Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: A good start for new Ministers

If first impressions are anything to go by then the three new Executive Ministers who appeared before their scrutiny committees yesterday have a good grasp of their responsibilities and of the challenges facing them.

And, make no mistake, they face big challenges as the public spending cuts bite ever deeper. John O'Dowd in Education, Stephen Farry in Employment and Learning and Edwin Poots in Health head up traditionally big-spending departments which are staring at black holes in their budgets.

It is important that they are fully across their portfolios so that they can weigh the various options open to them. One thing seems certain, they will be faced with unpalatable decisions in the near future. That is particularly true of Mr Poots who has made an encouraging start by stating his willingness to canvass the opinion of those who work at the coalface in the NHS on how economies can be made. Indeed, he gave an indication that he may even contemplate the previously unthinkable and reduce the number of acute hospitals in the province. Politically that would be a very courageous decision, but may be an inevitable one given the funding crisis in the health service.

Mr Farry has prepared the ground for a rise in tuition fees by warning of the dire consequences to the two universities if funding deficits are not filled. Again it would be a hugely unpopular decision but a balance has to be struck between ensuring the academic credibility of the universities and how much money is available from the public purse without a rise in fees. Mr O'Dowd's problems are not simply financial, but also ideological. Can he persuade opponents that academic selection is no longer acceptable and can he create an atmosphere in which contentious issues are debated maturely? He certainly seems more open to frank discussion than his predecessor.

If these Ministers fulfil their initial promise they will do much to improve confidence in the power-sharing administration. We hope that they continue to move swiftly ahead and not get mired down by the system of governance.

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