Belfast Telegraph

Stormont's new fiefdoms

By Ed Curran

What must life be like inside the new Northern Ireland Executive for Michael McGimpsey, the Health Minister?

Following on my Open Letter last week to Peter Robinson, his wife Iris tore into the unfortunate Mr McGimpsey in a Telegraph article the following evening.

Let me refresh your memory with some of what she wrote. His tenure of office since May "is characterised by inaction and that there is nothing to distinguish him from a Direct Rule Labour minister.

"Many would argue that even 48% (in Britain it's more) of the budget devoted to health here was unrealistic given other priorities. If 48% is not enough, and the Minister feels incapable of delivering, perhaps then he should move aside and let someone else try.

"It is unrealistic to expect more and more money to be ploughed in endlessly without altering how the system operates. Many have feared Michael McGimpsey's left-leaning tendencies were incompatible with such a challenging portfolio ... The province cannot afford a Health Minister constrained by outdated political dogma."

Strong criticism, indeed, and all the more so, since Mrs Robinson's husband announced the budget and she is chairperson of the health committee. Between them, the Robinsons have launched such a highly-critical pincer movement as to make Mr McGimpsey's position within the Executive verge on the untenable.

This, of course, raises questions as to how power is wielded at Stormont. There are a number of modern-day political fiefdoms emerging. I am old enough to remember the era in Northern Ireland when Stormont was dominated by the Big House, landed gentry, officer class. Captain Terence O'Neill, Major James Chichester-Clark, the Brookeboroughs et al. Many of these privileged people were inter-related, controlling large chunks of land and property.

Today, we have new unionist fiefdoms. The Paisleys of north Antrim. The Robinsons of Castlereagh. The Dodds of north Belfast. And while they are not the land-owning class of the past, they lack nothing in influence on all our lives.

At the moment, the most formidable of these new power-bases are clearly the Paisleys (Ian Snr, Jnr, not forgetting Baroness Eileen), not bending a family inch on the Giant's Causeway controversy, and the Robinsons as exemplified by their criticism of Michael McGimpsey.

It will be interesting to see where Michael McGimpsey is after Christmas when the Draft Budget needs approval. If he fails to win concessions, then he, himself, might well conclude there was no place for him at the top table. Certainly the attitude of the Stormont Family Robinson is pointing that way.

What is also interesting is Mrs Robinson's claim that the Health Minister's " left-leading tendencies were incompatible with such a challenging portfolio." Surely most of the Executive are left- leaning, are they not? Sinn Fein? SDLP? Not to mention some of Mr Robinson's DUP colleagues?

That said, the message from the Robinsons on the health issue seems to be straight out of a Margaret Thatcher handbook. We cannot allow the welfare state to eat up so much of the public- spending cake. Let's cut out waste, get more productivity and efficiencies, and devote resources to other priorities such as a freeze on our household regional rates bill for the next three years. I wonder is that unanimously approved of around the table at Stormont? And, what do the ordinary Assembly members think about it, especially those who are constantly looking for more, not less, health resources in their areas. The next few weeks will tell.

Mr McGimpsey has a fight on his hands. If he loses it, we could be looking at the first resignation from the new Executive early in 2008.

The ceasefire announcement by the Ulster Defence Association jogged my memory back to the organisation's formation in the 1970s. In those perilous days, vigilante groups patrolled urban streets by night and from these sprung the paramilitaries.

My first encounter with the UDA was in a fairly humble terrace house off the Crumlin Road. There lived James Anderson, the first 'major-general' of the UDA to go public and, in 1972, to give me an exclusive interview.

Anderson told me he had been a Protestant vigilante in charge of the area around his home. He did his share of manning barricades and patrolling streets. He told me that when the novelty of this began to fade, he and others met in a school in North Howard Street and decided to amalgamate what was left of the vigilantes, and so the UDA was founded.

By 1972, when I talked to him, he was leading tens of thousands of working-class Protestant men, often marching through the streets in khaki uniform and dark glasses. When a riot broke out on the Shankill, their influence was obvious. Parachute Regiment officers came to Anderson's home and asked him to stop the trouble. Within an hour, it was over.

My own impression of him and many other UDA men whom I met in those early days, was of little more than community- spirited individuals protecting their neighbourhoods. "If the UDA hadn't come into being, we would have been three-quarters way into the Irish republic by now," he told me. And he expressed the hope that "it will all be over in six months".

Basically, he and his mates were in the UDA because they had lost faith in the political system to deliver for them. He said he had no confidence in unionist politicians and that "in the final analysis, it will eventually come to force being used."

How tragically right he was. When I reflect on his interview, it brings home the distance the UDA has travelled down a long and appallingly brutal, drug-trafficking, murderous, nest-feathering path, from the simplistic ideals of men like James Anderson who founded it, possibly out of nothing more than a sense of duty to protect their streets.

The Belfast Telegraph property awards last Thursday evening was an outstanding success, with over 500 attending the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast. Never has this province had a better year for real estate with soaring prices in even the most undesirable of locations.

Of course, some of the values placed on Ulster property have been positively breathtaking and a new sense of realism is creeping in fast. No one expects the bubble to burst but, at the same time, there is an expectation of continued slowdown into 2008.

New statistics show the average cost of a home here is now £250,000 with some places such as Belfast and mid-Ulster still experiencing growth in prices year on year of more than 50%.

However, the increased value of your home comes at a hidden price. I know many of my friends, not to mention myself, were relieved that Northern Ireland's household rates were reviewed in 2005, BEFORE and not AFTER property values surged. This means that our current rates are not reflecting the true market value of our homes.

The new system calculates our rates as being roughly 0.5% of the capital value of our home in January 2005. Thus a house valued then at £250,000 has a rates bill of £1,250 (half a per cent of the value). We didn't start paying the new rates until this year. Yet prices have soared way beyond 2005 values and many of us would be paying nearly twice as much as we currently are, if the people who set our rates hadn't used 2005 as their baseline.

Enjoy it while it lasts for that won't be for much longer. The next review of household rates is in 2012. Maybe we should start saving now since that future bill will reflect fully the hike in Ulster's property values. No wonder, Stormont is proposing to freeze regional rates for the next three years.

Someone up there knows about the train that's coming down the track towards us in 2012. The rates bill through your letterbox then will be just as breathtaking as property prices now.

Belfast Telegraph


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