Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Is this Stormont really what the electorate voted for?

If you were trying to design a system that copper-fastened stalemate politics, you would do well to come up with anything better than the current Stormont set-up.

This is not to say that the present arrangements were deliberately designed that way.

No one could be that clever.

But the next time you hear a devotee of Stormont boast that “this is what the people want”, remind yourself of all the ways that horizons here are limited, debate constrained and the local political class featherbedded.

The outworkings of major debates and deliberations at Westminster and Whitehall are often simply extended here.

The principle of parity plays a part. Parity in areas like public sector pay and benefit levels is a good deal for Northern Ireland. But it does help limit the terms of political engagement.

Supporters of the UUP's UCUNF tie-up with the Tories claimed they were seeking to change the political environment.

But without Labour and the Lib Dems in the field here too, debating the big national issues was a bit like one-handed clapping.

Also, UCUNF involved attaching the Tories to a UUP brand associated with one side of the community only that has members and supporters with views across the left-right spectrum. To many, it all looked like a contradiction.

Another factor underpinning logjam politics is the Stormont set-up itself. There is an old joke that “no matter who you vote for, the Government always gets in”.

But that would seem to sum up the reality of life on the hill.

All the main Assembly parties are represented in the Executive and there is no official Opposition to hold it to account. That must mitigate further against bread and butter issues dominating elections and political life.

Stormont's political masters also receive substantial sums of public money to help keep them in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

MLAs can claim over £70,000 annually for constituency offices that can double as full-time electioneering outfits. Funding for full-time premises and staff on the ground can hand a promotional advantage to incumbents

And while double jobbing is fading, it did hand £100,000-plus a year to MPs who also received Assembly allowances. The Assembly party grants system also rewards the “big boys” with the most money for staff and research purposes going to the biggest parties. And let's not forget the designation rules, where MLAs brand themselves “unionist”, “nationalist” or “other” — and the votes of “others” do not carry the same weight.

Meanwhile — unlike their counterparts in GB and the Republic — parties still don’t have to disclose the names of donors.

The inconvenience of accountability is avoided.

David Gordon is the political editor of the Belfast Telegraph and the author of a book on Stormont politics, The Fall of the House of Paisley

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