The Procrastination Committee still hasn’t met and yet, strangely, the world continues to rotate on its axis

Who can it be now?

Who can it beeee now?

Sorry, at this point in time Men At Work makes as much sense as anything else. But that’s another week past and the Executive still hasn’t met. Indeed, this is greatly exercising our political and pundit classes, who keep informing us that the whole landscape of the North would be transformed if only the Executive could meet.

Thank the stars, then, for Newt, who’s on good form this week. Here he is on the tough decisions that our representatives have to take:

For an illustration of our parish-pump decision-makers at work look no further than Belfast’s education and library board, where all 14 elected members have stomped out yet again rather than implement a £7.4 million budget “shortfall”. In fact, the board’s budget has risen by £1 million this year despite declining pupil numbers, giving a 3 per cent increase per child. But the board failed to control spending even within this higher allowance and its all-party political wing has now washed its hands of all responsibility.

Instead, Ulster Unionist chairman Jim Rodgers has passed the buck to Sinn Fein education minister Caitriona Ruane.

When she announced the Belfast board’s new budget in February, Ms Ruane issued a lengthy press release praising her own generosity. But when the board blamed her for its “shortfall” last week Ms Ruane passed the buck on to former finance minister Peter Robinson.

No doubt Mr Robinson would have passed it on again if anyone had bothered to ask.

Indeed, for another good example let’s take the civil service equal pay settlement. Peter Robinson, in one of his last acts as finance minister, pledged that the Executive would stump up the cash. Then Nigel Dodds, on assuming the finance ministry, said he didn’t have the money, and while he wanted to pay up, a settlement would be contingent on whether he could get the Brits to pay for it.

According to another cliche, all politics is local. This is especially true in the handkerchief-sized community cargo cult of Northern Ireland, with its fixed budgets and four tiers of elected government, all somehow simultaneously in opposition. This intimacy is not just local but personal, as candidates work their way up the electoral pole one constituent at a time. The people we elect, those door-knocking, form-filling, rubbish-removing local heroes, simply do not operate at a level where the greater good outweighs any lesser evil.

Yeah, quite true, but clientelism is only the half of it. What’s perhaps most relevant is the point that the four big parties are all in government and also in opposition. Robbo had said he wouldn’t let ministers go on solo runs, but that’s all they seem to do, when they’re visible at all.

One problem is, of course, that we’re overgoverned. Consider that the Stormont assembly (a legislature that doesn’t seem to legislate) has 108 representatives. The Scottish Parliament, for a population more than three times the size, has 129 while the Welsh National Assembly gets by with a bare sixty. Remember that the old pre-1972 Stormont, which had pretensions of being a parliament rather than a mere assembly, only had 52 MPs.

Filter that through into the Executive. Under direct rule, the secretary of state could get by with just three or four junior ministers. Under devolution we have two effective co-prime ministers, ten departmental ministers plus two junior ministers in the OFMDFM. And then, every department must have its assembly committee, with chair and vice-chair, plus all the party spokespeople on the various issues. Actually, this setup reminds me a little of the old Yugoslav federal presidency, and taken together with compulsory power-sharing, explains why everybody can be both the government and the opposition at the same time.

It’s not accidental, by the way, that the majority of ministers are almost invisible except when their department is in the news. When the Westlink floods, Conor Murphy will give an interview. When there’s some story about the Housing Executive, you might catch sight of Margaret Ritchie. At environment, Sammy Wilson got off to a good start by pooh-poohing global warming and volunteering to take all the nuclear waste the Brits could send us, but he’s faded from view. At culture, Gregory Campbell is making the same mordant contributions to Talk Back that he did when he wasn’t a minister. There are other ministers with even lower profiles, believe it or not. I can’t for the moment recall their names.

I suppose we must allow that Michael McGimpsey has been cutting a dash as an unlikely populist, cutting waiting lists and promising to abolish prescription charges. (I do have some doubts about where Gimpo proposes to find the money, and suspect he might turn oppositional and claim Nigel won’t let him do it.) And I take my hat off to Michelle Gildernew at agriculture, who has been quietly but assiduously building a profile as a can-do minister, helped along by some personal charm, buckets of energy (pregnancy barely slows her down), genuine knowledge of the countryside and a commendable willingness to put on anorak and wellies and go stomping around muddy fields. As a result, when you read the local papers you’ll barely have a week where some wee Paisleyite farmers aren’t quoted saying how much they love Michelle, and how she’s the best minister they’ve ever had.

But even so, would it be a terrible blow to local democracy if the Assembly and Executive were cut in half? I mean to say, the full Executive hasn’t met in months, but has the business of government stopped, and have our lives been impoverished? If the news bulletins weren’t always banging on about the Stormont crisis, would the punters have even noticed?

Rud eile: You know the way Peter Robinson has been going around accusing nationalist ministers of breaching the ministerial code of conduct, from Margaret Ritchie’s defunding of the UDA to Martin McGuinness’s role in the current impasse? I may be wrong, but I don’t remember this Executive agreeing a ministerial code of conduct. Could Robbo possibly be referring to the code dating from the Trimble Executive? You know, the one DUP ministers refused to attend?

2 Comments

  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    October 10, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    My God… I hadn’t thought about the Yugoslav comparison before… Now that’s genuinely worrying…

    Mind you, talking about Michael McGimpsey and funding, what happens now the economy in the South and the UK is tanking?

  2. skidmarx said,

    October 11, 2008 at 9:12 am

    I saw McGimpsey answering health questions last week (really nothing on TV). There seemed to be a row between Omagh and Enniskillen over a new hospital in the latter, which managed to avoid mention of sectarian politics. And while gum disease is at much the same level as the rest of the UK (Albion Babylon an’ ting?),dental disease is worse. Never going to be Americans like that.


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