Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

No matter what slogans say political inertia rules the day

First Minister Peter Robinson

Given the dismal ratings for Stormont, what can be done about it? One might expect the parties in the Executive to examine every negative finding in the Belfast Telegraph poll and set about to do things better.

The First Minister Peter Robinson devoted a speech last year to attacking the negativity of the media. The public, however, are not gullible. Irrespective of what journalists like me regard as wrong with Stormont, people can see for themselves. Their frustrations are reflected in falling attendance at the polls and in the views expressed in the opinion poll published last week.

Almost half say they will not vote in the next election and a majority of people want fewer MLAs. The double-jobbing, over-bloated, unduly expensive image of the Stormont administration is not lost on a community suffering in the depths of economic recession.

The decision-making system is so convoluted and cumbersome as well as dependent on a level of agreement on key issues which is difficult if not impossible to attain.

This is how Stormont appears to work. First, a minister comes up with proposals for new legislation. Eventually the proposals are placed in the Executive mixer. They are churned around and, if agreement is collectively achieved, poured out into the Assembly for debate and final approval.

More likely as not, the proposals are not agreed at the Executive and instead are submerged into a black hole in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. This hole is brimming with wet cement which needs a special additive to ever make it set - namely the agreement of Peter Robinson AND Martin McGuinness. This guarantees that any political pathway in Northern Ireland will take a long time to lay.

Little or nothing of consequence appears to be decided without the laying on of hands from Messrs Robinson and McGuinness. Weeks and months can pass or even years and years as is the case, for example, with the 11-plus debacle.

Mr Robinson was asked recently by the BBC's Noel Thompson why so little was done at Stormont this year, why even the Assembly Speaker complained that there was nothing to debate, and why MLAs spent so much for their time talking about very little.

What you expect, he said. We can't do things on our own any more than the other parties can. I have to get agreement and that can take time, if it can be achieved at all.

The Belfast Telegraph opinion poll should be a wake-up call for the folks on the hill but I doubt if it will make much difference to them. They are all locked into a flawed institution with too many MLAs, no proper democratic opposition and secretive horse-trading between two main parties with little in common.

Yet overriding all the disquiet and dissent about how Stormont operates - or in many instances doesn't - is the big fear factor.

What if the parties were to disagree? What if they actually fell out? What if Stormont weren't there at all? What would take its place and how would the current peace be sustained?

The "What if" questions remain too scary to contemplate for a community which has spent more than a generation in conflict. So we soldier on with Stormont - an administration which is nearly as unpopular with the Northern Ireland public as the ousted government in Athens was with the Greeks.

Mr Robinson draws comparisons between his Executive and the current lethargic coalition at Westminster. There is one major difference.

The Labour party sits in critical opposition from David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Democracy works at Westminster in a way that it doesn't at Stormont.

The Belfast Telegraph opinion poll shows that the constitutional issue is dead on its feet in 2012 and for the foreseeable future. The public wants Stormont to act on bread and butter issues from the economy to education.

Unfortunately, the Executive has proved unable to do so because the differences between the parties do not just centre on the constitution.

There can only ever be a limited meeting of minds, if any at all, between left, right and centre politicians. In Stormont, we have them all trying to run Northern Ireland together, from pseudo-Marxists to ultra-right wingers to middle of the road social and liberal democrats. Power-sharing remains the unique attraction of Stormont in a divided society. However, power-sharing also spells political inertia. Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness as well as all the parties need to address that failing with more urgency and less complacency.

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