Belfast Telegraph

The nefarious Mr Peter Hain

Would a return to devolved government in Northern Ireland lead to fairer rates and a reversal of the proposed radical reform of our education system? Robert McCartney QC MLA argues that such promises are only NIO propaganda aimed at forcing unionists to share power with Sinn Fein.

Peter Hain has now confessed that, since coming to Northern Ireland, he has been guilty of nefarious conduct.

One assumes that he is aware that, properly defined, nefarious means wicked, evil, or sinful. One might even conclude that arrogant political bullying falls within the definition.

The past few months have witnessed a rising tide of NIO propaganda about the utopian benefits of a return to devolved government.

Most of this has been orchestrated by the nefarious Mr Hain.

All of it, on examination, proves to be if not nefarious then certainly untruthful and misleading.

Being economical with the truth, as in the claimed existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, has become an article of faith among New Labour ministers.

Indeed, the rule is, if the truth cannot be avoided then it must be buried on a day of other more newsworthy events.

In this context, some of the Secretary of State's alleged benefits of a return to Stormont bear examination.

First, there is the claim that the new uncapped rating system is fair but, suggests Mr Hain, if the people of Northern Ireland want an unfair system of capping, a restored Assembly will be able to provide one.

Even a political fool can see the illogical nonsense of this proposition. If the new system is fair then surely the NIO is under a moral duty to maintain it for the claimed benefit of the citizens of Northern Ireland.

The truth is that the NIO knows that any comparison with the mainland demonstrates its manifest unfairness.

In a recent BBC Let's Talk programme, Minister Hanson was unable to persuade a single member of the audience that the new rating system was fair.

The prospect of change is held out solely as an inducement to support the Government's push for devolution, and the threat to retain it is the blackmailing cudgel against those who resist enforced coalition with a party that is inextricably linked with social terror and criminality.

What, however, is even more nefarious is the suggestion that a devolved Assembly could change the system if the Assembly was restored.

At present, this is simply untrue. The Assembly could only change the Order in Council if it was agreed by a cross community vote of a majority in each community.

Sinn Fein is totally opposed to any system of capping and banding, so bang goes any prospect of change.

Another claim of the nefarious Mr Hain is that a restored Assembly could alter and amend the destructive changes to our educational system but, here again, such changes which will destroy the best post-primary education in the United Kingdom can only be partially changed in a devolved Assembly with the support of Sinn Fein.

However, it was Sinn Fein's former education minister, Martin McGuinness who originated what Mr Hain now proposes, so the prospect of Sinn Fein giving cross community support for the maintenance of differential education and the survival of the grammar schools is nil.

Once again, the blackmailing threat inherent in the Government's attitude is exposed by its claim to be introducing a fairer and better system of education.

If this is truly the case, it should not be offering a devolved Assembly an opportunity to preserve, even in part, an unfair and allegedly inferior system.

In both the case of rates and education, what the nefarious Mr Hain is offering is an illusion intended to persuade house owners and parents alike that if they pressurise unionist politicians to agree a return to Stormont all will be well; when this is patently untrue.

Those who in good faith voted YES in the referendum which approved the Belfast Agreement and the resultant Assembly should remember that it was the devolved Assembly which commissioned the Rating Review which favoured the Capital Value system now about to be put in place.

Indeed, when the writer told the Assembly in June 2002 as to what the system would mean for young families with big mortgages, and pensioners on fixed incomes, the response of the responsible Executive minister, Sean Farren (SDLP) was: "What is the relevance of this?"

It was the failure of the parties who negotiated the Belfast Agreement, principally the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, to secure adequate capital provision to make good 30 years of under-investment under direct rule that later forced the Executive to consider Rate Revision and Water Charges as sources of revenue - a situation which Minister Hanson has frequently reminded them of and which explains their hitherto low profile on the rates issue.

The iniquity of the proposed rate increases has been underlined at the Labour Party Conference.

When it was suggested that Northern Ireland was a guinea pig test-bed for a Capital Value rating system for later use on the mainland, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was swift to deny that such was the case.

Clearly, the electoral consequences of such a proposal for England was very much in mind.

The greatest possible danger of the myth that a return to devolved government will enable a reversal of unpopular direct rule policies is that under a devolved government such policies will be, in fact, irreversible.

Once they are in place, backed by Sinn Fein, with a permanent veto they can never be changed.

At least under direct rule there is a possibility that central government policy may be changed.

At present the Education Minister, Alan Johnson, has accepted that, in England, primary schools have failed five million children by using methods of teaching "reading" that are now being imposed in Northern Ireland under the so-called 'enriched curriculum'.

Similarly, a review of the rating system in England may expose Capital Values as an inherently unfair approach.

A Conservative government might equally bring about a rethink on these issues.

Ultimately, the provision of public services depends on the availability of money.

Whether Northern Ireland is governed under direct rule or by a devolved government, the British Treasury will determine the extent of Northern Ireland's funding.

In Northern Ireland we pay more for electricity, gas, food, and transport than anywhere else in the UK. We have higher levels of unemployment, child poverty, disability, and a lower level of average industrial wage.

Our housing costs, which were once an advantage, are now approaching mainland levels.

Despite this, we are constantly being told that, since we pay less local taxes than on the mainland, these are to be increased to levels far beyond those payable in England, where the ability to pay is greater.

The policies of Mr Hain have got nothing to do with fairness. They are, in fact, an integral part of an ongoing strategy of disengagement.

A devolved Assembly Belfast Agreement-style was the central mechanism for implementing that strategy.

Now that Plan A is in a process of final collapse, the shape of Plan B is beginning to emerge.

Stage one is to make life for the British citizens of Northern Ireland so difficult and unpleasant that they can be deceived or pressurised into the original devolved mechanism for disengagement.

In the event of stage one failing then stage two will be a veiled form of joint authority accompanied by a programme of economic hardship that will make even Irish citizenship seem attractive. Messrs Hain and Hanson are deaf to reason and fairness.

Only public protest and a refusal to pay the increases have any prospect of making the Government think again.

Do not ask what someone else can do? Ask yourself what you can do?

And bear in mind that your apathy is Mr Hain's greatest asset.

Belfast Telegraph

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