Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Paterson fires gun on a vital debate

A recurring criticism of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland is that relatively little gets done. A lot of time is spent arguing over issues and when the going gets difficult, they are often quietly shelved.

Secretary of State Owen Paterson is doing a signal service to the province by bringing forward proposals which attempt to change the way politics are conducted here. His consultation paper gives a structure and timetable for discussion and, depending on the results, some of those proposals could find their way into a new Northern Ireland Bill which he intends to bring forward next year.

This newspaper finds merit in many of his suggestions. It is sensible to fix the term of each Assembly, bringing it into line with Westminster elections. He also presents a strong case for reducing the number of MLAs. Ordinary people feel that the current administration is bloated and there is insufficient work for the 108 elected representatives at Stormont.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal - at least for the parties - is his plans to help those parties which could form an opposition to the DUP/Sinn Fein power bloc. Under the present set-up parties like the SDLP or Ulster Unionists would lose funding and access to some information. Mr Paterson suggests redressing the impediments to voluntary opposition and thereby creating the potential for a more normal form of democratic governance. This is a proposal which this newspaper strongly supports.

Of course some of these proposals may flounder on the rocks of opposition from the parties here, although Mr Paterson stresses that he will implement others irrespective of the outcome of discussions - such as greater transparency on political donations and security of tenure for the Justice Minister. There would have to be safeguards to ensure no return to one-tradition government, but the 10-week consultation gives us an opportunity to outline the type of administration we would like to see. If we don't get involved then we cannot complain about the government we get.

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