All the main parties in Northern Ireland, other than Sinn Féin, have indicated that the current brand of mandatory coalition at Stormont is not a system which they would choose to operate in the medium to long term. They acknowledge, uniformly, that safeguards must be built into our regional government to ensure that power-sharing is maintained, but there is consensus that the present arrangement lacks accountability, enervates democracy and breeds inefficiency.
Problematically, however, with republicans explicitly wedded to carve-up government and the DUP more tacitly so, there is little prospect that the Assembly will feature an official opposition in the foreseeable future. Which leaves the parties, and in particular the two that have taken their positions in the Executive, only to find themselves frozen out of decision making, with the task of reimagining how the existing structures might be better put to work.
Although the carve-up coalition partners might be the current beneficiaries of the ‘huckster’s shop’ (to quote Sir Reg Empey) which they have operated at Stormont, even they cannot be complacent about dysfunctional government. Alex Kane wrote in yesterday’s News Letter about disconnect between the electorate and an ineffective Assembly. Unaccountable government makes for a disengaged public and low voter turn-out.
All the impetus during the DUP / SF spell of government has been towards emasculating the Assembly and empowering ministers. Indeed a further power grab has attempted to curtail even the Executive’s decision making function (where four parties are at least nominally involved) and concentrate it within the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, locus of Stalinist carve-up politics under Robinson and McGuinness. This is the arrangement which Slugger’s Pete Baker describes as a ‘semi-detached polit-bureau’.
At national level David Cameron has announced his intention to recalibrate the relationship between legislature and executive. It is appropriate that the Conservatives’ partners in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party, have advanced ideas as to how the Assembly might better oversee and hold accountable its Executive, at local level. Deputy leader, Danny Kennedy, pondering Stormont’s inner workings, must start from a much lower base than the House of Commons offers Cameron. It is a case of carving out for the Assembly any type of meaningful, independent legislative role.
Whilst criticism has been made of the committee system at Westminster, Stormont committees are feeble organs in comparison. Kennedy estimates that committee business commands just 0.5% of Assembly time. In contrast 81% of business is comprised of private members motions which, no matter how well supported they might be, do not bind ministers. The result is that Stormont really is the much maligned ‘talking shop’ of popular legend. Kennedy wants to see legislation properly scrutinised and revised by committees.
Any initiative which would make the Executive more accountable to the Assembly from which it is drawn should be welcomed and examined carefully. The novelty value of Northern Ireland’s government has long since worn thin and voters will only play their part if the structures are seen to be relevant and responsive. Nationally the expenses scandal precipitated a debate about parliament’s function and its relationship to government. A similar discussion is long overdue at Stormont.