Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Ministers are operating in a political cocoon

Health Minister Edwin Poots
Health Minister Edwin Poots

The biggest embarrassment of the Executive is that it isn't behaving as a partnership, power-sharing government should. The First and Deputy First Minister tour the world. In doing so, they send out the right message to potential investors; their voices united in urging outsiders to experience the uniqueness of Northern Ireland's cross-community alliance.

Back home, as evidenced in the past month, life at Stormont is nothing like that. The Executive is disparate, composed of individuals pulling in different directions, often bitterly at odds with one another.

If Stormont Disunited had been managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, I hate to think what he might have done with it. If there is a message from Ferguson's new autobiography from which Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness might benefit, it is that the team is greater than any individual.

The latest example of the dysfunctional Executive is the ditching of the Planning Bill by SDLP minister Mark H Durkan. I happen to believe – as do leading business and legal figures to whom I have spoken – that Mr Durkan was quite right in not allowing more tens of thousands of public pounds to be spent on such ill-considered legislation.

However, he took the action unilaterally and, in doing so, simply illustrated what has been arguably the greatest failing of the Executive since its inception: that it is made up of five different parties, with nothing in common other than the wish to preserve peace and avoid any return to violence. We should not be surprised that Mr Durkan did what he did. Ministers from various parties have behaved with the same independence and disregard for other views virtually since the first Executive was launched.

Who can forget the Deputy First Minister, in his earlier role as education minister, scrapping the 11-plus just before he went out of office and without any idea of what might take its place?

The DUP and Sinn Fein are dab hands at doing their own thing and, given any chance, the UUP and SDLP ministers who have served on the Executive have also tried to travel along their own roads when it suited their parties.

As for Alliance, its priority seems to be the preservation of the Executive no matter how other ministers behave and to ensure that the party, too, has its share of ministerial posts.

Health Minister Edwin Poots (below) and Education Minister John O'Dowd are rarely out of the political spotlight, because they are applying their own individual principles so severely and distinctly across their domains of responsibility.

I doubt if people who registered a vote for Mr Poots at the last election took much, if any, account of his views on gay blood donation, or abortion, but that has not stopped him imposing his fundamental beliefs on the Department of Health.

A High Court judge brands Mr Poots' behaviour as "irrational" with regard to existing legislation in Britain on blood donations. The Supreme Court refuses him leave to appeal after his attitude on adoption by gay and lesbian couples was deemed unlawful.

Where does that leave Mr Poots? In another administration, his political future might be at risk. But not so in Northern Ireland, where ministers act not only without recourse to their colleagues in government on contentious matters, but cannot be sacked by other than their own party, which in the case of Mr Poots is as likely as him leading next year's Belfast Pride parade.

Others in the Executive are also doing their own thing – not least Mr O'Dowd. He seems determined to impose his radical socialist views on the schools system, consensus or no consensus.

The message from the courts in the past month is that Stormont ministers are not acting in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement in respect of "contentious" issues. The lack of consultation and agreement among them is chipping away at public confidence in Stormont's ability to govern effectively.

Stormont is not a collegiate business.

On most bread-and-butter issues, such as health, education and now planning, ministers and parties operate in their own political cocoons, not just lacking consensus, but not even bothering to try to achieve it.

The Executive shows little, or no, unity of purpose. Ministers continue to run in different directions at the same time, while a sense of exasperation is not hard to find across the community. As Stormont stumbles on – one step forward, two steps back – it is hard to see how change can be effected without a major overhaul.

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