Friday, 16 November 2007

Spin over substance : the Northern Ireland Executive

The carve-up of politics in Northern Ireland can be a debilitating and self-perpetuating phenomenon. As this process has become institutionalised and as the electorate has fallen behind the two parties perpetuating it, so the predominant political commentary in local newspapers has followed the electorate to disseminate largely the viewpoint of the same two parties.

And so we have the Irish News, traditional bastion of moderate nationalism, not only modifying its editorial stance to reflect the prevailing currents in nationalism but also giving space to those who simply despise unionists such as Brian Feeney and republican ex-terrorists like Jim Gibney.

Gibney’s evaluation of the first 6 months of the Executive is such a doctrinaire Sinn Fein reading that it may as well have issued straight from a press release. Firstly Gibney plays to the crowd and hails the formation of the Executive as a triumph of Sinn Fein’s reasonableness against unionist intransigence. He actually seems to suggest that there was doubt in the minds of commentators and voters over whether the DUP intended to form an administration after the election!

It is no accident that the “style” of the new administration is Gibney’s first port of call in eulogising its success. This government is the most patent triumph of style over substance. Much store is placed on the effusive charms of Paisley and McGuinness. No acknowledgment is made that the pair have been given the task of actually delivering government, as opposed to entertaining the populace, and this they have singularly failed to do.

Trimble and Mallon, who Gibney compares so scathingly to the current incumbents, may not have exuded warmth or wisecracks, but they were serious politicians who grasped the substance of issues and were not prepared to muddle along in a directionless mulch, hailing the world-changing qualities of their government.

Note the brief mention Gibney accords to the Executive’s actual record. Once again we are treated to eulogies concerning the money handed out to those whose properties were damaged in floods, an early exercise in populist politicking by the nascent administration. Certainly not an example of delivery of effective government as Gibney suggests.

The executive is not producing accountable government in Northern Ireland. The executive is barely producing government at all. It has sailed along on 6 months of self-congratulation and goodwill from outside the province. Unless accountability is afforded by the two moderate parties forming an opposition, we will continue to have the tendency to grandstanding, impoverished debate and a lack of substance, which has so far epitomised the new arrangements.


beano said...

I was originally of the idea the the SDLP and UUP should form an opposition of some sort, or at least entertain the idea, but it doesn't seem like it would actually matter.

From what I've been reading recently it seems like the Executive can do whatever the hell it likes and the Assembly doesn't get a say (unless cross-community support is required for an action).

Chekov said...

Beano, currently the institutions don’t allow for a proper oppositional system and you are correct, the Assembly cannot properly hold the Executive to account. Ultimately though the accountability of Assembly members and therefore the composition of the executive are still in the gift of the electorate. By providing an alternative and questioning voice in the Assembly, whilst the UUP / SDLP might not be able to change executive decisions they can provide at least a catalyst to more robust debate and simultaneously distance themselves from the actions of the SF / DUP carve-up. Not ideal, but perhaps the best that can be made of a bad job. Theoretically the two parties would benefit in the next election and from a stronger electoral position could make a more compelling case for changes to be made to foster accountability in the devolved institutions.