Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Governance is butchered by Stormont's bankrupt model

The Executive must have the right people in the right jobs or it will fail, says Mark Neale

Otto Von Bismarck is reputed to have once said, "People will sleep better not knowing how their sausages and politics are made". Ironically, having been technical manager of Henry Denny and Sons in Portadown and a political advisor at Stormont, I have a unique insight into both.

For the record, I can fully endorse both the process and the ingredients of Denny's sausages. Unfortunately, the politics at Stormont speak for themselves: haphazard processes, no significant product and self-destructive marketing.

At the recent Ulster Unionist Party business breakfast it was suggested if the devolved administration at Stormont was run on a profit-and-loss basis, it would be bankrupt. The last four years have been characterised by indecision, ineptitude and fantasy politics, but this was always likely to be the case.

The 'all-in' nature of our mandatory coalition, while a good idea as Northern Ireland came out of conflict, was always meant to be a transitional arrangement, but has been so misused that the d'Hondt system has become an extension of the 'war' by another means.

Many, I hope, will be shocked to realise the selection of ministerial positions by the parties was not carried out by any process of matching manifesto pledges to government departments, or skills to positions.

No prior discussions were entered into. In fact, when Gerry Adams picked education as his first ministerial choice, the DUP were so thrown the meeting had to be adjourned so Ian Paisley and his team could decide what to do next.

This is why the current suggestion by the Ulster Unionist Party has such merit - and has been acknowledged as such by Dr Paisley's successor as First Minister (I refer to Peter Robinson's recent speech in Londonderry, in which he referred to it as both new and positive).

Yet, contrary to some of the comments from other parties, the 'game-changing' message Tom Elliott has outlined is not about Opposition in 2015; it's about Government in 2011.

Like every other democracy where a coalition is required, Tom Elliott has proposed that, rather than playing political blind man's bluff, the parties should, post the May election, enter into negotiations about how a government is to be formed.

These negotiations will establish what the key priorities of that government will be and who will lead on what key policies. If this process were to be adopted before any ministerial appointments are made, there would be broad agreement on key strategic policies before a government is formed. In such a scenario, the key policies the minister for education will introduce will be agreed. In the same vein, there will be agreement on what cuts need to be made in the health service and a broad commitment to the size, structure and powers of a reformed system of local government.

Many will say that this is a tall order for our politicians, who have a history of turning negotiations into a long-running soap opera, but real politics is about the art of the possible, not the art of subterfuge.

The day-to-day running of government is about delivering and unless all our ministers are broadly agreed on the approach the next four years will be a rerun of the shambles that has characterised the last four.

No business, not even a sausage factory, would begin production without the right people, in the right jobs, working to the right recipes. Henry Denny and Sons always got that bit right.

If our Assembly and Executive are to be a success - and they certainly haven't been as yet - then the same principles need to apply.

This must be the starting-point; otherwise, Northern Ireland Plc will be in danger of going out of business.

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