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Why Executive needs to finally come of age and act like real government

The last voter has been canvassed, the final soundbite delivered. But as Northern Ireland goes to the polls today, Alex Kane asks if this election will actually change anything in the course of the next five years.

Published 05/05/2016

Senior presiding officer and polling station manager Teresa McCurdy with a ballot box on Rathlin
Senior presiding officer and polling station manager Teresa McCurdy with a ballot box on Rathlin

Well, it's all over bar the voting. It was a very dull campaign, opening with a very dull leaders' debate on UTV a few weeks ago and ending with an equally dull debate on the BBC on Tuesday evening.

There were no "water cooler moments", no moments that excited us, or made us prick up our ears and pay attention. Indeed, the only interesting part was the ritual humiliation and emasculation of the politicians who appeared on The Nolan Show to defend and explain their manifestos - and singularly failed to do so.

The first election I can remember - although I was too young to vote - was the Northern Ireland "crossroads" election of 1969. It was genuinely exciting. This one has been the most boring one of the last 47 years.

Since boring campaigns tend to favour the status quo, it seems likely that there won't be much change when the votes have been counted. The DUP and Sinn Fein will still be the largest parties - comfortably so - with the UUP, SDLP and Alliance joining them in talks about the new Programme for Government (PfG) and whether or not they will take seats in the next Executive.

But the most important question is this: is anything likely to change in the course of the next five years?

Starting next week Stormont Castle will be the venue for a series of meetings between the five main parties. The Fresh Start Agreement states that "representatives of the parties who are entitled to take up places in the Executive and who confirm their intention to do so will meet to resolve the draft Programme for Government".

That wording suggests that both the UUP and SDLP would have to sign up to the Executive immediately, even though both said during the election campaign that they were looking for a mandate to go into talks and would then make up their minds about the Executive.

Yet I'm pretty sure that both the DUP and Sinn Fein - who are keen to have them onboard - will take a fairly relaxed view if they sense that Nesbitt and Eastwood are prepared to join.

The root of what has been described as "serial Executive dysfunctionality" has been the tendency of the individual ministers and parties to adopt a silo mentality. In other words, they tend to do their own thing with their own agenda - even when that means conflict with other departments and a lack of coherence and forensic costing when it comes to implementation.

It has also meant ministers ganging up on each other, taking legal action against each other and voting against Executive policy (some of it in the PfG) on the floor of the house.

More important - and what tends to sap public confidence in the process - has been an inability to settle on a doctrine of collective responsibility and accountability when it comes to the PfG.

There is no point in PfG talks if the ministers, collectively and individually, do not agree with the policies and intention of the PfG and assume that they are entitled to vote against or veto the policies of other ministers.

It makes it impossible to run government properly and results in the absurdity of ministers sitting in the same studios and disagreeing with each other.

What they need to do this time is embrace that collective responsibility and produce a PfG that fully interconnects the policies and role of each department, and allows them to agree on a clear and clearly understood process for resolving the most important issues.

For example, health is the black hole of spending in any government and always will be. There is never going to be enough money. There are always going to be hugely difficult decisions.

There will always be new cures, treatments, medicines and equipment developed or required and, consequently, more money will be needed. There will always be more patients needing more help, particularly in an ageing society.

So, there's no point in having a Health Minister who is always under attack for not providing enough money, or reducing waiting lists. There's no point in other parties saying "our minister would have done better". There's no point pretending that tossing millions into the black hole will do anything more than form the basis of a Press statement.

The Executive needs to stand together on this and support the minister as he or she steers through an agreed strategy.

The same thing needs to be done with education and tackling the issue of falling rolls; too many unemployed qualified teachers; the duplication of provision in different sectors; massive educational underachievement; the absurdity of the post-primary transfer process; the nonsense of us-and-them schools, and, yet again, the tendency of the minister/party to pursue their own ideological agenda.

And the same thing needs to be done with employment and dealing with the problems of a low-skills, call centre, public sector economy; particularly one that hopes to justify and sustain a cut in corporation tax funded by a cut in the block grant.

Put bluntly, the next Executive needs to look and act like a government. It needs to face up to the fact - and this mandate will take us to the end of almost a quarter-of-a-century of the Assembly - that the mantra of "it's better than it used to be" cannot continue to be used as an excuse for lacklustre administration and divisive, contradictory policies. They've already had long enough to prove they can actually work together.

The biggest change, of course, would be the decision by the UUP and SDLP - unless they eclipse the DUP and Sinn Fein - to both accept and embrace the role of official Opposition. The structures exist now, so they don't have that excuse anymore.

Taking a ministry simply because the d'Hondt rules "entitle" them to a ministry is a lot less courageous than setting themselves apart and offering a different layer of accountability and responsibility.

Locking themselves in an Executive as the very junior partners (and they know how they were treated between 2007-16) means another five years of playing second fiddle to the DUP and Sinn Fein; and an election in 2021, when they still won't be able to present themselves as a credible, genuine alternative.

The biggest challenge for all the parties is that 2021 is also the centenary of the creation of the Northern Ireland parliament. Unionists will want to celebrate that; nationalists won't. How they prepare for that centenary will have an impact on everything else they do in the coming mandate.

But maybe - just maybe - if they start with a PfG that includes more coherence and co-operation and shores it up with collective responsibility, then they may find it easier to deal with the very real challenges (including more threats from dissidents) presented by the 2021 centenary.

Even though the Assembly has survived, there have been too many moments when it was on the brink of collapse. The challenges aren't going to go away anytime soon. Indeed, there will be newer, more troublesome ones down the line.

The Executive needs to be strong enough to meet those challenges. The next three weeks will be crucial.

Belfast Telegraph

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