Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Executive left gasping for air after water crisis woes

Ed Curran

The biggest casualty of the water crisis could be the political process in Northern Ireland. If we didn't recognise the danger before, we can now.

Devolution should be enhancing the reputation of our politicians. Instead, month after month, Stormont is diminished in the public eye.

The Executive and individual ministers have become constant targets for criticism in a broad range of media and among the public at large.

No amount of spin-doctoring by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness can hide the level of disappointment with their Executive as it is currently constituted.

The initial response 10 days ago was inadequate, simply condemning Northern Ireland Water as "shambolic ... ineffective ... not fit for purpose" when some believed the same adjectives could be applied to the Executive itself.

The crisis has rattled Stormont's cage and forced the First and deputy First Minister to acknowledge public concern by widening the forthcoming inquiries to take account of the role of the Regional Development Minister, Conor Murphy. That, at least, is some reassurance, but it is not an answer to longer-term problems of accountability.

Short of the population marching upon Stormont - as used to happen in bygone crises, but thankfully should never happen again - how can anyone change the system?

The water crisis has illustrated that the political process in Northern Ireland needs a constructive opposition to whichever administration is in power.

Neither an exclusively unionist or nationalist government will work for obvious reasons, but neither does the current carve-up of political party fiefdoms.

No matter how useless a minister is in any of the five parties who form the Stormont coalition, he or she is protected from being sacked.

The Good Friday Agreement decreed that the exercise of power must command broad, cross-community support. However, the performance of Executive ministers does not appear to be governed by the same principle.

No matter how they act, they can fall back for security of tenure on narrow party allegiance. Lack of cross-community confidence in a minister counts for little or nothing so long as he or she has the continued backing of the party machine.

The fledging Stormont was bound to have teething problems and we should acknowledge that ministers are on a learning curve.

Every obstacle or crisis the Executive encounters - and there have been too many - adds to the sum of each minister's administrative experience.

What Conor Murphy didn't know before about the administration of the water service, he certainly knows now. In the long term, as ministers and parties gain more experience in office, Northern Ireland should benefit.

However, in the short term, the water crisis may do nothing to reverse the trend in voting habits whereby apathy threatens to become the major enemy of the devolution process.

This is apparent particularly among the unionist population. Do I hear some voters raising the question already: what is the point of voting for one of five parties who are collectively associated with the Executive?

Ironically, the most likely beneficiary of apathy will be Sinn Fein - even though its ministers have been at the heart of crises.

Sinn Fein's ability to stick together and ensure every single follower falls into line is extraordinary and suggests even the North Koreans and Chinese authorities could learn a thing or two about discipline from Messrs Adams and McGuinness.

For example, not one dissenting voice was raised towards Conor Murphy from among his party's MLAs or the broader rank-and-file. The same unswerving allegiance is not found in other Stormont parties.

A constructive cross-community opposition to the DUP/ Sinn Fein axis might serve Stormont, the democratic process and devolution much better.

The Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and the Alliance party are all seriously compromised by having either their leaders or, in the case of the Ulster Unionists, ex-deputy leader, as Executive ministers.

The minority parties in Northern Ireland need to stand up and be counted rather than allowing their ministers and party leaders to acquiesce in the shadow of the two major parties.

If they don't exercise a more emphatic and independent voice, they may well languish in their current static or declining state.

As to the survival of devolution, this crisis has show the lack of accountability at Stormont as never before. It cannot continue, otherwise devolution will become permanently damaged goods.

The sooner there is a full review of the workings not just of Northern Ireland Water, but of the Executive itself, the better it will be for the future of democracy in Northern Ireland.

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