Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Don't let this shambolic government off the hook

Another four years of drift at Stormont is not an option. The Assembly needs a formal Opposition and a Programme for Government to avoid stalemate, says Tom Elliott

On Thursday, the voters of Northern Ireland will go to the polls. The Ulster Unionist Party is approaching this election with a clear determination that four more years of the same stalemate is simply not an option and with a commitment to changing the way Stormont does business.

When we led the way to restore devolution in 1998 we did so because we believed that a locally-elected Assembly would be better-placed to articulate the wishes and choices of local people.

Thirteen years on we now have a shambles in our education system, and we have endured a winter in which the water system collapsed and no-one would assume responsibility for gritting our pavements.

We have also seen millions of pounds wasted on the failure to deliver the Review of Public Administration (RPA), on the Maze Stadium project and on the Education and Skills Authority.

The UUP is determined that the next Assembly will not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The next four years have to be about delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, because the last four years simply haven't been good enough.

Failure has been heaped upon failure and ordinary people have both suffered and paid the price.

In an attempt to ensure another four years aren't wasted as Ministers seek to operate in silos with no concept of collective identity or responsibility, the UUP has suggested an idea which we have called "the game-changer".

Immediately after the election and before the running of d'Hondt to allocate ministries we want to see an agreed Programme for Government set out by the parties.

This programme will ensure potential issues of conflict - such as education - are agreed in advance and not left to fester and create avoidable difficulties in the months and years ahead.

In addition to removing points of conflict, such an agreement would also demonstrate to the public that the political will exists among the parties at Stormont to take responsibility, make tough decisions and govern together in a spirit of genuine co-operation.

Ultimately, we want to see a formal and officially recognised Opposition at Stormont, so that the Executive can be held properly to account for its decisions.

As happened in Westminster last year and in Dublin two months ago, democracy requires that just as people have the right to vote a party or parties into government, they should also have the right to vote them out.

If people cannot replace their rulers, even when they are deemed not to have delivered, then we shouldn't be surprised if the public decide that voting changes nothing and apathy increases.

The bottom line is no party or parties should have the right to sit permanently and unchallenged in government. This is our commitment to positive politics and ensuring Stormont delivers on the key issues of health, education and the economy.

With the constitutional question settled, politics here finally has the chance to evolve to focus on so-called "bread-and-butter" issues.

These are the issues being raised by voters on their own doorsteps - they are what impact most directly on their lives. In the last Assembly the UUP demonstrated that it could be trusted to make difficult decisions and fight its corner.

In 2007, we made Health our priority. Under the leadership of Michael McGimpsey we have vastly improved the health service while, at the same time, we have delivered efficiencies as the only department to complete RPA.

This has enabled us to redirect £53m from administration to frontline services.

We chose to take the Health portfolio because we knew that it was too important to be entrusted to others - and we were proved right.

The Health budget was cut time and time again. On the publication of the Executive's draft Budget, the Department of Health projected that it would be left with a £828m shortfall by 2015 and, in spite of minor improvements, the final Budget left the health service facing a real cut of more than 1.5%.

And yet Peter Robinson still said it would be "obscene" to give the health service more money.

The UUP will be fighting for more funding for Health and Education once Stormont reconvenes.

We have always put the people of Northern Ireland first - even when, in doing so, we were castigated by others - and acted against what could be described as our own selfish interests.

We put country before party and make no apology for that. Don't be conned by calls to vote for others to stop Sinn Fein.

We have heard these calls before and witnessed the outcome - a cosy relationship between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Let me be absolutely clear: the UUP is committed to delivering for Northern Ireland, but will not be held to ransom or shackled by republicans.

It is now time for mature, accountable politics to take centre-stage in the province.

It is time for an Executive that functions.

It is time to make Stormont work - for you.

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