Belfast Telegraph

Jilted Farry should just boldly go with the flow

By Liam Clarke

Resistance is futile. We are Borg. You will be assimilated... If Stephen Farry is a Star Trek fan, he will recognise the threat to Star Fleet.

He may even see a similarity with the DUP/Sinn Fein ultimatum that his Department of Education and Learning (DEL) ministry be assimilated into two neighbouring DUP and Sinn Fein ministries.

It is tough on Farry who, like his colleague David Ford, performed well on the Executive. But, hurt feelings aside, the only sensible course is to go with the flow.

Attempting to bring the process to a juddering halt would not be Alliance's style and they would not be thanked for it by the electorate.

The truth is that, as a ministry, DEL always had the black spot on it and was destined for an early grave.

Back in September 2009, Professor Richard Barnett's Independent Review of Economic Policy found that its functions could be run more efficiently in other departments and recommended its abolition.

If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then DEL has always been a camel of a ministry; it has an awkward, dysfunctional shape.

For instance, it controls teacher training, but the Education department decides how many teachers should be employed.

DEL trains people for industry, but another department - the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) - sets targets for investment. DEL runs the Job Centres, but another department doles out the benefits.

It was born of political compromise; you won't find an equivalent ministry in most other assemblies or governments.

In DEL's case, the compromise was made by the SDLP and UUP as they negotiated the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1999.

"The SDLP wanted 10 departments, as the Good Friday Agreement allowed, but David Trimble didn't want something like Equality or Children, so the compromise was to cut Education in two," one talks' participant said.

Other parties saw DEL as a poisoned chalice ministry and it got dumped on Alliance as the last pick under the d'Hondt allocation last May.

David Ford concedes that it should go in the long term, but suggests that, instead of chopping it now, the Executive should work towards a single Department of the Economy in a few years' time.

An economy department is a sensible idea and one that Barnett and many of the other parties would endorse.

It can still happen.

Cutting departments makes particularly good sense because, once the number of local councils is reduced from 26 to 11 as planned, local government will take on some of Stormont's powers.

In a well-researched paper released before Christmas, the DUP spelt out the options, as it sees them, in some detail. The economy department would combine two DUP ministries - DETI (including the remnants of DEL) and Finance - with Sinn Fein's Culture portfolio.

The DUP proposed eventually reducing the number of departments to seven.

This would involve combining the Department of Regional Development (currently held by the UUP) with the Department of the Environment (now in SDLP hands).

Reducing the layers of government is popular with voters and it is a task which no party would be thanked for obstructing for short-term political advantage. Resistance really is futile.

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