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A week at Stormont: Crunch party talks, human trafficking and education

By Will Chambre

Like the coming of the seasons, there is a certain inevitability about ‘talks’ coming into the political lexicon every year to 18 months in Northern Ireland.

Our politicians are gathering for a chin wag about the budget crisis, welfare reform, how the assembly works, flags, parades and the past.

The latter three were the focus of last year’s Haass talks flop, and already  there is a sense of déjà vu as this year’s nattering session gets underway.

Prime Minister David Cameron told the media:

"While the government can help, ultimately it is for Northern Ireland political leaders to take these issues forward…”

Cameron’s remarks were echoed by Taoiseach Enda Kenny who said:

“Now is time for the party leaders to seize the opportunity of these talks to find a way forward...”

That’s easy for them to say, but given the track record of the ‘Big Yins’ on the hill, it seems that there is a service industry growing around the amount of facilitators, talks participants, advisers and tea and bun providers. Is this a cunning plot to boost our economy?

Already there are niggles and whining going on. The DUP said they’d not be part of a “media circus” as the talks begin on Thursday. Boycotting the first roundtable chit chat, they were happy to meet with Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, later to discuss the budget and welfare reform.

And, they are refusing to meet with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, on the grounds that the discussions are about internal affairs of Northern Ireland.

The presence of Mr Flanagan has already led to the venue of the talks moving from Parliament Buildings to Stormont House.

With this less than encouraging start to the talks, one cannot help feel that Mr Cameron’s hope of a progress report by the end of November is somewhat optimistic; particularly if the parties fail to reach agreement on next year’s budget.

And SDLP Assembly member Alex Attwood’s optimism in his statement that before Christmas there would be “comprehensive and decisive outcomes” is bordering on fantasy.

However, stranger things have happened...allegedly extraterrestrial beings land on earth. If they do, maybe we can persuade them to be the next set of facilitators, even if Ukip don’t want aliens here.

Push for bill approval

As the talks begin on Northern Ireland’s political future, there is a rush on in the Assembly to get key legislative bills made law.

On Monday there is the consideration stage on Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, with a list of amendments that fill pages and pages of sub-clauses.

At Tuesday’s plenary session the Education Bill will also be at consideration stage, with no doubt be some meaty challenges coming from the unionist benches about provision for a sectoral body for the controlled sector..

With the Ulster Orchestra claiming it may fold by Christmas, the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure will receive a briefing from members of the orchestra. We suggest that they play something apocalyptic from Wagner to kick the briefing off.

While the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee will be facing the Ride of the Valkyries, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment will have a session almost as taxing  as Wagner’s Ring Cycle as it tackles a session with an eight item agenda encompassing areas including insolvency, the life and health sciences sector, consumer rights and the Northern Ireland economic strategy.

Agriculture and Rural Development committee members will be tackling anti-poverty and inclusion along with the Reservoirs Bill and Seeds Regulations Amendments that’s before they head off to Scotland... so much for austerity.

The Committee for Employment and Learning will be continuing its investigation into special education needs provision in further education as well as a review of youth training.

The thorny issue of health service budgets will see the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety receive a presentation from the new Health Minister, Jim Wells, on how his department intends to ‘approach’ the shortfall.

The Committee for the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be hearing all about the Social Investment Fund and Together: Building A United Community, before they consider holding an inquiry into Building A United Community...

The week rounds up on Thursday in the Senate Chamber as the Committee for the Environment takes on issues such as protecting marine conservation zones, taxis, smoke controls and waste management.

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