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End posturing before the bailiffs arrive at the door

By Liam Clarke

Published 25/06/2015

Finance Minister Arlene Foster in her office at Parliament Buildings with her budget plan
Finance Minister Arlene Foster in her office at Parliament Buildings with her budget plan

We told you so. For years the big parties have been bemoaning media negativity about the Assembly. "Time to accentuate the positive" was their message. Nobody mentions that now.

Instead, most of the media predictions have come true in spades. Sectarian squabbling holds up Government. Relations between the two big parties have hit rock bottom and there is little sign of good work in the background.

Worst of all, the economy was in a mess. I once worked for a man who liked to say he aimed to be "generous to a fault". He was a great guy when it came to expenses and projects and he backed a lot of worthwhile things, but when he left they discovered loads of unpaid bills, many of them simply tucked in drawers.

The Assembly is a little like this. The parties have fought every issue and seldom compromised. Sinn Fein has been generous to Irish language education and it wants to be generous to benefit claimants, too, but it is not counting the costs of its pledges and is loath to admit it doesn't have the money.

The DUP has secured more funding for the Orange Order, it has defended marches and it is pushing to restrict most aspects of sexual morality. Unfortunately, the most basic functions of Government have stalled, bills pile up in the drawers and relations with Sinn Fein have not been maintained at a level where decisions can be taken easily. Everything goes to the wire.

Sinn Fein has consistently denied the obvious. It pledged that no benefit claimant would ever be worse off here, a pledge it has no more chance of keeping than Irish unity in 2016.

It can't influence future central Government policy even in a tight vote, it doesn't take its seats in Westminster. What t has bought is time. That won't last forever, but there are two things it can do.

Firstly, it gives Sinn Fein a chance of fighting an Irish general election where it is pledged to end austerity, without making cuts here first. The Dail election is scheduled for next year, but it could happen this autumn, or winter. Other parties should think if they want to give Sinn Fein that. Secondly, this break will give the Executive a chance to make a joint approach to central Government for more funds. Saying welfare reform is a bad thing won't wash with a Tory administration that won an overall majority against the odds by pledging to cut further.

The big things to aim for are more capital investment and help dealing with the past. HS2, a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham with a later extension to Leeds, starts work in 2017. It won't produce a proportional increase here although it costs anything between £43bn (Department of Transport figures) and £80bn (an Institute of Economic Affairs estimate).

Crossrail, a 73-mile railway line being constructed in London at a cost of £15.9bn, is one from which we get reduced benefit.

The Government argues that such projects benefit everyone, but from here it looks like London is benefiting.

We should be pushing for such projects to be included in the Barnett Formula, which sets our block grant. Then we too can start civil engineering projects that can bring our people back to work and improve our infrastructure. We could also put in a bid for reduced VAT; the Greek islands got it under EC rules, though they are proposing surrendering it now. The rates for the hospitality industry are far higher than the Irish Republic.

The legacy of the Troubles in terms of mental and physical health is somewhere where our needs are greater than other regions. These are areas where we could look to central Government and even international help to build up centres of excellence.

It won't be an easy sell, but it will be quite impossible to sell if we give the impression of people who can't manage what money we get.

We will look like the sort of people who hide bills in drawers and behind chairs until the bailiffs actually beat the doors in and start seizing our property. We are very close to that point now and it is time to stop posturing.

This budget bought us time to tackle our fundamental problems but it didn't solve them, and Stormont won't last if it can't start making progress on them.

Case for mega pig farm just doesn't add up

Somehow the arguments put forward by DCP PR for its client Derek Hall and his proposed indoor facility for 30,000 pigs don't convince me.

The most relevant point is that swine did not evolve to live in such conditions. DCP points out that pigs get sunburn when it's hot and get too cold at other times to be comfortable outside in a climate like ours.

It also argues each pig can be given 30ft more space in a big unit than a small one, but that is a purely commercial decision. There is nothing to stop you giving a pig as much room as it wants.

We have been breeding pigs for centuries; they aren't some exotic new product. Traditionally, they rummage around outside and then move into the shade, if it is provided, when they get too hot. They burrow into straw when they get cold.

This isn't a problem that requires a high-tech solution. Pigs have been domesticated in countries as warm as India and as cold as Sweden long before intensive farming.

They are the most common meat in the world and all the signs are that they like being able to go into the open and root for food; it is their basic behaviour and they like living in smallish groups.

They are just about as common - and as intelligent - as dogs. Pet pigs used to be a thing in Ireland, though, unlike dogs, they were usually eaten in the end.

A big problem with big pig farms is that they produce a lot of waste. In mixed farming waste can ideally be used as a fertiliser to improve the soil. An adult pig creates almost four times as much manure as a person. The US's biggest pig producer, Smithfield, produces as much excrement as the entire human population of California and Texas combined.

Farmed pig waste in the US has also been found to contain chemicals such as ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide and even cyanide.

This production of waste is one of the main problems with eating as much meat as we do. A smaller amount and animal waste helps with mixed farming.

Eating so much meat is also unhealthy and cattle farmed for food contribute more greenhouse gasses than all the world's transport systems.

These are big issues and no doubt DCP would tell me bigger farms are a sign of progress, which enable us to compete with other countries like Denmark, where standards of animal welfare are lower.

We can't expect Mr Hall to be convinced by the case for cutting down on meat consumption unless he sees a niche market for specialist produce.

If that is the case, we need to think about regulation to ensure that standards are maintained and improved where appropriate.

If we give ourselves the right to breed, kill and eat animals, the least we owe them is a decent life while they are in our care.

We also owe our children an environment as healthy as the one our parents left us. That is more important than keeping the price of the Ulster fry down.

Belfast Telegraph

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