Violence renewed

How the cowardly slaying of two soldiers and a police officer in Northern Ireland has been covered o

Responding to murder

It's been more than ten years since peace in the country has experienced such violent hiatus – and the murders of army and police personnel by republican terrorists in Northern Ireland has dominated the blogosphere this week.

John Wright, writing on Socialist Unity, was unsurprised by the Antrim attack, believing that it exposed underlying flaws in the peace process.

“It involved throwing money at the communities involved in a clear attempt to buy their support,” he wrote, “hoping that in time the contradiction that lies at the root of the conflict – namely partition – would recede in importance in line with a peace dividend in the form of prosperity and a boom in consumption.”

Wright believes that as darker economic times come upon us, the divisions that characterise the country are inevitably re-emerging.

There was a tangible hardening in of condemnatory rhetoric amongst republicans following the killing of a police officer in Craigavon, an act claimed by the continuity IRA. Former government advisor Conor Ryan regarded Martin McGuinness' press conference with DUP leader Peter Robinson and Hugh Orde as a sign of the “penny having dropped” among Sinn Feinn politicians, writing that McGuinness “expressed himself with unprecedented emotion and feeling”.

South Armagh republican Chris Gaskin was less than mournful at the death of British soldiers – but at news of the police murder, he wrote “I'm starting to feel slightly angry at the moment and I never thought I would ever feel that reaction in relation to the death of a peeler”, going on to say that: “these people cannot succeed in allowing this country to slip back into chaos, they just can't!”

On the leading blog for coverage of Northern Irish politics, Slugger O'Toole's Turgon examined the question of whether Sinn Feinn's initially “stuttering condemnation” of the army murders amounted to a missed opportunity for the party, which, he argued, should be using the airwaves and internet to call on constituents to assist the police.

Northern Ireland Tory Seymour Major wanted us to spare a thought for former DUP MEP Jim Allister, now representing 'Traditional Ulster Voice'. Allister, he blogged, is puzzled by unionist support for McGuinness' stance following the attacks – and is now keenly seeking to make political capital from Sinn Feinn's rejection of stepped up security.

Finally, the silent protest against violence, led by the trades union, was captured beautifully by Belfast photographer Phil O'Kane.

What have we learned this week?

That the government has apparently abandoned any pretence of sanity, decency or consistency, by granting Hezbollah's Ibrahim Moussawi the right to enter the UK, just weeks after refusing the same to Geert Wilders.

Around the World

Riyadh-based blogger Ahmed Al-Omran commented this week on injustice in the Saudi judicial system. He blogged about the elderly Syrian woman in the KSA, who was lashed and deported for having two men who were not relatives come to her house and sell her bread. Ahmed considered it “a slap in the face” for the country and welcomed news that human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem is to take on the case, “not just for the sake of the old woman and the two young men, but also for the cause of justice and human rights in this country”.

Video of the Week

Watch footage of the president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia McKeown, address the crowd at Belfast peace protest, courtesy of WIMPS, a Northern Ireland website dedicated to improving youth engagement with public representatives.

Quote of the Week

“So as well as a return to recession we have the return of people who think that murdering working class teenagers is a good and noble thing.”

John Gray on Labour List

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.