In The Big House On The Hill

Parliament Buildings, StormontThere were two local news items today that I felt I needed to challenge. First, it’s reported that Continental Airlines may be given an exemption on Air Passenger Duty for their direct service between Belfast and the USA.

The airline has been playing out a publicity campaign over the past few months about the loss-making route, claiming that the entire reason for its failure to break even was the “green” passenger tax. The local press have taken to simply repeating this assertion, even though no evidence is ever presented to support it, and local politicians have fallen — hook, line, sinker and a copy of the Angling Times — for the scam and have called upon the Chancellor to intervene. Successfully it seems.

So let’s call a spade a spade. It’s a public subsidy to an American airline to keep an unprofitable route running — without commitment, for an unidentified period of time — all for reasons of local vanity. There are many alternative transatlantic services departing every day from a larger airport under a hundred miles away: Dublin. The argument that a direct flight is an asset to promoting investment is ludicrous. Would it increase international investment in, say, Sheffield, if there was a subsidised direct transatlantic flight, given that there are regular services from Manchester? Sheffield, of course, doesn’t have a “power-sharing executive”.

The second item in the news which caught my eye was a proposal by the Environment Minister in the “power-sharing executive” to drop the blood alcohol limit for drivers from 80mg per 100l to 50mg, in line with several other European countries.

To justify this headline-grabbing suggestion, the Minister points out that over the last five years, 75 people have been killed in accidents where the driver was impaired by drink or drugs*. Well, that’s all very sad, but it’s a statistic that has no relevance whatsoever to the issue under discussion. How many of those drivers were way over the current limit? How many would have been taken off the road if the limit had been lower? We simply have no idea. It’s a useless statistic, so either the Minister is seeking to deliberately mislead, or just doesn’t have a clue. (He was once my parents’ solicitor. From their experiences, I suspect the latter.)

The blood alcohol limit could be set to any figure you cared to invent, without making the slightest impact on the safety of the roads, because the real deficiency is enforcement, not measurement. I often drive between Belfast and home in the post-midnight hours, with part of the route on our principal motorway, and the number of police vehicles I see is usually zero. In fact, over the years, I’d say I had seen more suspect drivers (driving unusually slowly, for example) than police cars at night.

To be fair, one of the Minister’s other suggestions is to give police the power to stop any driver for alcohol testing, without requiring “due cause” for suspicion. There have been special campaigns authorized on this basis during several past Christmas holiday seasons, with enough additional convictions to suggest that it could be a useful measure. However, again, the Christmas campaigns have featured a much higher number of patrols and checkpoints, so we’re back at enforcement again. But putting police on the streets costs money, while fiddling with the numbers in the legislation doesn’t.

Taking both news stories together, you could come to the conclusion that those in government in Northern Ireland are lacking in analytical faculties, but keen to jump on any passing bandwagon that might promise public approval. And I would ask “Is it any different anywhere else in the world?”

*Incidentally, 75 deaths over 5 years is only about 7% or so of the total number of road accident deaths.

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