Belfast Telegraph

Ministers must show some unity

By John McCallister

The UK convention of collective Cabinet responsibility (CCR) allows ministers to disagree over policy in private, but, when a decision is reached, ensures the Cabinet publicly defends government policy.

The crisis at the heart of government here is serious, but it is as much to do with the absence of CCR as a lack of funding.

Under difficult circumstances, the coalition government has, by and large, shown significant cohesion in delivering their joint Programme for Government.

In Dublin, where coalition government is the norm, CCR is enshrined in the constitution.

Contrast this with the daily public spats between ministers in Northern Ireland (increasingly between ministers from the same party).

The fallout from Sinn Fein's refusal to implement welfare reforms and the subsequent budget cuts has led the First Minister to admit we need to change.

Stormont clearly has more structural problems than a lack of CCR alone. Our institutions and politics all too easily lend themselves to solo runs and general dysfunctionality.

This is why I am developing a Private Member's Bill to reform how the Assembly and the government works. Reform should see the creation of an Opposition and more streamlined voluntary coalition government.

However, ensuring the Executive follows CCR will be crucial if we are going to move to a more mature and productive politics. Enshrining CCR in statute might be crucial to achieving this.

It is ironic that, as Scotland and Wales are preparing to receive more powers from central government, Northern Ireland is contemplating sending significant powers back.

Suspension and 'big house' talks on the Northern Ireland Act would be a clear step backwards. They would firmly place peace process-style negotiations ahead of good governance.

The UK government has already conceded in principle that, if the Assembly can come up with its own solutions, Westminster will not stand in its way.

My Private Member's Bill offers a focal point for that debate and an opportunity to deliver real, home-grown change.

John McCallister is an independent MLA for South Down

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