Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tree down on Lisburn's Harmony Hill

Tree down

Stormy weather - which brought a tree down over part of the road on Lisburn's Harmony Hill (near the Clonmore Manor entrance). Roads Service say that the tree surgeon is aware ... I think he's having a busy night!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Doctor Who - new Doctor, new companion, new episode, previewed in Belfast

Karen Gillan (Amy Pond) and Matt Smith (the 11th Doctor) being interviewed by Joe Lindsay in the QFT after the screening of the first episode
This morning was one of those unusual mornings. Normally science fiction is an afternoon or evening pursuit. But today, I was along at the QFT by 9.30am for the preview screening of the first episode of Doctor Who featuring the eleventh Doctor Matt Smith.
Karen Gillan (who plays his new companion Amy Pond) was there too, signing autographs, and answering questions for the invited audience of school children from across Northern Ireland as well as [cough] some hangers on.
I’ll not spoil Saturday night’s episode for you with any new plot points. The previous programme finished with the Doctor still recovering from the regeneration process and the TARDIS spinning out of control. And that’s where The Eleventh Hour begins.

Projected onto the QFT’s main screen, the HD quality picture was obvious and gorgeous. Early on there are comedic moments with a great Murray Gold score pressed right up against the dark plot.
Matt Smith demonstrating his Sonic Screwdriver - note it's green not blue! - on stage with Karen Gillan (Amy Pond) and interviewer Joe Lindsay
There’s lots of sonic screwdrivering, plenty of “twenty minutes to save the world” – that’s not a spoiler, it happens every couple of episodes! – a quick cameo from Patrick Moore, and a bit of talking on a mobile phone while driving a stolen emergency vehicle. But expect to wait a while before seeing inside the retro-generated TARDIS.
I reckon Amy Pond will make a great companion. Feisty and capable of pulling the Doctor along, and only an inch or so shorter, she looks like she was destined to travel in the blue police box along with the mad, impetuous Doctor who is still figuring out what his new self is like.
This morning’s crowd loved Steven Moffat’s new creation. I couldn’t find anyone with a bad word to say about it. I was primarily there with my Audience Council hat on – something I normally keep separate from this blog – but since the Doctor Who tour team seemed comfortable, I grabbed a couple of voxpops with some of the older children adults immediately after the Q&A session that followed the screening.

Tomorrow the Doctor Who tour hits Karen’s home town of Inverness before swinging south through Sunderland, Salford and Northampton (Matt Smith’s home town) during the rest of the week.
So having vegged out on The Boat Race on Saturday afternoon, why not settle down on – or behind – your sofa with a bowl of custard and some fish fingers and watch the new Doctor and his companion in action. Saturday 3 April, BBC One at 6.20pm. I’ll be tuned in to see the bits missing from this morning’s preview - including the lead into the second episode.
Update - you can catch BBC Newsline's interview and other details from the day on the Doctor Who news page.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pole Farm

Pole yard

I like to pretend that they grow telegraph poles in this magic yard. Every night they shoot up an inch before eventually being harvested and taken away to be used somewhere else in the country.

Unfortunately, the reality is less exciting - it's a training facility!

Blogging has been a bit light this week as I've been away being on a course, being indoctrinated into the ways of the TOGAF enterprise architecture framework. I'm not looking forward to the exam!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Potto, Hilda ... and Archie - new Muppet joins second series of Sesame Tree

Filming of the second series of children's programme Sesame Tree is underway in Northern Ireland, and a new cast member has just been announced by Sesame Workshop and the local production company Sixteen South.


Joining the main two stars from the first series - Potto and Hilda (pictured below) - with their unbashfully broad accents is a young squirrel muppet called Archie (short for Archimedes). He'll be the one with the bushy tail, glasses and the catchphrase of "Sweetily deet".

"He is truly delighted to be friends with Potto and Hilda and loves the fact that every day in the Sesame Tree is filled with laughter, singing, learning and lots of silliness."

Quite likely that local puppeteer Mike Smith shares this view with his character Archie!

In the second series of Sesame Tree, we'll see Archie out and about with Hilda, as his friends "encourage him to be less afraid if he’s frightened of something – or help him to prepare for a new challenge".

It'll be "beezer" to see Sesame Tree back on Cbeebies at the end of 2010.

Sesame Tree promotes messages of respect and understanding through engaging educational content that encourages children to explore and appreciate the world around them.

(Image copyright Sesame Workshop and used with permission.)

Sesame Tree Northern Ireland publicity shot - cropped from BBC News website version

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Espresso Book Machine - books on demand

We live in an impatient Martini society in which many of us demand instant gratification and one-click ordering and delivery of all our material wants.

Picture the scene. You've come out of the house without your internet-ready smart phone and you call into your local book store - assuming it's still in business - but it doesn't have the title you're looking for.

No problem. Look no further than the Espresso Book Machine sitting in the corner of the store. The good folks at On Demand Books are marketing an instant publishing solution that prints, binds and trims a book while you wait.

h/t Future Perfect Publishing blog.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ditching ... NI film showing in the QFT, 20-25 March

Still from the film - Ditching

With the Belfast Film Festival coming up in April, cinema is on my radar. A recent email to me highlighted a local film that appeared in last year’s festival line-up and is now being screened in the Queens Film Theatre from Saturday 20 to Thursday 25 March.

Ditching is the debut feature film from Factotum, the Belfast-based arts group possibly better known as the publishers of The Vacuum. (Their new Bureaucracy issue is out now.) They were also selected to participate in Northern Ireland’s first showing at the Venice Biennale. And they have a choir too!

Northern Ireland, the future: in a post-apocalyptic landscape of decaying towns and primitive technology two people set out on a journey in search of medicine.

Ulster has become a depopulated, feudal and dangerous wilderness where its inhabitants have forgotten the past and are confused about the ruins that surround them. They distract themselves with improvised ceremonies and games but feel threatened by a world they do not understand.

Along the way the travellers find themselves embroiled in a number of situations involving a cast of unpredictable characters including a wise hermit, a tribe of cannibals, a dysfunctional army and an entrepreneurial priestess. What fate will await them at the end of their journey?

The film stars local acting talent - including Lalor Roddy (Hunger), Jonathan Harden (Fifty Dead Men Walking), Juliet Crawford (Five Minutes of Heaven), Paul Garret (Cherrybomb) and Mary Lindsay – and an original soundtrack.

I’m intrigued by the sound of this film, though I’ll be out of the country so won’t be able to make it along to a screening. But if you make it along to the QFT, come back and comment below about the film and how you found it.

Update - August 2010 - posted a review of Ditching.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St Patrick's Day Parade, Belfast

I've been a fan of the Twelve Five's website where Iain Anderson occasionally posts minute-long videos - twelve shots, five seconds each. While not as beautiful and well crafted as Iain's output, here's the Belfast St Patrick's Day parade as a Twelve Fives.

It was the first time in my life I'd been down to see the parade. Shorter than I expected. Absolutely no contentious symbols or flags in the parade. It was good to see a wider than normal variety of Belfast councillors marching in front of the parade. UTV's Paul Clark interviewed PUP councillor John Kyle (1 minute into the clip) who joined this year's parade. The only unionist councillor participating, John explained:

"I think it's an opportunity for both communities to come together to do something constructive that really promotes Northern Ireland."

Not so hopeful to hear the drunken lads shouting IRA chants at the top of their voices on Fountain Street and saying they were "goin' to the Holylands to start it off".

Belfast - Re-imagining the City // Radio 4 Choice podcast

Each week's Radio 4 Choice podcast is like dipping your hand into a goodie bag and pulling out a prize. This week's gem was an unusual documentary about Belfast by artist Bill Drummond. It's still available to download for another couple of days.

At times it feels like Drummond lives in an alternative universe, describing a different city than the Belfast we know. (As a man who burnt a million pounds and called it art, this may be the proof that he does indeed live in an alternative universe!) Yet it's full of wit and made me smile on the drive home last night after a very long day.

"When artist Bill Drummond discovered Belfast wasn't twinned with anywhere he made a sign and put it up under the city's welcome notice. It said 'Belfast: Twinned with Your Wildest Dreams'. In this programme, Bill shares his vision of the city: his memories of glamorous 1930s cinemas with glittering curtains, of spontaneous creative happenings and a landscape where the smell of the mountain heather seeps down to the city centre. With a range of urban guides, Bill offers a tour of Belfast unlike any you've heard before."

On the ArtsExtra blog last month, Marie-Louise Muir described her night out with Drummond which you'll hear near the end of the programme.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Election Observers - time to sign up

Electoral Observer card

Over on Slugger, Mark has been musing on the subject of how a legitimate political state is defined (Congress of Vienna, the Montevideo convention, recognition by the UN and social theory) and how this is reflected in the arguments put forward by those who reject the legitimacy of Northern Ireland (usually referring to it as the Six Counties). I intend leaving that conversation over on Slugger where it will run long and heated!

But on a related note, the Electoral Commission recently updated their Code of Practice for Electoral Observers. Long time readers will remember that I signed up as an observer before last June’s European Election and posted a bit about some of what I saw during the opening of postal ballots, polling day, the verification and the count.

The introduction of the legislation that supports Electoral Observers was delayed in Northern Ireland until 2009. Though with the level of interest in politics and polls, it was no surprise that there were proportionally (and probably numerically) more observers registered in NI than anywhere else in the UK.

The Code of Practice has to be signed by observers, committing them to maintain political impartiality, observe the ballot secrecy requirements (ie, never reveal an individual’s vote), avoid obstructing the election process, make accurate observations, etc.

But the old Code of Practice contained a line that was innocuous in England, Wales and even Scotland, but stuck out in Northern Ireland’s context:

Respect sovereignty and international human rights

Election observers must respect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom as well as the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its people …

The new code has been revised with a more inclusive wording that will discount fewer constitutional republicans from applying to be observers

Respect the laws of the United Kingdom, international human rights and the authority of electoral bodies

Observers must respect the laws of the United Kingdom as well as the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its people …

Which all serves as a reminder that if you’re interesting in being able to observe democracy in action – perhaps at the upcoming General Election – and are keen to form part of the process of electoral accountability, then you’ll find more information about signing up on the Electoral Commission website.

With the change to the rules, there’s even less standing your way!

(Note that Electoral Observers are valid during General Elections, European Elections, NI-wide council elections but not council by-elections.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Lives of Spaces - exhibiting in Ormeau Baths Gallery until 27 March

The Lives of Spaces

The Belfast Film Festival has recently launched this year’s programme. Worth checking out.

One of the films I attended last year included snippets from the Lives of Spaces exhibition that eight Irish architects staged at the Venice Biennale in 2008. The exhibition is now on show in Ormeau Baths Gallery – on Ormeau Avenue, just up from the Holiday Inn. Today at lunchtime, one of the architects involved, Niall McCullough, gave a talk about his piece.

He sees a blurring of the boundaries between disciplines. Architecture and music have long been connected. But increasingly, artists are making structures and buildings that used to be the preserve of architects.

Architectural photographs are nearly always devoid of people, lest they spoil the clean lines of the empty building. Taken early in the morning, with strong light, and stray furniture moved out of the way, the photographs document the new building before the owners and the consumers make their mark.

So for their exhibit, they contrasted shots of an empty building – Waterford City Library, which McCullough Mulvin architectural practice had worked on five years previously – with moving images of it in use. Eight different vistas were filmed and play alongside a filmic version of the original architectural photographs.

As well as the library users, two static figures dressed in black were placed in each shot. Maybe like figures in a renaissance painting, they represent the architects? Maybe they point to the next view. Maybe the tall lady and the short man are looking for each other? Maybe they’re in love? The viewer gets to decide.

McCullough pointed out that it was unusual for him as an architect to return to a building once it was in use. By having to sit in the library to think about the project, he’d discovered and come to terms with elements of his design that had worked, and elements that had been less successful.

Having now worked on a number of library projects, he commented that

“Libraries are great new public spaces.”

In the age of the internet, people still go to libraries and find them to be “value free public spaces” where no one asks you why you’re there, you just go and do your own thing.

You’ll catch the full Lives of Spaces exhibition in the Ormeau Baths Gallery until 27 March.

There are a number of other events associated with the exhibition:

  • Lives and Spaces: Art, Architecture and the Public symposium on Thursday 25 March looking “at how art, architecture and curating intersect in the public realm, through exhibitions, public art and the built environment”. In conjunction with OBG and PLACE.
  • A workshop on Buildings of the World suitable for 8-10 year olds running on Saturday 13 March from 10.30am to 12.30pm.
  • Lastly, at 7pm and 9pm on 23-25 March, members of the Lyric Studio (Lyric Theatre’s professional training programme for 18-24 year olds) will perform their original piece based around themes and visuals from, and responses to the exhibition. Places are limited – so contact Ormeau Baths Gallery in advance.

Update - you might also want to check out Thursday night’s architectural special on Arts Extra. Mark Hackett from the Forum for Alternative Belfast made an appearance along with a critique of the renovated Ulster Museum and talk about the Cathedral Quarter. (h/t to PLACE's blog for the reminder.)

Wanted - thick skinned senior manager to run important organisation that can never please everyone

Douglas Bain making an announcement in the Kings Hall, Belfast

In the land of the over-governed, the Chief Electoral Officer is king?

Well, they’re looking for a new one! Douglas Bain retires this year and the hunt for his replacement has started.

If you fancy your chances organising and robustly defending Electoral Office NI’s activities, voter registration, management of polling stations and counts, and you have the mandatory experience, the NIO would like to hear from you before the closing date of 9 April!

  • a minimum of 3 years senior management experience working at board level in the public, private or voluntary sector, working in a complex and changing environment;
  • a minimum of 3 years experience of meeting challenging financial and other performance objectives and targets, gained at senior management level;
  • a minimum of 3 years senior management experience of leading a team and working with a diverse range of internal and external stakeholders to deliver agreed outcomes, involving partnership working.
Electoral Office for Northern Ireland logo

And with on average an election every year, and the NIO handing over much of its interest in elections to EONI once Policing and Justice finally devolved, your life will never be dull.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Castlereagh Council to go public!

Castlereagh Borough Council logo

It seems that Castlereagh Borough Council, some of whose members are normally so reluctant to make meetings and minutes public, are about to join the vast majority of other local councils in Northern Ireland and start to publish their minutes online.

This morning’s Belfast Telegraph brought the news that Castlereagh’s full council meeting in February approved the decision by its Central Services Committee to start “to publish minutes from all council meetings on its website from this week”. They’ll finally be bringing their practice in line with the advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The paper's article noted that “Castlereagh Council will back date minutes on its website for the current electoral term, making them available from 2005”.

Castlereagh’s website only merited a single star in the recent Socitm Insight survey of council websites. Belfast City Council was awarded three stars; Coleraine Borough Council picked up two stars.

But of the 24 local councils in NI that scored one star, Socitm rated Castlereagh’s website joint bottom.

Their team of reviewers pointed to a “lack of customer focussed content” and that “it would be good to … have some online forms etc”. They “couldn't find an events calendar or councillor's allowances/expenses”. But perhaps most importantly, “No search facility found” … “Add a search facility”.

Even with the addition of online minutes, Castlereagh may have some distance to go to get off the bottom of the table in next year’s survey.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Doctor Who coming to Belfast on Monday March 29

Image of 11th Doctor Who and companion Amy Pond - (c) BBC 2010

Local blogger Destroy All Onions pointed out to me yesterday that Doctor Who is coming to town.

As part of the publicity and excitement being generated around the new series, the TARDIS (well, a bus bearing the Doctor Who logo and carrying the new Doctor and his companion) will be materialising in Belfast on Monday 29 March.

BBC Outreach is organising the tour of five UK venues and has the remit of taking the BBC into communities and sections of society that are relatively underserved by the BBC. The Doctor Who bus will be touring through Belfast, Inverness (home town of Karen Gillan who plays the new assistant Amy Pond), Sunderland, Salford and Northampton (Matt Smith’s home town).

There will be a regional première of the first episode at each venue, along with a chance to see the Doctor Who trailer in 3D. Children (small and big perhaps) can meet Matt and Karen - the Doctor and Amy - as well as some of the Doctor Who monsters, and “get their photo taken tumbling through the giant vortex”.

Update - quick review of the preview and my impressions of the first episode.

Caption competition?

Picture from last week's Lisburn Echo

As I flicked through last week's Lisburn Echo freesheet, this picture jumped out at me!

Lisburn Echo free sheet masthead

I'm sure you'll have fun with it ...

... though do try and keep your suggestions suitable for a family audience.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis - well organised, but not as controlled as I expected

If I’m honest, I wondered if I was wise heading down to Dublin very early on Saturday morning to get to the RDS and the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. In the end, having attended the majority of the other local party conferences (only missed the DUP and the Greens ... and the TUV), my curiosity and people’s prompting got the better of me, and I drove down into a world and a party that I’m largely unfamiliar with.

Like the other posts about party conferences, I’m covering how it happened and what was said; I’ll leave the political analysis to others.

So what’s it like?

Like me – until recently – most people reading this blog probably haven’t been to a party conference, and certainly not one run by Sinn Féin . The Ard Fheis had the same family feel of other large party conferences. Friends with similar outlooks and common interests meeting up. There’s a huge social aspect on top of the actual conference business and party grandstanding on TV.

When it comes to logistics, Sinn Féin are very well organised. I’ve seen their planning and management first hand as an Election Observer back in June at the European poll. And those skills were on show again yesterday.

Inaccesible? Steps up to platform at Sinn Fein Ard Fheis

A big set filled one end of the conference hall with two rows of party luminaries high up on the raised stage behind the main podium. Morecambe and Wise could have had fun with the bank of steps in front. Though one speaker pointed out that the set wouldn’t be accessible for many disabled speakers and hoped there would be improvements next year.

Despite the multiple manned camera positions around the hall, there wasn’t a screen embedded into the set to magnify the head of the speakers. And no distracting Powerpoint visuals! Just words. I’d expected tricolours galore, but a single flag stood at one side of the stage.

Most parties rely on their venue’s wireless hotspots to serve the media and bloggers. Sinn Féin provided wired internet access, extension sockets and even direct audio feeds for anyone who needed them, as enough seats and tables to cope with the expected masses.

The PA was flawless – with none of the howl or feedback you sometimes get at other venues. Maybe next year the organisers’ official Ustream channel will work. (Though the PA was clear enough the mic built into my laptop could pick up the proceedings and make them available to various folk following Slugger O’Toole’s coverage of the day.)

There was encouragement from the front that speakers should not waste time repeating back what they said in Irish/English in Irish/English as wireless simultaneous translation headphones was available and both languages were equally valid for use.

The RDS hall holds about 600 people, and it was full during the “live” sessions that went out on RTE and BBC; at least half full for the rest of the day. Despite the number of delegates, the exhibition space was sparse.

Topics for debate

If it hadn’t been for the repeated use of the word “comrade” I could have closed my eyes and imagined that I was back at the SDLP conference. There was a similar volume of motions: Sinn Féin covered 152 compared to the SDLP’s 172. How come the unionists get by without all these official policies?

Lots of topics that you’d expect a democratic socialist party to cover: turf cutting versus peat extraction; perinatal services; student housing in the Holylands and the potential for a similar “erosion” in North Belfast as the University of Ulster expands its Belfast campus; objection against the plans for extension of the Belfast City Airport runway; and a mention for Titanic Quarter with a call for the Executive to intervene to ensure “maximum benefit for working class communities in terms of social housing, employment and community involvement”.

Teleprompter - showing Gerry Adams speech - Sinn Fein Ard Fheis

Sinn Féin deal with the motions in blocks of up to thirty. A queue forms at the side of the stage for delegates wanting to speak for or against one or more of the motions. The speeches are time limited, and once the time allotted for the motions is over, no matter who is left in the queue the session closes and they move straight to the votes. Compared to the SDLP experience of poor timekeeping and continual slippage in the timetable of business, they should send someone along to observe at the next Ard Fheis to pick up tips!

Despite being an all-island party and trying to keep policies equally applicable across with NI and the Republic, there’s a fair amount of context switching between the 6 counties and the 26 counties. So in amongst the motions to reaffirm support for Education Minister Caitríona Ruane there was another centrally-proposed motion “opposing the Irish Government’s withdrawal of the support services grant from Protestant fee-charging schools in the South”.

I was surprised at the level of debate and the occasional distension. Not at all the tightly controlled, always on-message party conference I expected. During one of the early sessions on Saturday morning, a delegate was openly critical about the party’s lack of progress around a donor card resolution passed at an Ard Fheis a number of years ago.

It was a quiet year in terms of significant motions and business. NI journalists said that the weekend’s real political news story was happening up north with the UUP gearing up to throw a spanner in the works of Policing & Justice and in County Tyrone with the meeting of the Orange Order’s Grand Lodge that ended up giving a “cautious welcome” to the report of the joint committee on parades.

The high emotion and drama of previous Ard Fheiseanna (plural of Ard Fheis) that voted on the Good Friday Agreement and other peace process issues was missing, and “there's less of a whiff of cordite about this conference than those fifteen years ago” as Mark Devenport succinctly posted on his blog.

There was divergence of opinion with competing blood sports motions. Some delegates felt that hare coursing should still be allowed, and there was a rumour that someone was ejected from the hall after throwing water over another delegate during the coursing debate. (Hare coursing features in the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill that’s making its way through the Assembly.)

But it seems that Friday night had the main political drama with an innocuous looking motion seeking to prevent the option of Sinn Féin going into coalition government with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. The Ard Chomhairle (party executive) amendment eventually passed to leave the option of coalition open but impose preconditions including the agreement of a special delegate conference. Many of the speeches on Saturday very obviously returned to the issue of coalition to hammer home the message of how well it was working in the NI Executive. Martin McGuinness noted:

“But I have to say to Enda Kenny I do know what it is like to operate a coalition government. In case it has escaped his attention I jointly head one. Unlike his party colleagues, Sinn Féin ministers take decisions day and daily which impact on the lives of Irish citizens. Collectively as an Executive we have had to face up to the same problems as the Fianna Fail/Green coalition here in Dublin.”

“Live” session

During the hour-long televised sessions, I was nearly breathless watching the quick succession of speakers getting up on stage to deliver their four minute message to camera as soon as the applause for the previous speaker faded. The order of speakers, their subjects and their content was no accident.

Mary Lou McDonald and Martin McGuinness followed by three southern councillors (including Thérèse Ruane, Caitríona’s young sister). Then it switched to the north with contributions from local MLAs just in time for the BBC coverage to pick up.

If it had been Britain’s Got Talent the Oscars, then Noleen Mc Polin would have stormed away with the best newcomer award for her spirited performance, backing Ruane’s education plans and stating that “[educational reform] will be the most radical delivery of the Executive”. If she doesn’t end up on a district council or standing as MLA for South Down in the 2011 Assembly elections, I’ll eat my hat … or sit through another party conference!

Martin McGuinness speaking at Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis

A selection of remarks from the speakers …

Martin McGuinness on the economic recession - “The race to the bottom that is underway must end and the deliberate targeting of the income of working families and public services is not the answer to sorting out this economic mess.”

Martin McGuinness on the UUP – “The UUP have three days to sort themselves out. They can do the right thing and join with the rest of us in building a new and better future, or they can continue to pursue a negative, rejectionist agenda which is out of step with the majority of unionist opinion and the vast, vast majority of citizens on the island. Is Reg Empey really saying that he is threatening the political institutions because Caitríona Ruane won’t reintroduce the 11 plus? What is more dysfunctional than that?”

Martin McGuinness on political commentators and rivals that say Sinn Féin could not be trusted in a Dublin government – “Wake up and look north. We are in government, we are taking the hard decisions and we are doing a doing a good job to boot. Their attitude is arrogant, it is partitionist and it is absolutely unacceptable.”

Gerry Kelly speechified on a United Ireland and how the Good Friday and Hillsborough agreements were an accommodation, building towards unification – “Despite substantial early resistance to the [north/south government level structures] by Unionists they are now embraced by all parties North and South. To illustrate this let me say that there have been 57 of these meetings between Ministers North and South since May 2007. Another four are planned for this month alone.”

By my counting that means that there have been more north/south ministerial level meetings that Executive meetings!

Michelle Gildernew presented the Farming News. As well as outlining her department’s programme to tackle rural poverty and social exclusion, she explained “why I am targeting the next £7 million tranche of our farm modernisation scheme at those farms and farm families” “who live in the more difficult environments, on our hillsides and mountainous areas”. Expect an Equality Impact Assessment on that policy soon.

Alex Maskey was next with Crimewatch – “We believe we are making good and steady progress as the Policing Board and DPPs engage more with communities” … “Comrades, we are delivering on our mandate while striving for an all-Ireland justice system”. I was surprised that unlike policing and justice speeches at other party conferences, Maskey made no reference to Peadar Heffron. Update - On the Friday night, Sinn Féin’s national chairman Declan Kearny did speak out against dissident violence and mentioned his cousin Peadar Heffron who “is making a good recovery and hopefully that will continue to be the case”. But Maskey still missed the opportunity.

Caitríona Ruane’s speech was well reported in the media and said lots of predictable stuff about her education policies and pointed to investment in schools … while making no reference to the fact that there is no budget available for building and repair work on NI schools after 31 March – which has forced the curtailment of some projects underway.

International speakers

Speakers from movements in Palestine, the Basque Country and South Africa had a chance to address the delegates after lunch. Gerry Adams took his place on stage for the first time on Saturday during this session.

The gentleman from Palestine declared “I adore your people, love the Sinn Féin and it’s democratically chosen leaders, and I particularly love my friend Gerry Adams”.

Conference was brought a message from a Basque compatriot in jail and finished with a crowd pleasing “Tiocfaidh ár lá”.

Lastly, Baleka Mbete, the national chairperson of the ANC took to the stage. She was impressed with how Martin McGuinness had cleaned up, wearing shirt and tie, and doing important meetings. She recalled Northern Ireland politicians coming to South Africa, but having to travel in separate planes, eat in separate restaurants. But Nelson Mandela came and scolded them and it seemed to have worked. No surprise that this bit was left out of the Sinn Féin press office’s summary note of her address!

She hoped that Mandela will “stick around” to enjoy the World Cup, and the ANC centenary in Jan 2012.

Youth, diversity and fashion

Compared to the SDLP and Alliance conferences, Sinn Féin had a much older audience with fewer young people in attendance. Fashion wise, there was a lot more denim being worn than the other party conferences; but the SDLP’s short skirt trend didn’t really extend to the Ard Fheis!

Other than the international guests and some self-tanning disasters, the Ard Fheis delegates were all nearly as pasty faced as me. Where was the diversity that is so obvious across the island? Put bluntly, the Progressive Unionist Party’s conference had more black delegates, despite being tiny in comparison with Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis. Plenty of talk from the platform about standing up for LGBT rights, but a lack of ethnic diversity and physical disability.

I called in at the youth fringe event organise by Ógra Shinn Féin over tea time. About 45 young people listened to a panel talking about how “to make this country a better place for ourselves”. Panellists described how they got into politics, their desire for a unification and thinking about the inequalities of society.

As well as an honest reflection that standing for council had made one guy very recognisable in the pub, the youthful delegates were encouraged to get onto sites “like Facebook and Twitter and put up the events you’ll be attending, the rallies and protests” to get the word out about OSF activities.

One northern panellist who was a local councillor talked about his experience of “working with unionists when we can, and only confronting them when necessary”. This reflected other comments from the main stage on Saturday – practical co-operation rather than mindless aggravation. He also pointed out that unionist voters were consistently contacting Sinn Féin advice centres for help – echoing Niall Ó Donnghaile’s experience described in a previous post.

Adams’ closing speech

While the BBC generally broadcast from the party conferences at lunchtime, the other southern party leaders prefer going live to the nation on RTE at half eight on Saturday night. The Ard Fheis was elongated this year to accommodate Gerry Adams speaking at half eight. I’d been warned that the hall would fill up and that there would be an influx of journalists coming in at the last minute to cover his speech. While the hall was packed with delegates, the media throng was overstated.

Security was very visible all day. But I’m still not sure why – minutes before Adams came back into the hall to deliver his speech – we were told to note the location of the nearest fire escape?

A sign language interpreter suddenly appeared at the start of Gerry Adams' closing speech

Suddenly for the a sign language interpreter (presumably ISL, rather than BSL) appeared to the side of the stage – the first time all day. I can’t help feeling she was there for the cameras rather than anyone in the audience.

The first two thirds of Adams’ address was pitched at the RTE audience before returning to northern matters towards the end. There was an abundance of socialist rhetoric:

“Everyone who lives on this island has the right to a home; a safe environment; to access education and childcare; to civil and religious liberty; and to meaningful work with proper terms and conditions. Everyone has the right to health care.”

The shadow of the Ryan Report, the Dublin Archdiocese Commission’s investigations, and Liam Adams was clearly visible in the extended section dealt with children.

“The Proclaimation of the Republic asserts the need to cherish all the children of the nation equally …

It doesn’t say unless you are poor or elderly, Or unless you have autism; or learning difficulties; or disabilities. Or unless you come from a remote rural area. Or from Moyross or Sheriff Street; or Strabane or Ballymena.

It doesn’t say unless you are a child in the care of the state. The protection of children is a fundamental human right. the protection of children is the responsibility of all of us and it should be guaranteed in the constitution.”

There was a call for people to stop being passive and get stuck in.

“And all of us who believe in a better way, in a just society, in a real republic; we need to make our beliefs relevant to more and more people. We need to be about empowerment. We need to raise our voices. We need to make a stand.”

Not sure if that means there will be an upsurge in republican bloggers?! The theme returned again later in the speech.

“That’s the main thing, to stand up for ourselves. And for others. That is what happened throughout our history.”

Think I’d prefer if parties reversed the order and stood up for others before themselves, but maybe that’s why I’m not a member of any.

There was a reminder of other finished “struggles”:

“Most struggles aren’t won by single actions. Or by iconic leaders. Though they have their role. They are won by people, taking individual actions, which accumulate into irreversible change.”

Suffragettes, anti-apartheid movement, Rosa Parks, …

The economy was never far away from speakers’ lips on Saturday. Adams took a few shots at the government and at NAMA.

“We need leaders to ensure that no banker will evict a family from their home.”

“The biggest scandal of all is the pouring of billions of taxpayers’ money into a toxic banking system and NAMA. There is no NAMA for workers.”

As the 25 minute speech concluded, members of the public Northern Ireland were invited to come to Sinn Féin “town hall” meetings and help crowdsource their “manifest for change”. And a quick mention of the continued strategy “to marshal [the Irish diaspora’s] political strength in support of a United Ireland”.

Finishing with a song ... Sin Fein Ard Fheis

The speech ended with the second “Tiocfaidh ár lá” of the day followed by a sharp militaristic ninety degree turn to the right, stand to attention and a song. Willie McCrea doesn’t have the monopoly on culture!


I grew up during the Troubles. I remember sitting (reading) in the back of the car on the way down to a holiday in West Port. Black flags lined the lamp posts for much of the journey. I remember listening over breakfast to the daily account of overnight violence, bombings and murders on Good Morning Ulster. I wish Sean Crummey had been around to do the voiceovers for Gerry Adams on television reports. Culturally, I can’t help but associate the republican movement with those dark days.

The organisers and delegates were a friendly and welcoming bunch. There were none of the suspicious looks or pointed questions that a naïve blogger might ave expected.

The Ard Fheis was a party conference like many of the others I’ve witnessed over the last few months. They debated the minutiae of turf cutting one minute, criticised the government and other parties the next. They took advantage of the rare, unedited access to television and online audiences, as well as well as conducting vital party business to keep the party organisation on the road. There was a lot of back-slapping, and not too much back-stabbing. Heaps of advice doled out to other parties, and plenty of encouragement for the most often criticised representatives and policies of their own party.

Barry McElduff - photo originally taken by Sinn Fein's official photographer

Humour in abundance – Barry McElduff is still Sinn Féin’s version of Sammy Wilson (DUP) or Basil McCrea (UUP). And not a mention of guns or bullets, prisoners’ rights. Don’t think I even caught a reference to Iris Robinson. She must have been on the banned topics list.

Mary Lou McDonald spent quite a lot of time in the hall, sitting up on the stage during the business. But Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were much less visible. Admittedly, they were busy giving interviews and serving the demands of the multiple media outlets present. But they had a lot less face time with delegates than the leaders I could see at other party conferences.

Sinn Féin have left the building and won’t be back to the RDS for a few years. Future Ard Fheiseanna will tour the four provinces of Ireland over coming years. 2011 will see them in Belfast – possibly returning to the Ulster Hall (not the first time it’s been held there) if the clash of dates with the Waterfront Hall can’t be resolved.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Only Our Rivers Run Free?

I’ll cover my impressions of the final stop in my accidental tour of party conferences – yesterday’s Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Dublin – in a another post. But first we deal with the conference’s main gimmick. (Update - conference gimmick, but also serious longer-lasting retail merchandising stream.)

Stuff on sale at the stall at Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis

No, not the miniature hurling sticks commemorating republic heroes, nor the Bloody Sunday DVDs (the James Nesbitt version!), nor the “Drawing Support” guide for budding mural painters.

Selling branded bottled water - Only Our Rivers Run Free

But instead, the “Only Our Rivers Run Free” branded bottled water – still and sparkling – that was selling for €1 throughout the conference.

“For a taste of a United Ireland” claimed the strapline on the bottles from Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. The hint of cloudiness might have been my imagination. Though the free RDS tap water tasted just as good as the chilled bottles.

A couple of bltles of Sinn Fein's branded water in the RDS Ard Fheis conference hall - Only Our Rivers Run Free states the label

Pity there weren’t any recycling bins to ease the environmental impact of all the bottles sold and emptied in the hot conference room! And I expect most workplaces would ban the bottles under flags and emblems policies!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Libraries are the first in line to be cut ... yet they could mop up social problems through engagement

Ewan McIntosh - who used to be in the 4iP parish - had a great post last week on libraries. Perhaps it's relevant to the Libraries NI consultation on library provision in Greater Belfast.

The leader of Newcastle City Council, John Shipley, was speaking at a library conference and suggested:

"libraries come cheap at the price, reducing costs in almost every other problematic area of public spending: policing and crime prevention, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse, social exclusion."

Their promotional video (below) sets a good tone. Ewan comments:

"It's profound in an age where libraries are often the first in line to be cut, closed and stalled in their work to make us more fully informed and wise citizens. His point is that it's the cheapest thing to keep going given what it does to mop up the social problems of a city through engagement."

Read Ewan's post for more details.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Talking in the East (part 4) // Niall Ó Donnghaile // Sinn Féin

Back in the Autumn, I put up a series of posts interviewing local East Belfast politicians. I’d one other interview recorded that never quite made it onto the blog. Partly in hope that the UUP would eventually get around to arranging their session, and it took a lot of chasing to get someone in the DUP to say yes.

Sinn Féin's Niall Ó Donnghaile interviewed in the Waterfront Hall, overlooking Titanic Quarter, Stormont and East Belfast/Short Strand

I spoke to Sinn Féin’s Niall Ó Donnghaile on the afternoon of 6 November 2009. That lunchtime, the health unions had organized a rally in front of the City Hall to protest at budget cuts. The health minister Michael McGimpsey attended the rally.

As usual, the interview started by asking about East Belfast.

(Niall) I think East Belfast, like any constituency, can act as a bit of a microcosm for the rest of the North. It’s quite a diverse constituency - not just in terms of its political makeup or its ethnic makeup which is increasing all the time - but also in terms of people’s social and economic experience.

Like everywhere else: people are struggling. People are feeling the stress and the ever growing pressure of an economic recession. We’re coming from a time of what would have been considered great economic prosperity, into a time where people are having to tighten their belts …

You know I’m just away from the rally at the City Hall against any proposed cuts in the health care system and there were hundreds of people at it. Those are the issues that people are concerned about, those are the issues that people are more and more lobbying their politicians on.

We moved on to talk about new developments in East Belfast like Titanic Quarter.

(Niall) Well the difficulty with all of those developments are – at this stage – they are still very much aspirational: they are not here. …

We have a number of master plans floating about the air for East Belfast. I think in this year alone I’ve seen about five or six, and I’m seeing master plan after master plan which is being lauded on each occasion … but what we need to see is results … we need to see the master plans put into action.

I was part of a party delegation that met with Mike Smith and a couple of other people involved in Titanic Quarter. Our party ensured on the City Council that [in] their memorandum of understanding in relation to the signature project, that local established communities were to the fore in terms of the future development of something like Titanic Quarter. Sirocco Quays – as the development is going to be known – is I think worth upwards of £600 million in terms of investment. So these are all great aspirational things, but we need to see them acted upon …

Not just in relation to Short Strand – because there are a number of long established indigenous communities here – but those people need to see the benefits in terms of social housing … in terms of jobs, in terms of economic investment, in terms of skills and training people up whether it be apprenticeships, whether it be catering, whether it be leisure management. Whatever it may be, people locally are going to see the benefits of these developments and that’s something we’ve been stressing from the day and hour these people have come into contact with us …

People on the ground need to feel a change, there’s enough enclaves, there’s enough walls, there’s enough separation across the river there, we don’t need to see anymore. We can’t see a lovely new development with a wall put around it or certainly whether that be a physical wall or a physiological wall … We have been approaching each other at cross-community level – and that’s not maybe a phrase that applies to this because where this is concerned I think we should be speaking as one community and not at across-community level – but as an East Belfast community that people on the ground whether they be from Dee Street or whether Mountpottinger Road, have the benefit tangibly from these developments.

Of course a flyover separates Short Strand and the bottom of the Newtownards Road from the new land of plenty on the other side.

(Niall) And it’s something I’ve personally raised with Conor Murphy in relation to that whole area … There’s a number of different solutions … all of [the master plans] are talking about opening that whole area from the bottom of the Newtownards Road right down Bridge End across into Middlepath Street … Part of that’s very, very definitely taking the flyover there at the bottom of the Newtownards Road and the Short Strand and taking it away and I’m confident it’s going. I think it needs to go and I’d be fairly confident in a relatively short period of time it’ll be away …

But again there’s no point taking that away, you’re still going to have a big road there … Even the DSD’s latest master plan in relation to East Belfast, I must say I was quite disappointed at it. It’s almost as if looking at the thing - and you can accuse me of being parochial if you so wish - but I think the DSD forgot the Short Strand exists when they were carrying out this master plan into that part of the city. And that for me was quite disappointing.

I asked how Short Strand sat in greater East Belfast.

(Niall) You’re right in saying that Short Strand is a nationalist and republican community, but there has always been integration in the Short Strand, whether that be in terms of people coming into work, people travelling through it on the bus or people walking through it to go into the city centre, whatever it might me. You’d also be quite surprised at the amount of people from protestant or unionist backgrounds who actually live in that area, and who are maybe in mixed marriages as well.

Once you actually sit down and think about it, it is actually quite stark, it is actually quite a mixed community but I take your point in terms of how it’s been perceived in the media over the years, it has been viewed and classed as a nationalist and republican community. But there are a lot of - and there have been for a lot of years - there are a lot of projects and work going on on the ground.

So what type of projects and discussions?

(Niall) Personally I have been involved in things that haven’t been public but have involved people coming together and being quite open and being quite frank, having the hard discussions and I think that’s where they need to be had. I think they need to be had on the ground at a community level.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

DPP websites still offline ... invisible policing partnerships?

The continued unavailability of the District Policing Partnership websites is perhaps another example of the difficulties that public sector IT projects can face.

Static page for District Policing Partnerships

As mentioned previously ...

The problem arose when they switched from hosting externally to move their servers into an internal civil service data centre at the end of August. For many months, local DPP managers were unable to update pages and documents on the old website which was frozen awaiting the relaunch.

The new hosting environment has much stricter security requirements and website testing procedures which so far seem to have frustrated the Policing Board’s relaunch of the local DPP websites.

So for seven or eight months, the NI Policing Board has failed to provide DPPs with a functioning online presence. In the meantime, some councils – like Lisburn – have hosted information and minutes about their local DPP information on the council websites. Though in Lisburn’s case, the main council DPP page still links out to the long-defunct official DPP website, and doesn’t inform readers that the council’s minutes and reports section holds an archive of the Lisburn DPP minutes (Though the DPP minutes haven’t been updated since November 2009.)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

NI Council website performance = poor ... the results from Socitm's Better Connected 2010 report

Socitm logo

Socitm have published their Better Connected 2010 report looking at council websites across the UK. Only eleven councils (3%) across the UK came out with the maximum four stars. In general, Northern Ireland’s 26 councils didn’t fare well.

There are some extenuating circumstances. Some of the six specific topics that the report assessed and rated as important (jobs, library services, schools, family history, planning, rubbish collection) fall outside the remit of NI’s councils. So while rubbish collection is in scope, library services and schools are dealt with by the remnant Education & Library Boards and the relatively new Northern Ireland Library Authority.

However the thrust of the Socitm research remains valid.

  • assessing whether the council websites have the information that people are looking for (in terms of content, links elsewhere, being up-to-date)
  • allowing people to “transact business” with the council
  • offering the opportunity to influence council policies and decisions
  • usability and navigations
  • accessibility

Belfast City Council quickly put out a statement to trumpet their three star success, noting

“A total of 11 councils received four stars, while Belfast was among the 105 who received three stars, putting it in the top 25 per cent – a major achievement given the resources and budget of councils across the water.”

Belfast also noted some of the comment in the full report (which you have to pay for to see):

“Reviewers described Belfast as one of their favourites, saying it was `a really good all-round website` and `a joy to read`. It praised the plain English style, content, availability, homepage performance and use of social media.”

Well done to Belfast. I wonder will any of the other councils publish the comments made about their lesser-rated websites along with their proposals for improving how they serve local ratepayers?

Drum roll ... the full results for NI’s 26 councils from Socitm Insight. I’ve noted the areas which the specific areas and themes that the report highlighted as being good.


  • Belfast City Council – jobs, rubbish collection, up-to-date, content newsworthiness, A-Z index, search, navigation, accessibility



It has got to be a wake up call for Northern Ireland's councils as they prepare to shuffle down from 26 to 11 larger council blocks if this element of the Reform of Public Administration goes ahead. In an age of technical improvement, shrinking budgets and a move to self-service, council processes have still a long way to go.

Update - You can use Pezholio's mashup to get a feel for the spread of council website performance across the UK.