Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

High time we put an end to this Assembly mob rule

The absurd situation at Stormont - with no official Opposition - lies at the root of the Executive's inability to govern, writes Jim Allister

Today at 11am, the nation will pause to remember the sacrifice of tens of thousands of our servicemen and woman who gave their lives to defend freedom and democracy in Europe. Others have died in more recent times while attempting to uphold those same values in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, in Northern Ireland, two of the most basic tenets of democracy are denied us: the right to vote a party out of government and even the existence of an Opposition.

An Opposition is not a luxury, but a fundamental in any democracy. The challenge, check and balance of an Opposition inevitably contribute to better government.

The present Stormont regime is failing to come anywhere close to delivering good government. Its record is appalling; serial deadlock is its hallmark. Six months on from the election and there is still no Programme for Government.

Instead of debating legislation, the Assembly fills its time talking on private members' business, such as weed control. So much for supposedly being a 'Legislative Assembly'.

Yet Northern Ireland's political establishment can carry on regardless, safe in the knowledge that the system is so rigged as to ensure that all the parties - no matter how badly they govern - are guaranteed their place at the Executive table. Vested interest at its worst.

The absurdity of mandatory coalition, and its by-product of no Opposition, is the cancer at the heart of Stormont's failure. If ever a cosy consensus needed shaken up by a vibrant and effective Opposition, it's at Stormont.

Regularly in Stormont, debates are held in which only Government MLAs are called to speak.

Yet, in spite of these impediments, I believe the contribution I have been able to make demonstrates what an official Opposition could do.

The issues requiring the robust attention of an Opposition are myriad: the squander of public money, like £30m on consultants on an A5 project which might never be built; the scandal of the secret salaries, and unpublicised increases, of special advisers; the waste of £100m a year on useless north/south bodies; the disparity in sports funding, with the GAA getting the lion's share; the hopeless deadlock in education, now to be aggravated by multiple school closures; the underfunding in the health service as we fall further behind the UK; and an investment strategy which is not working, particularly outside the greater Belfast area.

Stormont needs an Opposition. This is something which shouldn't be a mere long-term aspiration, but something which is a democratic imperative now.

Equally, we need fundamental reform, whereby mandatory coalition is jettisoned and a Government coalition is formed by those who can agree on what to do about the economy, health and education and who can command the requisite majority in the Assembly. And those who can't agree form the missing link, the Opposition.

Thereby, accountability and good and workable government could be brought to Stormont, in place of the self-serving shambles which daily adds to the public contempt for what passes as government.

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