Friday, 19 October 2007

Because a government eventually must govern: The Ritchie debacle

The tortuous floundering of the Stormont executive is being dissected in minute detail on other blogs. Details of the legal advice obtained (through means on which aspersions are already being cast by Margaret Ritchie’s department) by the Belfast Telegraph does seem to suggest that the initial expert briefing received by the Social Development Minister did state that withdrawal of funding would be susceptible to challenge in the courts.

Whatever the legal intricacies, the affair’s legacy will be the perceptions it leaves with the general public, not to mention the possible damage it inflicts on the power sharing institutions.

As Ritchie pointed out in a robust defence on last night’s Hearts and Minds, the Northern Irish public undoubtedly supports her decision to withdraw funding from groups linked to the UDA. And the general impression being transmitted from Stormont to the casual observer is that of a fractured and ineffective Assembly running aground against the rocks of party political differences.

The DUP have been trying to spin this episode as an example of Mrs Ritchie illegally countering executive requirements for collegiality, but their position is undermined by the fact the minister announced her intention to take this course of action 60 days prior to releasing a statement that the funding would be withdrawn. If the executive had disagreed with her intended actions, or perceived them, in the tiresomely ubiquitous jargon, as a “solo run”, then there was more than adequate time to clarify this with Mrs Ritchie.

Whether the DUP have legal right on their side or not, the issue raises much more fundamental issues about the working of the executive. .There is not, and simply cannot practically be, anything resembling proper collective responsibility in this four party mandatory coalition government.

The Telegraph comments “the Executive - which has issued just two statements, on flooding and foot and mouth, in six months - [needs] to reach difficult conclusions, soon”, but there is simply no possibility that this will happen to an extent which would deliver efficient and workable devolved government in Northern Ireland.

If anything constructive has emerged from this sorry debacle, it is in common ground found by the UUP and SDLP. Through cementing new alignments like this and moving forward toward effective adversarial politics on a new cross-community basis there remains the possibility of redemption for devolution, if a real will to provide effective government actually exists.

Five months ago the creation of this power sharing executive was sold as an epochal event. Those of us who pointed out that creating a devolved administration was not an end in itself, if that administration was not effective and institutionalised a sectarian carve-up, were dismissed as naysayers or bitter losers, whose own parties had been marginalised by the triumphal march of the DUP / SF.

After 5 months of stasis, spin and self-congratulation the executive is unravelling as it is forced to confront real issues rather than remaining a cosmetic exercise. Whilst the current structure remains the institutions will increasingly lose what potency they retain as a symbol of rejuvenation and progress whilst continuing to fail abjectly in making the transition into effective administration.

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