Politicial parties can now compete over their policies not the border
Published 05/04/2011 | 08:00
Our MLAs have gone back to their constituencies. The normally full car parks at Stormont have space for curious visitors.
Voters face three different elections on one day: voting for the incoming MLAs; an election for local councils; and a referendum on whether MPs should be chosen by the alternative vote (AV) system.
The experience on May 5 will be unique.
The Assembly election may allow voters a choice from changed priorities. The assumption is that, unusually, the electorate is not facing a constitutional choice: the parties are working within the current devolution framework.
If voters accept that starting point then there is space for debate on bread and butter issues. Which candidates and which parties are offering practical and sensible policies that will make a difference to living standards and the quality of life in Northern Ireland?
The next five weeks offer an opportunity to study the election manifestos. An increasingly aware electorate is watching both for coherent ideas on public policies and also for deliverability of policies in terms of how they are to be paid for and the practicality of their implementation.
No manifesto that promises more jobs, a better health service, or an improved public transport service is worth the paper it is printed on unless the claim is backed up by clarity on how the changes will be made and from where the funds will be found.
When a party promises to do more on a specific service are the suggestions costed and is it clear where the money will be found? If more jobs are promised, does Invest NI get a larger budget and, if so, is this from (the overdue) increase in the regional rates? Perhaps the most critical test of all: how would each party propose to solve the problem of making the water service a sensible trading organisation that does not take public funds away from health and education?
From a Belfast perspective, the domestic challenges of practical government have become very real.