The Stormont Assembly and Executive continue to be the butt of much criticism. Hardly a day passes without some controversy denting its credibility in the public eye.
Now we have the news that the Speaker, William Hay, is taking the Stormont show on the road with appearances at the Grand Opera House in Belfast and other venues in Londonderry, Armagh, Newry and Enniskillen. This is clearly an attempt to improve the Assembly’s fractious relationship with the people.
It is easy to poke fun at Stormont because the MLAs and ministers have been their own worst enemies. The BBC series The Folks on the Hill has been fairly merciless in its caricatures without fear or favour to any particular party.
The media, too, has not let rest the sleeping dogs of Stormont, of which there appear to be many. Probing and investigating what they do up there is thoroughly justified because the Northern Ireland Executive is unique in these islands as the only administration without an official opposition.
The media is playing a vital role in the democratic process trying to ensure that there is sufficient scrutiny of what the all-party Executive is doing. The danger to us all is that it can exist in a comfortable cocoon. The system also protects ministers. As we have seen in the past year, they have built-in immunity from losing their jobs no matter how poor their performances.
Northern Ireland has moved from being a one-party state for 50 years with an ineffective minority opposition which had no hope or chance of ever winning power, to a multi-party coalition government, which is so inclusive, that there is hardly anyone left outside it to raise a murmur of protest or criticism of its actions.
If it weren’t for newspapers and local radio and television current affairs programmes, we might never know the half of what goes on up there.
Of course, the Executive and Assembly do not find this to their liking. There are quite a few MLAs who will run a mile if they have the slightest inkling a reporter is in the vicinity.
We are also entitled to question the very existence of a few MLAs at Stormont. Their whereabouts is such a mystery that they might be classed in a missing persons file. It would be easier to spot a red squirrel in Belvoir Park forest than to witness these MLAs in the environs of Stormont.
The fact that so many of them do not appear to make much if any credible contribution to debates or the general workings of the Assembly, raises the question: have we too many?
The answer must be yes. For example, the old Stormont parliament, (for which, incidentally, the last election was held exactly 40 years ago this month), had only 52 MPs. The Welsh Assembly has 60 members. The Scots, for all their cries of independence, have 129.
But here, in a province with a population of four million less than Scotland’s, we have 108 MLAs. That’s one for every 16,000 of the population, compared to one for 50,000 in Wales and one for 40,000 in Scotland.
There is also talk that Stormont MLAs are actually underpaid and deserve another £3,000 on top of their annual inflationary increases.
This is surely not a goer given the dire impact of the credit crunch on this community. The Executive could do itself a power of public relations good by declaring now that ministers and MLAs accept a pay freeze, as is the case with so many hard-pressed businesses across this province.
This brings me to another issue. Doing the double. The issue goes to the very top of the Stormont Executive, with the First Minister Peter Robinson and seven other ministers involved.
Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell, Sammy Wilson and junior minister, Jeffrey Donaldson are all at it. The SDLP is represented by its party leader Mark Durkan.
Then we have the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, Conor Murphy and Michelle Gildernew. While the others present the illusion of holding down two jobs at the same time, at least the Shinners make no pretence and don’t appear at all in the House of Commons.
Of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster MPs, eight are also members of the Stormont Executive, one is a junior minister and seven are sitting MLAs.
While many people in Northern Ireland are having difficulty finding one job, our public representatives appear to have no shame in having two.
It is a state of affairs that we should not allow to continue. When the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies opened, there was much criticism of the dual role. Today only one member of the Scottish Assembly, Alex Salmond, is still a Westminster MP. The Welsh Assembly has none. Perhaps, during the Stormont roadshow, we will get an explanation of how the First Minister and several others on his Executive team could possibly conduct duties effectively and efficiently in two places at the same time. Observers at Westminster tell me the presence of some Northern Ireland MPs is increasingly fleeting.
It is obvious that some of our representatives cannot do two jobs properly. They are making quick trips to London, popping in and out of the House of Commons, and turning what should be a vitally essential full-time occupation into a part-time charade.
I would absolve the Speaker William Hay from criticism of the Assembly’s performance. He appears to me to be trying valiantly to improve the image of the place and his roadshow is another example of his efforts in this regard.
Recently, I attended the Speaker’s Business Trust dinner at Stormont, another commendable attempt by Mr Hay’s office to bring together MLAs, Executive ministers and the commercial community.
He has also bravely set out to stop MLAs uttering abusive and insulting comments about one another during debates and that is another step in the right direction.
I wish him well with his roadshow around Northern Ireland. He has his work cut out to encourage more people to see the Assembly in a more positive light.
Unfortunately his biggest obstacles to winning public esteem are some of the individuals who sit in front of him on Stormont’s polished leather benches.
Worse of all are those whom he rarely sees at all — the ubiquitous red squirrels of Ulster politics.