Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Alex's golf decision is putting Executive on the right course

Eye on the ball: Alex Attwood at the Bushmills Dunes launch

The Stormont Executive needed a good kick up the transom. Now a more decisive mood appears to be stalking the corridors of devolutionary power on the hill.

The Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, is leading the charge with his personal decision to approve a £100m golf resort development on the rugged north coast of Antrim - and he deserves credit for so doing.

We cannot have it every way. We cannot complain - as I and many others have done regularly - about a dithering Executive and then criticise a minister for having the courage of his convictions and acting decisively as Mr Attwood has done.

The Executive is getting the message that it must be seen to be doing something after years of ministers sitting on their collective hands.

The record, to date, has been fairly abysmal. All the five main parties must bear some responsibility, because all have bought into the concept of an unwieldy coalition.

Northern Ireland is months behind Scotland and Wales in agreeing its Programme for Government (PfG) for the next four years.

The elections to the new Assembly were last May, but only now has the deadline closed on consultation.

The new programme makes 76 promises in 10,000 words. The question is how many will be kept or achieved? Stormont's past performance instills little public confidence in that only six out of 60 promises from the last programme were fully met.

Mr Attwood says he intends to unblock the planning pipeline and make up his mind on as many as 25 delayed and - most likely - controversial applications in the months ahead.

From Ryanair abandoning George Best Belfast City Airport because of planning delay to John Lewis still waiting to know if and where it can build a store, Northern Ireland's reputation for indecision goes before it. Let's hope the same misfortune does not befall the golf resort in north Antrim.

The axiom that 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed' might have been enough for the Good Friday Agreement, but it is a recipe for disaster as far as day-to-day governance of Northern Ireland is concerned.

The Executive ministers are more visible and assertive these days, which is what we are paying them to be, but the system does not encourage decision-making, because it is governed by so many restrictive hurdles along the way.

One of these is the process of judicial review. I would not be surprised if a judicial review is initiated by some individual or organisation in the case of the golf resort.

Judicial reviews are fine if used sparingly, but the experience of the past decade suggests they are now employed far too liberally.

We elect our politicians democratically at the polls to take decisions.

When we disagree with what they have decided, we employ the law to challenge them.

Time was when judicial reviews were not so commonplace. Nor were public inquiries demanded as they are now by virtually any Tom, Dick or Harry with a grievance against the state.

A better balance needs to be struck on these matters, otherwise the legal process could keep the wheels of democracy from turning.

Of course, the public must have safeguards, because planning decisions over commercial development are a potential minefield.

If ministers are to take more responsibility, then they risk pressure in future from those with vested interests.

We have only to look at the experience of past Irish governments to see the brown paper envelope syndrome at its unscrupulous work.

A virtue of the multi-party coalition is that individual ministers do not have a totally free hand to do as they wish and are open to more scrutiny within the Executive.

The media, too, has an important role to play in continuing to hold Stormont to account for its actions and ensuring that our politicians act with total propriety and are open and transparent regarding any vested interest.

The golf resort, along with the new Titanic and Giant's Causeway tourist attractions, are important to the new Northern Ireland.

We need to raise the bar and there are increasing signs of this happening in our two major cities, which have been transformed in recent years. However, we need to encourage rather than inhibit investment.

We need to see a day when Invest Northern Ireland isn't handing back money which the organisation should be spending.

We need more oomph up at Stormont, more of the power of positive political thinking and many more of those 76 promises fulfilled before the next Assembly election in 2014.

Put bluntly, we need less talk at Stormont and more action of the sort we have seen recently from some ministers.

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