Belfast Telegraph

Stormont House Agreement: Deal does not alter fact Assembly is seriously dysfunctional

By Liam Clarke

The local politicians deserve praise for concluding the Stormont House Agreement, but this is too soon to pass final judgment. This is just the start of the hard work.

One good aspect in the paper - and it is worth it for this alone - is the proposal for an opposition. It specifies that any party entitled to a ministry under the d'Hondt system at Stormont may refuse it. The party will then be recognised as an official opposition, with both research funding and speaking rights.

If Stormont survives and MLAs muddle through the money somehow, that measure alone has the capacity to transform our institutions over time. It becomes effective in March.

All that is needed is leadership to make it happen, but that has been lacking in recent years. Besides, other parts of the paper look distinctly self-serving.

For instance, cuts and redundancies in the public sector are to begin as soon as possible, while cuts in the number of MLAs will wait until the 2021 election - though the number of departments may be reduced in 2016.

Even then the reduction will be modest, with departments down from 12 to nine and MLAs from 108 reduced to 90. Forty (the membership of the Welsh Assembly), 50 (the old Stormont parliament), or 72 (four MLAs for each of the present constituencies) would all be more reasonable.

Leadership would have involved tackling that problem head-on. As it is, the failure to act as quickly as on other issues which affect the voters will be seen as further evidence of a Stormont bubble where the inhabitants live a privileged existence denied the rest of us.

They have pensions other people can only dream of after a few years' service; they have incredibly lavish expenses, which many have exploited to the full.

It is good that legislators should be well-rewarded, so there is no excuse for bribery and graft. But we don't need so many.

The Agreement also preserved the notorious petition of concern, by which 30 MLAs can require a cross-community vote.

This means it must be passed by a majority of nationalists and a majority of unionists voting separately. The DUP is currently the only party that can raise a petition single-handed, but Sinn Fein, with 29 MLAs, can do so with the help of only one Member outside its ranks.

The petition is a sectarian veto that wastes Assembly time. Its use should be much reduced and the number of MLAs needed to launch one increased to 40 as a first step.

This could begin to erode the system of community designation, which requires members to register as nationalist, unionist, or other and freezes our politics.

It is well-known that this lavish Stormont system, with jobs all round and three or four times more paid elected representatives than anywhere else, was signed off by Tony Blair at a time when no price was too high.

His imperative was to wrap up agreement and end the violence while he was still in charge.

Now we need to move on towards a more normal, more manageable system. If parties are serious about building a shared society, that is what they should be advocating in their manifestos, so that anyone who wishes can vote on such issues.

Next week financial issues will be to the fore, but it is worth focusing on the need for institutional reforms, too.

It is our political system that is dysfunctional. Much of the indecision and distrust springs from that fact and, at £48m a year, it doesn't represent value for money.

Belfast Telegraph


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