Another wild week in Northern Ireland politics
Once in a while politics in Norn Iron is quiet and tranquil – I can't quite remember when that was, but am sure it has happened. The week that has gone, however, could certainly not be described as such.
There has been a significant PSNI arrest – I'll say no more – and surrounding allegations of political policing. There's a new MLA on the block and that came after yet another Assembly debate on marriage equality.
With a petition of concern, this debate inevitably fell into recriminations. Tabled by the DUP, the petition meant that a majority from both sides of the community divide had to support the motion to allow gay marriage.
Doomed to failure it nevertheless ignited the talk show circuit, where Norn Iron was either described as the last bastion of 'traditional' values or the only part of the UK that is so ‘backward’ that gay marriage is illegal.
With that debate attracting the usual heat and fury, one cannot but wonder why the debate on mental health – and lack of investment in child and adolescent mental health services – attracted relatively little coverage.
This week also saw the dawning of a new MLA. Following the tragic death of David McClarty, his parliamentary assistant Claire Sudgen is set to take over his East Londonderry seat. Having been the late Mr McClarty's assistant, managed his 2011 election campaign and taken over his Coleraine Borough Council seat, it would seem that the 27-year-old is eminently suited for the task. Although whether having a degree in politics, a master’s degree in Irish politics and studying for a master's degree in lobbying will equip her for the rough and tumble of life on the Hill remains to be seen...
This week we also saw yet another attack on democracy with the petrol bombing of the Alliance East Belfast constituency office. The mindless act was roundly condemned by First Minister Peter Robinson, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt. A rare display of political unity in a week largely characterised by division.
Of course amid the current week of political hurly burly you cannot but have noticed that there are election campaigns underway. A total of 906 people have put their names forward to be candidates to sit on the eleven new councils. These will initially sit in shadow form, replacing the existing 26 councils in April 2015.
Whether said people are deluded, committed to making a difference or merely rolling along with the political agenda is not really important. What is important, surely, is that each and every one of them has put their name forward to take a seat in council chambers that will have a real opportunity to improve the lives of people in their areas. We salute them.
At the time of writing almost 10,000 people have taken the Belfast Telegraph and Chambré Public Affairs MyVote survey. I am most surprised to discover that around a third of these people describe themselves as neither unionist nor nationals but as ‘other’. For a region so often described as split down the middle on sectarian lines is this figure a sign of things to come and perhaps spelling success for our more ‘moderate’ parties?
The week to come...
This week ahead sees a bank holiday, new twists and turns and two significant debates.
While members of the Assembly will no doubt be recovering from (watching) the Belfast marathon, or knocking on doors to drum up electoral support, they will also be prepping for Tuesday's plenary session.
This will see a debate on underachievement in Protestant working class areas. Focus for the debate will be a proposal to see a body for 'controlled' sector schools, in the same way there is an organisation, the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools. All of which is a reminder that the planned Education and Skills Authority is dead in the water.
The same day there will be a debate on the availability of cancer drugs, especially the disparity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. No doubt affordability will be raised at some point.
Committee business will be continuing with the committee for education discussing special educational needs provision, including access to healthcare.
The committee for finance and personnel will be considering whether amateur sports clubs should be exempt from rates, and receiving a briefing on the impact of this year’s UK budget on Northern Ireland.
Youth justice will be a topic for the committee for justice, while the regional development committee will have a timely discussion on cycling in Northern Ireland, just days ahead of the Giro D'Italia.