regardless with his views despite the fact that every national scientific body across the globe now agrees that human activity does influence the climate.

“It is even more dismaying as his statement comes on the same day that Northern Ireland’s first Climate Change Risk Assessment report has flagged up just some of the huge problems we will face in the future due to climate change such as coastal erosion, destruction of our delicate eco-system, increased flooding and water shortages.

“Climate change is an issue that we need to take seriously and simply burying one’s head in the sand by denying that there is nothing we can do to lessen its effects is simply not an option.

“Mr Wilson claims that legislation to protect our environment will damage our economy, put people out of work and increase fuel poverty.

“This shows his complete lack of understanding in terms of planning for the future and preparing our society and economy for a world that is rapidly changing.

“He claims that jobs will be lost but this effectively ignores the investment and export potential for the Green technology sector which will be the future base of global industry as resources grow increasingly scarce.

“We have a fantastic opportunity to lead the field in this area with our high level of skills in research and design and long tradition of industry.

“The global market for environmental goods and services is worth over £3,000 billion and the UK's share is £107 billion.

“Proper investment and commitment from the Finance Minister in the Green New Deal would see homes retrofitted for insulation thus reducing fuel poverty and it would create thousands of new jobs.

“We currently lose £2billion per year out of our economy on imported fossil fuels which previous DUP policies have locked us into.

“The spiralling cost of fossil fuels on the global wholesale market is the main contributing factor why so many people are in fuel poverty.

“The health of our environment is also directly linked to the health of our population so reducing pollution will actually ease the financial strain on the health service through preventative knock on effects.

“As far as a Climate Change Bill is concerned it is not that we can’t afford to put it in place – we can’t afford not to.

“At the very least we must cut our carbon emissions and the amount of waste dumped in landfill or face heavy penalties from the EU.

“It is crucial for our economy that the Finance Minister supports Mr Attwood’s Climate Change Bill for the health of our economy, our people and our environment.”

Sunday 29 January 2012

Why it is time for Stephen Hester to give up his bonus

Royal Bank of Scotland
Image via Wikipedia

Stephen Hester, chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, has yet to declare whether or not he will accept the bonus, shares worth about £960,000, offered to him in addition to last year's salary of £1.2 million.

The government say that Hester's contract was drawn up by the last government and changing things would be more costly than to go on. The value of the bonus was not specified in that contract. But David Cameron reportedly made pronouncements that Hester’s bonus should be no more than £1 million. One day later, the bank’s remuneration committee has given the go-ahead for the near one million pound bonus.

The remuneration committee point out that Hester has met his targets for the year, including helping to stabilise the bank. Various non-core assets have been sold off and a new risk appetite framework has been embedded, whatever that means. But the share price has continued to fall and small and medium-sized businesses are still finding it difficult to gain access to funding from the bank.

It must be remembered that Stephen Hester is not Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive at RBS, who presided over the bank during its near collapse. Hester was brought in to sort out the mess. Many are arguing for Sir Fred to be stripped of his knighthood. This would seem appropriate, given that he single-handedly, through an over-inflated sense of his own importance and infallibility, and a shameless desire to line his own pockets, destroyed a 300 year old bank and helped bring down the British economy in the process. There has been surprisingly little talk of criminal proceedings. Instead, Goodwin is retired, on a 6 figure pension.

RBS is currently 83% owned by the British government, which makes it, to a good approximation, a state-owned business. People who work for state-owned organisations - civil servants - do not usually reap these kinds of rewards. There is a good argument that the bank's staff should be on civil service pay scales, and as for bonuses, well, the very concept is alien to most of those working in the public sector.

What about the bankers’ favourite old line, that this is the market rate, that banking executives could get the same elsewhere, and you have to pay big money to get the right people? Well, perhaps it is time to test this theory. If Hester and the board staged a walkout because of reduced remuneration, would the functioning of the bank be jeopardised? Would the banking system come grinding to a halt? No and no. We should call their bluff on this one. An excellent board could be hired at a fraction of the cost. The Guardian points out that the Bank of England’s top executives are paid roughly one fifth of RBS’s board. With an 83% majority shareholding, there is no better opportunity for the government.

All of this augurs very badly for the future of banking in the UK in general. If the banks are still offering extraordinary bonuses for people doing no more than they should be doing, or worse, if stupendous rewards are still being offered for the taking of vast risks, as they still are elsewhere in the world of investment banking, then it seems we have learnt nothing from the financial crisis. In the depths of one crisis, we are laying the foundations for the next one.

Finally, a point about the RBS remuneration committee. Why does this elite club of city financiers have the power to set the level of pay and bonus for the board? In the case of RBS and in the case of every other financial institution, shareholders are not getting enough say in matters of boardroom pay and bonus levels. In this case it is the British government; in other cases it is pension funds, fund managers and millions of small shareholders who nominally own these companies, but appear to have absolutely no rights on this crucial issue. And it is crucial. It is not just a matter of prudent financial management, it is an issue for society as a whole. An unequal society is an unhappy society.

The best solution would have been for this bonus not to have been offered. But Stephen Hester should recognise the sensitive nature of the problem; he should bring about the second best solution by returning it.

Friday 13 January 2012

Secret meetings, deals & political fog

This week the lack of political transparency in Northern Ireland was again highlighted by the secret meetings at Stormont to discuss the future of the Department of Enterprise and Learning and the Justice Ministry.

While a reduction of departments in the Executive is welcome, secret meetings and horse trading over restructuring does little to give the electorate confidence in local democracy.

In response Green Party leader, Steven Agnew MLA has stated, "In the interests of democracy, decisions about the number of departments and the appointment of Ministers should be done in full public view at the Executive and Review Committee and not in behind closed doors meetings. What we need, like the issue over party political funding in Northern Ireland, is complete transparency rather than behind the scenes deals."

It's clear to see that the parties involved in secret meetings are giving political expediency priority over good governance. Under the d'hondt system they accept that Alliance Party should have one ministry but simply opting to get rid of DEL in order to keep David Ford as Justice Minister is just not acceptable and it does not reflect good governance.

The Executive must engage in a proper restructuring of how the Assembly does business for that is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve from their elected representatives.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Green Party NI AGM - Steven Agnew's leaders speech

The Green Party Northern Ireland AGM took place on Saturday 29 October 2011. Following his re-election as leader, Steven Agnew made his leaders speech. Watch coverage filmed by Mark Bailey below.

Green Party NI AGM 2011 - BBC NI Politics Show

The Green Party Northern Ireland AGM took place on Saturday 29 October 2011. Watch coverage from the BBC Politics Show, broadcast Sunday 30 October 2011.