Last week two former First Ministers, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon, spoke damningly about the current set-up in Stormont. Lord Trimble was particularly cutting, observing that the Executive delivers little to people here, “other than its own existence”.
Stormont could and should do more for voters. The parties could and should deliver better politics for people and face up to their own failings, whether it be sectarianism or a complete refusal to be responsible on economic issues.
Their failures are exacerbated by a system of government which does not hold ministers to account and does not offer the electorate a genuine option to change the executive.
One part of the solution is to introduce an official opposition at the Assembly. We could devise a system ensuring that power is still shared across the community, while parties would be required to form a voluntary coalition to enter the executive, or form an opposition.
The freedom to choose an alternative to the existing government is a basic tenet of democracy, but it isn’t one which operates fully in Northern Ireland. That’s partly why we end up with a carve-up of power, parties with a vested interest in division and, very often, stalemate on issues which make a real difference to people’s lives.
In the long-term, that’s not good enough, and it has to change. A proper coalition government, like the one operating at Westminster, comes together to agree policies, in the interests of all of the people it represents. The opposition then puts forward an alternative, holds ministers to account and contributes to a proper, thorough debate about important issues.
Unfortunately, when the Secretary of State recently held a consultation on altering our system of government, there was no consensus on these important changes. That means, for the time being, it’s particularly important for parties which are not part of the failed administration at Stormont to emerge, offering a genuine alternative, working together when appropriate and scrutinising carefully the work of ministers.
We in the NI Conservatives are working hard to question the waste, lack of economic nous and divisive attitudes of the current executive, although we are prepared to back it when it gets something right. We’ll stand candidates at the next Assembly election who pledge not to enter government on anything other than the NI Conservatives’ terms.
That’s what normal politics means in the rest of the UK and Ireland, where voters have a genuine alternative, and the people of Northern Ireland deserve the same.