Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Ed Curran: It's always us kids that suffer in this marriage of convenience

The Stormont Executive is facing a formidable test in the face of the Government's spending review only two days away. The omens are not good because any meeting of minds on the economy is hard to find in the short history of the Executive.

The debate in the run-up to October 20 does not engender confidence that the various strands of unionism are on the same wavelength as Sinn Fein - never mind the SDLP.

Sinn Fein's proposals to cut MLAs' salaries will have popular appeal amongst unionists as well as nationalists. So, too, will the First Minister's view that the number of MLAs should be reduced by a quarter and the Executive departments cut from 12 to eight.

This is a belated acknowledgement that something must be done to reduce the cost and the manpower of Stormont and local council administration.

Peter Robinson is right. Northern Ireland is over-governed. The old Stormont Parliament had fewer than half the members of the new Assembly. The Executive - by the First Minister's own admission - has too many departments. The civil service is top-heavy.

Too many MLAs are little more than social workers, with little or no political or community vision; happy to spend their working hours answering constituents' complaints and concerns, operating as local councillors. We would not miss a quarter or even half of them.

Double-jobbing and triple-jobbing also affect the public's perception and reflect poorly on political authority in Northern Ireland.

Had it not been for a concerted media campaign, I suspect more double and triple-jobbing would still be in evidence.

Unfortunately, the Executive dominated by Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein has proved an inadequate power-sharing administration. It is a marriage of convenience in which one partner pursues a very different agenda from the other because the partners have little or nothing in common.

They have very different cultural interests. They harbour deep mutual suspicion and regularly veto each other's plans and expenditure.

The Executive is like a marriage in difficulties where a couple sticks together for the sake of the children - in this case for a peaceful future for the people of Northern Ireland.

Now the fragile partnership is about to encounter huge financial pressures. George Osborne's spending review throws a massive spanner into Stormont's works and it is doubtful if the machinery of government will cope.

We have good reason to worry, because the Executive has a regrettable record. For example, it has failed to put in place the legislation necessary to reduce 26 district councils to 11 and thereby save an estimated £400m.

The economy of the UK and the Republic was in better shape when Peter Robinson, in his first budget as minister for finance, capped our household rates and let us all escape paying water charges - hardly the kind of financial generosity Chancellor Osborne has in mind for Northern Ireland on Wednesday.

The Stormont Executive and Assembly should lead by example at this crucial time for every family in the land. The folks on the hill should face up to the fact that they are part of the problem.

A smaller, tighter, less-costly administration as suggested last week by the First Minister would help to allay public and media criticism of the profligacy surrounding Stormont with its 108 MLAS and 12 departments.

The relationship between the Executive and the media has become dangerously skewed mainly because of the lack of an opposition at Stormont.

The media has a constructive role to play as it did over the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but the constant drip-drip of negative stories about Stormont and its politicians has done nothing to reinforce public confidence in those who walk our corridors of power.

Somehow the Executive at Stormont has to pull together better than it has done to date. It must stop scoring so many own goals and start showing to the public that it can take effective stewardship of public funds in the spending review.

Above all, it must demonstrate that devolution can result in decisive and efficient government.

There is no better time than the present to set aside the rancour and recrimination that has been the hallmark of power-sharing at Stormont. The people need leadership at this critical juncture, not political point-scoring.

The constant squabbling, back-biting and sniping inside the Executive discredits and diminishes Stormont's authority in the public's eye. Northern Ireland can survive the challenge of Wednesday's spending review if its political leaders will work together and find more common ground.

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