I'm taking a break from blogging for a while, back at the end of February.
P.S. Congratulations to Nick for being shortlisted for Best Newcomer in the Irish Blog Awards!
31 January 2008
22 January 2008
It’s a long time since I’ve seen a film which I didn’t want to end, especially at 136 minutes according to the QFT. Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is ostensibly about the life of Bob Dylan, although anyone expecting a straightforward biopic will be disappointed – and obviously has been, if you look at the film review web sites. The film is an impressionistic montage of events in the lives of seven characters, some with different names, which are more or less connected to Dylan’s life or songs.
There were many fantastic performances, including Cate Blanchett as one of the Bobs (yes, really) and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the wife of (I think) two of the others. The complexity is easy to grasp as long as you don’t try too hard, rather like watching David Lynch’s films. The music, of course, was superb – mainly but not all Dylan – and prompted some wonderful set pieces. I particularly liked Ballad of a Thin Man, with a confused art critic as Mr Jones, and a Sixties party scene including an Edie Sedgwick character set, very appropriately, to the Monkees’ I’m Not Your Stepping Stone.
19 January 2008
During the week, Margaret Ritchie visited the Ballymun regeneration project. The DSD press release on the visit was headed ‘Belfast can learn from Ballymun in Dublin when it comes to regenerating key areas of the city’. DSD didn’t mention any particular areas to be targeted for the Ballymun treatment, but the BBC suggested the Lower Falls, Lower Shankill and Crumlin Road were likely.
So what can Belfast learn from Ballymun? The DSD press release emphasises bringing together public and private sectors, and the importance of Masterplanning. However, both have proved problematic in Ballymun. Despite some important successes in involving the private sector, the new Ballymun shopping centre remains unbuilt. The lease is owned by a well-known Irish property developer who will start work or sell the site at a time which suits them rather than the Masterplan - BRL’s web site now says construction will start at the end of 2008. If you swim with sharks then you will sometimes get eaten. DSD please note.
The Ballymun Masterplan is praised widely as a model of good practice, although there were some reservations about the consultation process. The Ballymun plan is an excellent summary of what area-based regeneration should be about. The problem is that masterplans need to be implemented, and in Ballymun it’s going to take about twice as long as originally intended – not unique for such a complex project. A particular issue in Ballymun is that so much of what’s in the Masterplan is not within the control of the regeneration agency, Ballymun Regeneration Ltd (BRL). This is a learning point for DSD, although again I suspect not one that was on their list.
No-one would suggest that Ballymun could have been left as it was. The regeneration has many positive elements and it has improved people’s lives. As well as the points above, Belfast could learn from the imaginative design of many of the public buildings and the social housing, and the increasing focus on environmental issues. Another aspect of the regeneration which is important for sustainability is the quality of the social housing management. In Belfast, the Housing Executive and most housing associations are very good at what they do, and the expertise is more likely to flow the other way, as Dublin City Council’s housing management standards still leave a lot to be desired.
So Ballymun isn’t a particularly special project despite the benefits it is bringing to many people. It’s the only one of its kind on the island, but similar to projects in other countries, and indeed seems to have been influenced strongly by the regeneration of Hulme in Manchester. Ms Ritchie could have spent a more productive couple of days visiting New Deal for Communities projects in England, or a week looking at the USA’s HOPE VI and Moving to Opportunity programmes. But perhaps I’m missing something here.
Anyway, there are some reasons why Ballymun isn’t a good model for Belfast. First, the funding structure is different. The project has been funded overwhelmingly by the public sector, either directly or in the form of tax breaks. The social housing, in particular, is not part-funded by the private sector as is the case with housing association construction in NI. If DSD wanted a Ballymun-style regeneration of inner West and North Belfast, it would cost far more than any politician would be prepared to pay.
Second, Ballymun is a peripheral estate (although less so now than when it was built in the 1960s). The model may be appropriate for the regeneration of, say, Ballybeen and Tullycarnett as a unit. But inner city areas could benefit more from the examples of Fatima Mansions or Dublin Docklands.
Third, BRL would be the first to admit that there have been problems with community consultation. BRL has tried hard to improve matters but there is a clash between professionalism and local interests which I don’t see happening in the same way in the more collaborative atmosphere of existing Belfast regeneration projects – as with the housing management, Belfast can teach Ballymun rather than the other way around.
And, of course, we now come to the elephant in the room. The scale of Ballymun’s regeneration is not possible in inner city Belfast unless planning takes place across community divides. And by this I don’t just mean the patchwork that is North Belfast, but an Inner North West masterplan covering the Falls, Shankill and lower Crumlin Road and Antrim Road. Masterplanning requires working together rather than working alongside. And I can’t see that happening for a few years yet.
12 January 2008
I started to wonder if it would be 2009 before I finished this 3-part series, due to having had to go back to work after Christmas – but also because the GB/ UK part of the picture is hardest to grasp. I’ve tried to find a theme in each of the three posts which identifies where politics has been heading over the past year in these islands and trends for 2008, and I do think something interesting is happening in the UK around what the state is for. It’s most obvious in relation to devolution, but there are also questions about the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world, about the state and the people, and about the state and political parties.
Devolution was in the news in 2007 due to elections in Scotland and Wales, as well as the restoration of the NI Assembly. The Scottish Parliament now has a minority nationalist government, the Welsh Assembly a coalition between nationalists and Labour, and of course in NI we have no choice but to have a coalition. All these are the product of proportional representation. The first past the post mentality of UK politics is beginning to change, as politicians have to think more collaboratively about which other parties they could work with and the mechanics of preference voting.
Some policy differences are beginning to emerge across the UK, most particularly in health and social care but also in education and housing – see Our Kingdom to keep up. The reaction of the English to greater policy diversity has been interesting. Having turned down the chance of elected regional government in the North East, they have now started to whinge anew about the West Lothian question, including campaigning for an English Parliament. The logical end to this debate is fully fledged federalism, unless the Scots get their independence first. The issue will continue to be high profile in 2008.
The UK’s relationship with the rest of the world is in flux, too. I think that’s also about changes in the UK’s identity and influence, with economic power shifting East towards India and China, political power still focused in the USA, and the EU suffering from its own identity crisis. The ambivalent attitude towards the EU could become another distinguishing feature between England and the rest of the UK where we can see the sense of an economic alliance of smaller nations and the social benefits of EU membership. The relationship with the USA also needs to change, depending on the outcome of the Presidential election.
The function of the state at home needs some thought as well. Not being a liberal, I’m in favour of some aspects of social control, such as action of some kind against anti-social behaviour as it makes people’s lives a misery. The smoking ban is great, too. But we are becoming a more authoritarian state in more disturbing areas such as immigration and welfare benefits, culminating of course in identity cards. I do think people need to start worrying about this, as well as the corroding fear of difference (foreigners, Muslims) that is put about by the popular press.
Finally, the relationship between the state and political parties should be straightforward. Politicians are elected to govern and the activities of their parties are regulated by the state to avoid corruption of the process. Last year wasn’t great for that dynamic, and this year is starting out just as badly. Financial issues are overshadowing what should be the main story in 2007 and predictions for 2008: Gordon Brown as new Prime Minister. Having been a fan, I’m extremely disappointed – and surprised – that after a good start he’s not showing the leadership I expected and that he’s re-introducing nuclear power. I don’t see that 2008 will be a good year for the British Labour Party.
5 January 2008
I said that the focus in Northern Ireland over the past year has been on high level policy and on structural issues. In the Republic, it’s been about service delivery in the context of an economic slowdown.
The general election resulted in a new coalition government including the Greens, which I was sceptical about, and embarrassing compromises have been made (Hill of Tara, Ringsend incinerator). But some improvements are coming through: the ‘carbon budget’; a positive response to the Kyoto protocol (a new context for infrastructure improvements); and, perhaps most significantly, the beginning of a turnaround in planning policy with forthcoming proposals to restrict new building in towns and villages. The latter will involve fierce debates and the positions of the other political parties will be interesting; it could be a defining moment in Irish politics.
There’s been a lot of coverage of the decline in house prices, but 2007 may also have been the year when people realised it doesn’t matter how much your house is worth if you can’t get health care when you need it. The shocking news stories highlighted problems with clinical competence, communication between bureaucrats and the Minister, and the failure of the ‘managed’ market involving partial health insurance coverage and a state-funded picking up of the remaining pieces. Clearly both regulatory procedures and the economics of the system need to be reviewed, along with more consideration of an all-Ireland approach. It’s ridiculous that people in Donegal have to go to Dublin for specialist care when they could go to Altnagelvin or one of the Belfast hospitals. It’s also surprising that there’s no national civil society campaign for better health care in the Republic. The political parties have plenty to say, as do the unions, but a non-aligned campaign would draw wider public support. Perhaps it will happen this year.
Otherwise, the Mahon Tribunal carries on and it appears that public sympathy for Bertie is waning. What a shame this didn’t happen before the general election last year. Labour and Sinn Féin still haven’t recovered from disappointing election results and need to think through their future strategies and public profile more carefully. The referendum on the Lisbon Treaty could provide an opportunity for this.
I would also like to see a debate on support for the Irish language. Abolish the Gaeltacht areas, redirect the subsidy to State-wide arts events and language classes (and the wonderful TG4), remove the compulsion to learn Irish at school, and there will be a new dawn in Irish speaking, I am sure.
2 January 2008
2007 was an interesting year for politics in these islands, to put it mildly. Elections galore: NI Assembly, Irish Republic, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, all resulting in coalition or minority governments of some description. And a new UK Prime Minister. So I’m reviewing the possibilities for 2008 in a special three-part series.
Beginning closest to home, if I had to pick one outstanding 2007 event it would be the restoration of the NI Assembly in May. The emphasis has been on getting to grips with the realities of power, involving high level policy and structural issues rather than the details of service delivery. The draft Programme for Government and Investment Strategy documents are trying to bring NI more into line with the neoliberalism of the rest of the islands, with economic development as central and a furore about cuts to the social housing budget and to health. No doubt the consultation process will see some adjustments to the figures, there will still be less than is needed but it will be presented as a gain. The other key policy issue will be the devolution of policing and justice powers, which is scheduled for next May. Last year I would have said that if anything could derail the Assembly that was it, but now I think the big arguments will be connected with the budget, which I suppose is a sign of the new times we are living in.
The structural issue that will continue to be discussed is the existence and nature of the enforced coalition. Margaret Ritchie’s withdrawal of funds from the Conflict Transformation Initiative and debates over the draft budget have revealed the cracks and led to speculation that the SDLP and the UUP may work more closely together or even become a formal opposition. This would lead to the interesting spectacle of two oppositions in the Assembly, as the United Community group is already performing that function and I don’t see any possibility of the two groups working together. In fact, I don’t think an SDLP/ UUP coalition is feasible. Both parties need to rethink their identity and role in the new political environment before they can consider working relationships with other parties. But the bigger picture certainly needs thinking about. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee is due to review the voting system, designations and cross-community voting in June 2009. It would be sensible to bring this forward by a year and to consult as widely as possible on alternative options – perhaps including fewer Government departments and Ministers. Incidentally, the long-awaited Review of Public Administration now looks as if it’ll be implemented in a patchy manner depending upon what the relevant Ministers see as being in their interests. A missed opportunity.
The final point is that it’s good to see the First and Deputy First Minister making new links with other countries. It’s part of selling Northern Ireland to the world as a place where it’s fine to do business but perhaps more importantly where the quality of life is good. And maybe there’s also an awareness that the world is tired of hearing about Northern Ireland’s problems. I think the joint agreement with Scotland is the most significant: two jurisdictions that could easily be in competition for investment, education resources and tourism promising to work together instead. We’ll hear more of it. Perhaps Wales has not followed suit due to its Labour-led coalition?