Saturday, January 29, 2011

From Haiti's Ashes

Image of wrecked Iron Market advertising BBC documentary

Three weekend's ago I posted about:

Denis O'Brien's work over the last year to rebuild the iconic Iron Market in Port-au-Prince, inviting the original traders back to take up their stalls on the eve of the first anniversary of the destructive earthquake that has left 1 million people still living in refugee camps.

A documentary following the Iron Market rebuilding effort led by the Irish telecoms businessman is being broadcast tonight on BBC Two at 8pm ... and available on iPlayer for the next seven days.

Local flâneur Moochin Photoman will also be in Haiti early next week prepping for an upcoming project where he'll be TtVing the stall holders, exhibiting their portraits, and documenting their stories in a book.

Update - Denis obviously didn't get to where Denis is today by being a humble, listening, saint. He finds ways of achieving his lofty ambitions by setting stretching deadlines and then using his clout to remove roadlocks. At one point in the documentary, having talked to the right people to release the steel for the market from the port where it had been sitting in an administrative sulk for a couple of weeks, he commented:

"You need to go round the system to get things done"

Early on in the project he seems to point to a sense of guilt in making so much money trading in such a poor country. It feels like his motivation for funding the rebuilding of the Iron Market is this guilt twinned with a worry about his legacy.

The hero of the hour long documentary is George. Managing the market rebuilding project on the ground in Port-au-Prince, his year long personal hell included pneumonia, malaria and cholera as well as adapting to the challenging weather and changing political and security situation around the Iron Market area. At first ahead of time, and latterly so far behind schedule, I expected Sir Alan Sugar to appear out of the wings and unreasonably say You're fired! Yet he seemed to keep the boss's confidence and delivered in the end.

The villain of the piece has to be the Haitian government, or the lack of it. Power struggles, inertia, presidential elections clouded by corruption, delays to rebuilding programmes that will cost thousands of lives.

Though perhaps, in reality, the real heroes should be the people of Haiti who will continue to have no option but put up with terrible living and working conditions while those in power squander precious months prioritising their political destiny over the well-being of those they are meant to serve.

It was an uncomfortable watch, but one I'd recommend.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Graphing online mood - James Eggers captures the vibe of Ireland

James Eggers is a 16 year old student from Dublin who exhibited at the recent BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. By combining a set of different toolkits, he analysed 4 million tweets originating from the island of Ireland between 21 September and 14 December and tagged them as positive, negative or neutral.

By using the location information in people’s Twitter profiles, he was able to map the mood onto counties (producing the animation above) as well as graphing the average mood swing across a week, comparing difference between east and west coast tweeters, and showing the peculiarities in tweeting mood on the December budget day. Check out James’ website for more details.

graph detailing the collective mood of people in Ireland changing over an average week - James Eggers - thevibesofireland.comgraph showing the mood of Irish tweets on Budget day in December - James Eggers -

(h/t Damian Mulley’s Fluffy links for Monday January 24th 2011)

Sesame Tree goes to school. Beezer!

Sesame Tree second series schools resources

Not content with sharing their adventures on CBeebies and BBC Two, Hilda, Potto and Archie have left their tree house in the Sesame Tree and are going back to the classroom.

This blog has a continuing fascination with the show and its guest stars.

Funding from International Fund for Ireland is allowing two educational resources based on the second series of the locally made show to be distributed free of charge over the coming months to all pre-school groups, nursery and primary schools across Northern Ireland.

The show deliberately ties in with the Personal, Social and Emotional Development aspects of the Northern Ireland curriculum. The Education & Library Boards have worked with Early Years to produce Let’s Play and Learn Together Again (pre-school) and Out and About with Hilda 2 (foundation stage / children aged 3-6). DVDs feature material from the Sesame Tree show along with themed activity cards and detailed teachers’ guides. There’ll also be information sessions to help teachers and practitioners get the most from the resources.

Sesame Workshop take fun and learning pretty seriously. At this afternoon’s launch event, Shari Rosenfeld (a VP at Sesame Workshop) explained that the resources were:

“... designed to be both educational and entertaining, focusing on promoting social inclusion and allowing this project to have a longer term impact on today’s young children.

Research conducted by the Centre for Effective Education at Queen’s University into the effects of Sesame Tree’s first series on young children’s attitudes and awareness found evidence of an association between the degree to which children watched the show and a small but positive change in their willingness to be inclusive of others in general; their interest in participating in cultural events associated with their own and other communities and increased awareness of the wider environment.

We are confident that providing in-depth resources to enhance that experience in the classroom will only deepen Sesame Tree’s impact.”

Funders, First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minster Martin McGuinness at the launch of the second series of Sesame Tree

Sounds like the next natural step would be for Sesame Tree to go up to Stormont later in the year to launch a revamped strategy for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration. A suggestion that would be likely to be swiftly denied by the programme makers and funders! But one that might be worth considering ...

Monday, January 24, 2011

The King's Speech

Poster for The King's Speech film

I was accused of being a philistine when I showed a lack of enthusiasm to go and see The King’s Speech at the QFT – obviously a film about a king learning to conquer his stutter. Not much of a story? Wrong.

Colin First and Helena Bonham Carter the most regal couple as they play Prince Albert and his wife Elizabeth. Older brother Prince Edward will inherit the throne when King George V dies. But his relationship with Wallis Simpson complicates matters.

Behind his back, Albert’s wife Elizabeth seeks out Antipodean speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush in an almost Michael Caine-esque fashion, and asks if he will take on a new client.

At first, Albert is reluctant to embrace the unusual methods. But the film follows the journey of “Bertie” and Lionel’s strengthening friendship. Their relationship is beautifully balanced, with the two men equally stubborn as they make progress and negotiate around setbacks.

You see the pain of a father as Albert shies away from reading his daughters – Elizabeth and Margaret – a bedtime story, and instead makes up a marvellously surreal tale involving a penguin who turns into an albatross. (It’s a story that should be published and shared with all children at bedtime.)

The film reaches it’s historic crisis point when Edward abdicates leaving his tongue-tied brother to take over as King. Unable to speak in public without long hesitations and enormous effort, and yet aware of the need for the monarch to communicate with their subjects, how would Prince Albert step up to become King George VI (as he was to become known) as war threatens? With a keen sense of the expected role and behaviour of the Royal Family, it seems like an impossible task.

It’s an extremely well crafted film, with unusual point-of-view shots looking into rooms from the perspective of an apprehensive Prince Albert. The balance in Lionel and Bertie’s relationship is mirrored in the symmetry of the shots as they talk during their sessions. The humour is gentle – and the swearing scene is quite charming. At times the film’s soundtrack seems to mirror Prince Albert’s stutter, with a long hesitation at the start of the film before the sound kicks in.

I’d strongly recommend The Kings Speech. Once again it felt a shame that three years of history at secondary school had covered Neolithic man, Oliver Cromwell and the build up to World War One, yet had skipped over a royal soap opera that led into World War Two.

Mark Logue has released a biography of his grandfather to tie in with the film, based on diaries and archive material.

You can catch The King’s Speech at the QFT until Thursday of the week. Also playing at other local cinemas.

A lazy Sunday afternoon with The Henry Girls and The Fox Hunt - CQAF/Out To Lunch

The Out to Lunch festival is now into its last week. Boo hiss. It’s good sign that many of the shows have sold out … but if you’re quick and check the festival website, there are still tickets available for some of this week’s gigs.

On Sunday afternoon, the Black Box hosted The Henry Girls playing alongside with the boys from The Fox Hunt. The transatlantic collaboration between “West Virginian Americana and Irish nu-folk” is a continuation of a commission for last year’s Earagail Arts Festival in Donegal.

The Fox Hunt and The Henry Girls performing at the Out To Lunch Festival/CQAF

The Fox Hunt play and sing around a single condenser microphone, standing in a rough semicircle with their fiddle, guitar, banjo and upright (double) bass. Singers needing to he heard lean in towards the mic. Similarly instruments that need to come to the fore in the mix edge closer to the mic.

As well letting the band control the sound mix (there’s only one mic and a pickup on the double bass for the sound guy to fiddle with) it also creates a visual dance around the mic. When you add the three Henry Girls to the four Fox Hunters, you get up to seven people swapping position and leaning in and out. With a couple of switches during a verse and another for the chorus, its’ a visual treat as well as music to the audience’s ears.

The members of the Fox Hunt swap instruments between each other between songs. The main guitarist is left handed but plays guitars and fiddles stringed for right handed players. The Henry Girls add harp, accordion, keyboard, fiddle and mandolin (or was it ukulele?) as well as a beautiful blend of close harmony singing. Everyone also manages to play and sing at the same time – try that next time you’ve a violin under your chin!

The Fox Hunt and The Henry Girls performing at the Out To Lunch Festival/CQAF

Playing for around two and a half hours (with a short interval), it was a great value gig and the audience seemed to be loving it. A particular highlight came near the end when the combined group dropped all pretence of folk music and played a crowd pleasing cover of Dire Straits’ Walk of Life … with a lot of the audience joining in!

You’ll catch the Fox Hunt and The Henry Girls playing in Clonmel (Thursday 27 – SOLD OUT), Naul (Friday 28), Derry (Saturday 29) and finishing their tour in Letterkenny (Sunday 30).

Alliance conference 2011

Front row at Alliance conference

For AiB readers who have an interest in Alliance but don’t follow local political machinations over on Slugger O’Toole, you may want to check out the posts below:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Taking the RISE out of community public art consultation

RISE - computer generated image of what it will look like

Back in November, I posted about the RISE sculpture that will shortly be materialising on the Broadway roundabout at the top of the M1 motorway.

The project - and the funding - has been on the go for many years, with fabrication already underway up in Rasharkin.

As well as erecting an icon piece of public art, part of the project includes engagement events with local communities that will be staring at the two giant balls and walking underneath them. So workshops were to be arranged in the Falls and the Village.

The BBC report that there was a very low attendance at Cultúrlann on Wednesday night. Local Sinn Fein councillor Breige Brownlee commented:

"A lot of local people would prefer to have seen the money better spent elsewhere. But now that it's a fait accompli, people are beginning to warm to it, which is good."

Creator Wolfgang Buttress speaks in the clip below:

Northern Ireland - Subvention City Or Still A Special Case?

Tuesday night's In Conversation With ... Philip McDonagh hosted by Contemporary Christianity took a fast but thorough canter through the state of Northern Ireland's economy.

Philip's an economist and he posed the question:

Northern Ireland - Subvention City Or Still A Special Case?

What mechanisms determine the level of public expenditure here? Are they linked to need? Why is public expenditure so high? What choices does the NI Executive have? Should we do more to pay our way? What is the role of the Voluntary sector? Can the Big Society, Welfare Reforms or even the next generation help us through? What about those in need?

The slides are linked up to the accompanying audio. (At the points in the evening when it turned into a conversation, some of the voices furthest from the front of the room become a little indistinct.)

Some insights I took away from the discussion:

  • The UK Exchequer subsidises £5,300 per head of NI population per annum.
  • NI raises £11bn in taxes, but spends £20bn - though there are some reasons for dependency: duplicate provision (Troubles legacy), small private sector, large families (pressure on education & health).
  • The Barnett Formula (linking devolved spending to England) is not based on need; Scotland would like to move to needs basis, Wales are also reviewing Barnett.
  • NI's "unfunded commitments" means deferred water charges of £200m+, free prescription charges £20m extra, free travel for elderly, domestic rates freeze, PMS £25m - many of those are cynical vote winners.
  • While there's a 2 year inflationary freeze on public sector salaries over £21k, civil servants will still receive their salary scale increments.
  • You’ve got to ask whether those who can afford to should pay more rates, water charges, prescriptions? Should those who can afford not ensure that those in greatest need don't suffer?
  • And how how does voluntary and community sector play a role - Cameron's 'Big Society' - in "subvention city"?
  • Will level of NI young people emigrating rise? Have baby boomers feathered their nests at expense of next generation?

Northern Ireland needs to deal with poverty of education, poverty of aspiration, poverty in family & community, not to mention poverty in people’s pockets.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Covering court proceedings online - James Doleman's experience at the Tommy Sheridan trial

Public Art Squiggle outside Belfast court complex

One of the first topics of substance this blog covered was my experiences of being on Jury Service in Downpatrick back in the Spring of 2006. I did get selected for one jury and we sat in court and listened to a whole morning of evidence [that's 90 minutes of evidence as court started at 10.30am and we finished at lunchtime as the judge needed to get back to Belfast for other cases] before the jury was dismissed over an undisclosed legal issue.

Working close to the Belfast Courts and walking past them most days on the way to lunch, I've often wondered what goes on inside. I've been tempted more than once to call in when a case of note is on and see what happens.

FOI advocate and activist Heather Brooke talks in one of her books about the difficulty in accessing the justice system, in particular the difficulty as a member of the public in finding up-to-date information about where and when a case is being heard. And the rules about the live coverage of court cases in England and Wales opened up a little in late December (as I posted over on Slugger O'Toole).

The Courts and Tribunals Service website publishes Court Lists for the range of court types and locations across Northern Ireland. There's an online database that can be queried and there's also a Court of Judicature List that seems to show what's happening the very next day.

All this is by way of introduction to the point of this post.

The Guardian recently published a great piece by Scottish blogger James Doleman who sat in through the Tommy Sheridan trial. He tracked every twist and turn of the case, was nearly thrown out of court by the police for taking notes before the clerk of the court intervened. Well worth a read.

Wot No Books? Imagine a library with empty shelves ...

Consultations on the closure of libraries aren’t restricted to Northern Ireland. But compared to the kind of low key public meetings with Libraries NI that will happen over coming months, users of one English library under threat came up with a much more imaginative response.

Milton Keynes Council proposed closing some libraries as part of its draft budget. But the Stony Stratford town council decided to fight back. The library has been open for over 50 years and until a few days ago held a stock of 16,000 volumes.

Empty shelves in Stony Stratford library - Photo courtesy Emily Malleson / Friends of Stony Stratford Library

However a campaign (conducted by letter, Facebook and word of mouth) encouraged library users to pop in over a week and take home their maximum allowance of 15 books.

The idea was to empty the shelves by closing time on Saturday: in fact with 24 hours to go, the last sad bundle of self-help and practical mechanics books was stamped out. Robert Gifford, chair of Stony Stratford town council, planned to collect his books when he got home from work in London, but left it too late.

Robert Gifford – chair of the local council which meets in the library – explained to the Guardian:

“In theory the closure is only out for consultation but if we sit back it will be too late. One man stopped me in the street and said, ‘The library is the one place where you find five-year-olds and 90-year-olds together, and it's where young people learn to be proper citizens’. It's crazy even to consider closing it – they should be finding ways to expand its services and bring even more people in.”

Hopefully everyone will now bring their books back and allow the shelves of the library to be restocked!

Photo courtesy Emily Malleson / Friends of Stony Stratford Library.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tuesday talks linking budgets, public expenditure and faith

There’s a cluster of interesting lectures and talks on Tuesday 18 January looking at public expenditure, budgets, cuts and faith.

Brian Crowe will be addressing the topic of Kingdom and Cuts at 1.10pm in St. Bartholomew’s Church (“St Barts”) on Belfast’s Stranmillis Road.

Kingdom and Cuts: Can a Christian vision of the common good inform policy decisions in a time of cuts?

The lecture will address the burning issue of how to apportion the financial cuts facing Stormont Ministers. While these could be decided upon using a range of different criteria, it is not necessarily easy for anyone to see how the standards and priorities of the Kingdom of God might throw light on this urgent political issue.

As well as blogging over at Burke’s Corner, Brian is political adviser to Danny Kennedy, the Minister for Employment & Learning and is also a non-stipendiary minister currently ministering at Christ Church parish in Lisburn.

There will be time for questions after the lecture and light refreshments will be available. The organisers explain that everyone is welcome at this lecture.

Contemporary Christianity vertical banner

Contemporary Christianity have been running a series of In conversation with … events over the past couple of years. On Tuesday night (18 January) at 7.30pm, Philip McDonagh will be discussing

Northern Ireland - Subvention City Or Still A Special Case?

What mechanisms determine the level of public expenditure here? Are they linked to need? Why is public expenditure so high? What choices does the NI Executive have? Should we do more to pay our way? What is the role of the Voluntary sector? Can the Big Society, Welfare Reforms or even the next generation help us through? What about those in need?

These are timely questions given the recent extension to the public consultation on the draft NI budget and the departmental responses that have been eeking out over the last couple of weeks.

Philip is an economist who formerly worked for Price Waterhouse Coopers. He is a Charity Commissioner with the new Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, and is a member of the Society of Friends.

The event is free and open to anyone to attend. You’ll find Contemporary Christianity’s venue up on the 3rd floor of 21 Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, BT2 8HD.

Ulster Museum sleepover - need to bring a 7-11 year old with you ... and your wallet

Poster in the Ulster Museum lift advertising their first sleepover

The Ulster Museum is running its first ever sleepover on Friday 28 January, starting at 7pm and finishing at 9.30am on Saturday morning before the museum opens again to the public.

It's a new concept for Belfast, but one that's been about in other museums for some time. London's Natural History Museum had it's latest monthly sleepover - Dino Snores - this weekend.

Have you ever wondered what happens when the visitors leave the Ulster Museum for the night? Does the Edmontosaurus rise and roar over Takabuti the mummy and does Peter the Polar Bear plod up to take a sneaky peek at the pottery and paintings?

Open to 7-11 year olds (P4-P7), with a minimum ratio of one adult per five children, nocturnal visitors should expect their night-time adventure to include a torch-lit tour of the museum and craft activities before settling down to sleep. The cost is £39.95 per place and booking is via 028 9044 0017 during normal museum opening hours.

The Ulster Museum is also running a competition for free places on its website.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Out to Lunch with Ian Saville the Marxist Magician

The Out to Lunch arts festival in Belfast has reached its half way point. The first couple of weeks have been dominated by words; now it shifts to music for the final two weeks.

Marxist Magician Ian Saville at CQAF's Out to Lunch Arts Festival in January 2011

I've only got along to one event so far - Friday lunchtime's show with Marxist Magician Ian Saville who entertained a packed Black Box with his brand of political insight and illusion.

Comics sometimes take a long time to warm up a Belfast lunchtime audience, but Ian Saville had the crowd giggling and tittering right from the start of his easy going act. Half magician, half comedian, total Marxist!

Tricks with handkerchiefs, ropes, ventriloquism, making a £20 note disappear and reappear, and a bit of escapology to finish. But tricks all with a message. The tearing up a newspaper trick and unfolding the pieces back together while dropping one to leave a complete paper with a square missing was done to perfection - one day the socialist factions that normally tear themselves apart will reunite, though there's always one awkward lot who won't co-opearate!

Great fun, and with a socialist message too. Possibly the funniest moment was when he asked a member of the audience to examine his manacles and she quipped that they were just like the last pair she'd seen!

I caught up with Ian Saville afterwards to find out more about how he'd become a Marxist magician (MP3 audio).

Don't forget to check out the rest of the programme. Sunday afternoon's gig with Elizabeth Cook still has tickets and there are lots of other promising gigs to follow.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Some answers from Steven Agnew, the newly elected leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland

Steven Agnew - leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland - standing outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont

You’ll probably recognise Steven Agnew from posters tied to lampposts for the 2009 European election where he returned the Green Party’s highest ever vote. He went on to contest North Down at the 2010 Westminster elections.

But after his first bit of electoral success, he has been elected as the new leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. The leadership election was a Down contest with North Down’s Steven Agnew up against South Down’s Councillor Cadogan Enright.

In recent years the local party had two co-chairs, one male and one female. In an extraordinary general meeting in the autumn, the party agreed to switch to mirror many of their affiliated European Green parties and elect a “clear and definable leader to act as both figurehead and primary spokesperson, particularly ahead of council and assembly elections”. The leader is elected for a four year term.

Before entering politics full time, Steven Agnew spent five years working as a Support Worker with the homeless. Until now he has been the Green Party’s spokesperson on Children and Young People and Animal Welfare as well Research Officer for the Green Party’s current North Down MLA Brian Wilson who is standing down from the Assembly (but not council) at the next election. Steven will be the party’s candidate in North Down for May’s Assembly elections.

Ahead of this morning’s announcement, I posed some questions to the winning candidate.

(1) What’s the Green Party’s vision for Northern Ireland?

The Green Party wants to see all political decisions based on whether they are good for the economy, good for people and good for the environment. That should be the benchmark, but too often the economy is prioritised at the expense of the latter two. The economy must serve the people, not the other way around. We need economy for people and planet.

This is the basis of the Green New Deal which is now beginning to find political favour at the highest level and was a key part of the recent draft budget. The fact that others are following where the Green Party has led puts to bed the myth that the Greens are a single issue party. We have shown that not only are we champions of the environment but we also have the solutions needed to create jobs and boost the economy while also improving the living conditions of the people of Northern Ireland.

Although I never thought I'd see the day when my old economics teacher Sammy Wilson started stealing our policies.

(2) A lot of the time, caring for the environment is perceived as being inconvenient and hurting your pocket. In these times of fiscal restraint, can you describe some of the Green Party’s policies that would help reduce public (departmental) spending and reduce members of the public’s spending too?

A key principle of being Green is to reduce. Reduce waste and inefficiency therefore reduce costs. In fact that was a key role of the Sustainable Development Commission which the UK government has decided to scrap, and the NI Executive has followed suit by axing the Northern Ireland branch. The SDC saves more in efficiency savings than it costs to run. The agenda here and in London seems to be to get rid of pesky arm lengths bodies that keep ministers in check, and pass it off as spending cuts.

To answer your question directly there are many Green Party policies that are cost neutral or would lead to savings for the public and/or for departments. The obvious example is scrapping Trident which would save up to £100 billion. I appreciate that that is not something we have much of a say in in Northern Ireland, however I would like to see our MPs making the point that our block grant is being slashed while this government is wasting money on an outdated Cold War defence system. It seems too much like little boys with their big toys to me. It would be ludicrously funny if it wasn't so serious.

The insulation scheme proposed as part of the Green New Deal would lead to direct savings for the people of Northern Ireland. Half a million homes could be insulated over four years leading to reductions in household bills. We currently spend about £2 billion per year on imported energy so energy efficiency would mean more money being kept in the local economy (producing our own energy through renewables would boost our economy further). The scheme would directly create 5,000 jobs as while sustaining up to a further 10,000 jobs indirectly. And, of course, there would be a reduction in carbon emissions due to less need to burn fossil fuels.

The plastic bag tax when introduced will bring in revenue that could be spent on investment in Green New Deal initiatives. And while it might seem at first that this is a cost to the individual there will also be savings for councils with less waste being sent to landfill, resulting in lower rates bills or improved local services.

PPS 14 would have reduced the number of single dwellings in the countryside had it not been watered down by a weak Environment Minister. These single dwellings require public spending on infrastructure such as roads, waste facilities, public transport and, dare I say it, water. The public is footing the bill for a lack of sustainable planning.

There are also current examples of Green policies leading to departmental savings. Fantastic work has been done by the Belfast Health Trust to increase energy efficiency and reduce water usage leading to savings in utility bills. Real cuts in spending that don't cost jobs or lead to a decline in services. The wind turbine at Antrim Area Hospital paid for itself within four years and will generate income for the trust over the rest of its lifecycle of approximately 20-25 years. Similar results are being achieved by the wind turbine that powers the recycling centre in Bangor.

(3) Electorally, the Green Party in NI is obviously trying to grow sustainably from a small base. You’ve an MLA and a couple of councillors. It’s a long game, but what’s your realistic expectation of representation across the 26 local councils post May’s elections?

We currently have three councillors and I would be expecting us to treble that number in May's elections. We should increase our representation on North Down and Down District councils as well as making a breakthrough in Belfast and Castlereagh. Based on our European election figures I would anticipate our vote increasing across the board so we might spring a few surprises in other areas as well. It is important that we capitalise on that growth in these elections by significantly increasing our representation.

(4) How can a single councillor actually make a significant difference in a local council?

If a councillor champions a cause that then gains widespread public support it is amazing how quickly other councillors will jump on the bandwagon and claim they were behind the campaign from the beginning.

There was a proposal by North Down Borough Council to sell off an acre of land at Seapark, Holywood. Brian (Wilson) was actually on holiday at the time and I received an email from a concerned resident who opposed the plan. I replied offering my support and was told that Lady Sylvia Hermon and I were the only ones who had responded and that no Holywood councillors showed any interest. When Brian returned he was able to give background on the proposals that were a joint venture of UUP and Alliance councillors. After a 2,000 strong petition was handed in to the council every Holywood councillor opposed the proposal which was then scrapped.

Neither I nor Brian would claim to have single-handedly saved Seapark, it was very much a victory won by the residents of Holywood. However had the residents not received the support of a Green Party councillor the campaign may have seemed futile.

There’s a good hustings Q&A featuring both candidates over on Jim Jepps’ blog The Daily (Maybe) including the candidates’ views on what can be learnt from the experience of the Irish Greens. And as always, there’s more coverage over on Slugger O’Toole.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Denis O'Brien

Denis O'Brien is somewhat of a legend in the telecommunications industry. Having been the driving force behind Esat Digifone before its takeover by BT, he moved his interests to the Caribbean, setting up Digicel which has been successful in many markets. In particular, it's the dominant mobile network in Haiti.

This morning's Observer has a fascinating article about Denis O'Brien's work over the last year to rebuild the iconic Iron Market in Port-au-Prince, inviting the original traders back to take up their stalls on the eve of the first anniversary of the destructive earthquake that has left 1 million people still living in refugee camps.

The article is well worth a read.

Behind the symbol of progress - and symbols can be terrifically important - it raises questions about the priority of aid and rebuilding efforts, and the way that the local administration organises itself.

h/t to Wiseguyrussell for the link.

Update - 29 January - new post about documentary on BBC Two about the rebuilding.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Cover of The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

I’d read a couple of Dan Brown books years ago before they become nearly as common as copies of Harry Potter on the London Underground. The cryptographic basis behind Digital Fortress appealed to my inner mathematician (and geek), and Deception Point fitted into the illusive category of fiction set in the Arctic Circle or the South Pole.

The Lost Symbol follows its central character Robert Langdon through an gruelling 12 hour period as he flies to Washington DC to deliver a lecture at the invitation of his friend Peter Solomon (a very senior Mason) and works through the consequences of the lecture not actually existing.

Cue lots of running around, small keys, big old keys, swipe cards, secret collapsing wooden boxes, holographic hard drives, conveyor belts, underground tunnels, boiling pyramids, libraries, deep and dusty vaults, tall towers and lots of details you didn’t know about landmarks that you’ve heard of. Oh, and the outing of some family secrets. Like Jack Bauer in 24, Langdon doesn’t eat and never stops for loo breaks!

It’s a one man conglomeration of fact and fantastical story bound together in a 670 page paperback that will take you two long evenings to read. (Could have been 666 if they’d dropped a couple of blank pages at the start!)

Brown’s eye for detail and trivia about buildings and societies, together with his obvious research into Masonic organisation forces the reader to either soak in the detail and become a fellow world expert in the intricacies of Washington DC, or else to switch into speed reading mode and turn the pages quickly to find the next bit of plot.

Dan Brown will never win the Booker Prize. The well balanced, poetic prose function is missing from his word processor. In fact, at the pace that the book reads, I do wonder how many keyboards he wrecks as he furiously hammers out the story on his computer.

But his fiction has a very particular style. As I waded through the first few chapters, building up speed, it felt like he was plaiting the story together. There’s a constant switching between the main characters, jumping back to their past before binding two characters together for a while and then handing over to someone new who needs to be woven into the messy creation.

The only author I know who comes close to Brown's style is Stephen Brown whose three books I received as brilliant Christmas presents in 2009. Agents and Dealers, The Marketing Code and The Lost Logo feature the little-known University of Hustler and as well as the most outrageous plots featuring secret societies, paramilitaries and Ireland’s less well known history. I’ll review this superb marketing and management thriller trilogy written by a Professor of Marketing Research at the University of Ulster when I finish the third book later this year.

While The Lost Symbol story revels in the intricate details of Freemason symbols, rituals and tradition, Brown is in no way anti-Masonic. In many ways his novel will probably do more to open dispel some of the more extreme conspiracy theories that circulate at yet simultaneously re-emphasises the deep loyalty between members of the “secret society”.

The book’s final page includes “the words of a great prophet”:

Nothing is hidden that will not be made known; nothing is secret that will not come to light.

While describing what happens if Dan Brown comes to your city to research his next novel, they’re also the words of Jesus, found in Luke 8:17!

The Lost Symbol is brought to you by the number 33.

And without wanting to be pedantic – or contradicted – I think Brown makes an error near the end of chapter 115 when he refers to a “labyrinth” when he really means a “maze” … as explained on Woman’s Hour last week.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Castlereagh Council fails to keep their promise to publish council minutes online

Castlereagh Borough Council logoSnippet from Castlereagh Borough Council's website showing a lack of council minutes published online

For anyone who's been following the open government debate around Castlereagh Borough Council on this blog over the last few years, I posted a new article on Slugger O'Toole explaining the council's latest failure to keep their promise to publish council minutes online.

At the February meeting of Castlereagh Borough Council, a procedure was approved to allow all ratified minutes of Council, its Boards, Committees and Sub-Committees to be placed on the Council’s website. Officers were also asked to investigate the practices in other Councils regarding the publication of commercially sensitive information and ‘Staff in Committee’ items. It is anticipated that these issues will be ratified by full Council on 25 March 2010. (Council press release, 18 March 2010)

Since the end of June, only two council meetings have been minuted online. You can read the full post over on Slugger ...

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Out To Lunch arts festival - warming up January lunchtimes in Belfast

Out To Lunch arts festival banner

The days are short, the weather’s cold, and the back-to-work blues are all around. The Out To Lunch arts festival is the tonic we normally reach for in January.

Daily shows at 1pm in the Black Box – entertainment and lunch (weekdays) for a mere £5.50. (Evening shows at 8pm for £8.)

The programme stops just short of being organised alphabetically, but does have a certain OCD charm with the scheduling of all the comedy, before all of the speech-based events, and finishing with music! Some picks from the great programme ...


Veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe, Mock the Week, McIntyre and 8 Out of 10 Cats, Daniel Sloss will be performing his latest show on Thursday 6 at 1pm and 8pm. According to the programme, he’s a “comic prodigy and typical half-man-half-Xbox, hormone-ridden teenager”.

Steve Bell cartoon

Newspaper cartoonist Steve Bell is along on Friday 7 at 1pm. He’s the pen behind the memorable image of John Major with his underpants worn on the outside of his trousers and depicted portrayed drew George W Bush as a chimpanzee. He’ll be talking about “how cartoonists capture, interpret and respond to the news”.

Black-rimmed spectacle wearer comedian, songwriter and performance poet John Hegley takes to the Black Box stage at 8pm on Friday 7. If previous shows are anything to go by, expect music, poetry, laughter, mandolin-playing and even some audience participation.

Lucy Porter is a veteran of Cathedral Quarter Arts Festivals and is back on Saturday 8 at 2pm and 8pm with her brand of stand-up comedy.

Words and Ideas

David Soul

Tuesday 11 will be the first time actor David Soul (Starsky & Hutch) has performed on the same stage as his daughter China Soul. She’ll be opening the 1pm and 8pm shows with songs from her debut album Secrets and Words. Then her father will perform the works of the “great Chilean and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, accompanied by guitarist Hugh Burns.

Lunchtime gigs can be difficult. As Shappi Khorsandi discovered, swearing at lunchtime doesn’t work as well.

Another show that will test the Belfast boundaries is Stripped at 1pm on Wednesday 12 (also at 8pm). Reflecting on her own time after acting school working in the “entertainment industry”, Hannah Chalmers plays six characters in her one-woman show. To quote a review from the Edinburgh Fringe:

“She gives us an exclusive backstage tour of the gentlemen's clubs - seen through the eyes of Baby, the newest girl on the block. The performer has a lot of fun with her story, impersonating a whole host of characters along the way … Her story exposes the real economics of the adult-entertainment world, as well as looking at the emotional effects upon those who work in it. There is nothing preachy or judgemental about it; she just tells it how it is.”

Another one-woman show is What would Helen Mirren do? on Thursday 13 at 1pm and 8pm. Anita Parry plays Susan who works part-time on the check-out of a supermarket. Her kids have recently flown the nest and her boss has singled her out for promotion. The management training course she’s sent on changes her outlook on life.

Ian Saville - Marxist Magician

On Friday 1pm, join Marxist magician Ian Saville as he avoids puny tricks like David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear and instead “aims at the much more ambitious goal of making International Capitalism and exploitation disappear”. Serious about his socialism, he’s travelling across “to Belfast via Liverpool ... getting ferry to avoid CO2 emissions”. Previous performance have collected great reviews. (Update - interview with Ian Saville after his OTL show.)


Two brass bands will be tooting and blowing on the Black Box stage from 8pm on Saturday 15. Brass Off! will star The Northern Strand Kontra Band and Balkan Alien Sound take in the genres of Jewish dance, Romanian, Bulgarian and other Balkan states along with fund, drum & bass and odd time signatures.

Elizabeth Cook is billed as one of the festival highlights. She’ll be swapping the stage of the Grand Ole Opry for the Black Box on Sunday 16 at 2pm as she sings country. “Her mixture of sassy humour, emotional honesty and a killer voice is impossible to resist.”

The Shannon Colleens

Female acapella trio The Shannon Colleens will be performing The Songs of James Joyce on Tuesday 18 at 1pm. Bawdy street ballads and sea shanties, as well as music hall hits and folk songs.

Irish band Túcan are providing the lunch time entertainment on Friday 21 at 1pm with their hybrid sound that has been described as “some kind of fairytale colossus spewing out metal, flamenco and jazz stained compositions that raise their guitar necks to Tool, Django & Daft Punk”.

There’ll be more of a swing later on at 8pm on Friday 21 with Carmen Ghia and the Hotrods. The six piece rockabilly swing band from Sheffield promise to jazz up your evening.

The Henry Girls / Fox Hunt

Sunday 23 at 2pm brings individual sets from The Henry Girls and Fox Hunt to the Black Box stage, along with a commissioned collaboration that “combines gritty West Virginian Americana with emerging Irish nu-folk”.

Gigs by Liam O’Maonlai (lead singer/pianist for the Hothouse Flowers) and Bronagh Gallagher have both sold out already.

VAT rise effects – 5p on my cup of tea

Photo of cup of tea by chumsdock from Flickr

So the price of a cup of tea went up in our canteen this morning, a hike from 55p to 60p. Coffee drinkers will have noticed a rise too.

The VAT increase from 17.5% to 20% should only have added a penny or so to the price of a cup of tea. The above-VAT increase is partially justified by not increasing the price of most of the other items on sale in the canteen. However, it’s bad news if all you ever eat is tea and a scone. And I don’t remember the VAT reduction (when it went down from 17.5% to 15%) being passed on to canteen users in the same way.

The broader question is … has the price of your regular cup of tea or coffee increased today?

Drop a comment and let me know the price, how much it’s gone up by, and where you get it and I’ll post a summary in a day or so.

(Photo used under licence from chumsdock on Flickr.)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Guess where?


Belfast City Airport appears everywhere ... but I didn't quite expect to see it here.

Another year, another Libraries NI review (this time the proposed closure of 10 libraries outside Belfast)

On 10 January, Libraries NI will open a 12 week consultation on the second stage of their strategic review of public library service in Northern Ireland. Update - the consultation questionnaire is now open, and details of the rationale and scoring spreadsheet are on the Libraries NI website.

Final map of Belfast libraries closures

Last year, stage 1 of the review examined 32 Greater Belfast libraries and assessed the state of the buildings and borrowers before proposing the closure of 14 libraries and the merging of 2. After consultation, public meetings and much lobbying from politicians, the review concluded and 4 libraries were reprieved, but the book was thrown at the remaining 10.

Stage 2 broadens the spotlight to the rest of Northern Ireland to look at the remaining 77 libraries. (Stage 3 will review mobile library provision in the light of the first two bricks and mortar reviews.)

The same criteria are being used for the second stage:

  • Fit for purpose;
  • Capable of delivering on the vision;
  • In the right location;
  • Sustainable.

It’s notable that other considerations like transport links and the cost of travelling to alternative libraries, levels of digital literacy/internet access in the catchment area, and the wider value of libraries in civil society are still not part of the primary evaluation criteria ... though some may feature in the as-yet unpublished Section 75 Equality Impact Assessment.

Libraries NI propose closing 10 libraries “that are considered to be no longer viable”: Carnlough, Draperstown, Fintona. Gilford, Greystone, Kells and Connor, Killyleagh, Moneymore, Moy and Richhill.

They propose consolidating Armagh Branch Library with Irish and Local Studies Library (also in Armagh).

And they propose rebuilding or at least doing major refurbishments to a further 21 libraries ... tough “due to constraints on capital funding, it is not possible at this stage to identify a timescale for new builds or major refurbishments”. The lucky sites are: Ballycastle, Ballyclare, Ballymoney, Banbridge, Coalisland, Coleraine, Creggan, Derry Central, Dromore, Enniskillen, Fivemiletown, Garvagh, Kilkeel, Limavady, Lisnaskea, Maghera, Moira, Newtownards, Shantallow, Strathfoyle and Waterside.

The public consultation runs for 12 weeks from 10 January and details of a series of public meetings along with survey questionnaires will be published on the Libraries NI website. Update - schedule of public meetings now published (just two days before they start).

Probably timely to repost some comments via Ewan McIntosh about the value of libraries.

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.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A Very British Coup

DVD cover of A Very British Coup DVD

A Very British Coup tells the story of Harry Perkins, a steel worker from Sheffield turned politician is elected as prime minister of a left-wing Labour government.

Though the book behind the screenplay was written by Chris Mullins in 1981, it is a peep into a parallel universe to see what might have happened if Tony Benn had been able to lead Labour to power when Margaret Thatcher went to the polls before she had a chance to “consolidate her grip on power”.

Perkins (played by Ray McAnally) was elected on a manifesto of open government, nuclear disarmament and a sentiment of anti-American feeling that included a policy of removing US airbases from UK soil. His chances of a smooth ride were further undermined by his policy of removing newspaper monopolies.

True to his work, he seeks to implement the will of the voters. That’s counter to the voting habits of the UK establishment – people who have walked the corridors of power and oiled the wheels of government departments for decades.

Despite reassurances that the UK intelligence services aren’t tapping Downing Street phones, the under-impressed US administration is sharing its files, databases and covert recordings with British players who operate an even more effective press machine than Perkins’ spin doctor (played by Keith Allen).

For two and a half hours the surveillance state battles the quick wits of the prime minister, leading up to what one character describes as “a very British coup”. Danny Birchall’s article on The British Film Institute website sums the drama up well when he says:

In the end, A Very British Coup is perhaps best seen not as a conspiracy thriller, but as a political fantasy: a story of politicians, not plotting amongst themselves, but trying to do the best for their country and its working-class population, in a world increasingly hostile to the will of the people.

It’s a terrific film, and if you can’t find the DVD,
the three episodes of the TV version are available to stream online from the 4oD website. Well worth a watch.