Belfast Telegraph

It's about time Stormont got with the programme

The Executive can't cure the world's financial ills. But its failure to agree a Programme for Government saps its authority, says Robin Wilson

Why does it matter if the Stormont Executive has a Programme for Government? The answer is in the title of the first programme in the previous period of devolution: Making a Difference.

The commitment to a Programme for Government stemmed from the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which led to a devolved, power-sharing administration being formed in December 1999, for the first time since 1974.

That government had worked on the principle of collective responsibility, agreed at its first meeting. But its successor operated against the backdrop of a great deal less trust, with both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein in government - unlike in 1974.

All that could be agreed in the talks in 1998 at Stormont was a structure in which each minister controlled his or her own department, more or less autonomously.

There was, therefore, a greater premium on ensuring government would operate in a 'joined-up' way across departmental divides. The Programme for Government, included in the Belfast Agreement, was to provide the gel. The agreement specified that the programme, agreed by the new Executive, would be renewed annually and would be associated with an annual Budget.

This made sense: policy should drive funding allocations if a real difference is to be made - rather than these just being ad hoc at best, or clientelistic at worst.

If everything worked to plan, even with ministers from four (now five) parties at the table, they would commit themselves to the programme and the hard choices involved in determining the Budget priorities

As a result, an accountable government, unlike its remote direct-rule predecessor, would be able to address problems specific to Northern Ireland in a coherent way. That was the theory.

The problems started to emerge with the first Budget, prepared in 2000 to accompany the programme.

The then-finance minister, Mark Durkan, having secured the agreement of his colleagues in the Executive to the Budget, then found representatives of all Assembly parties other than his own - the SDLP - denouncing the increase he proposed in the only local revenue source he had, the regional rate.

Two programmes were, however, agreed. But the impasse over decommissioning led to the downfall of the Executive in 2002 when an IRA spy-ring was revealed at Stormont.

In May 2007, devolution was finally restored. But the ambition to 'Make a Difference' was reduced.

Now, against a background of severe cuts in the Northern Ireland block grant, the Executive's room for policy manoeuvre has thus narrowed to near non-existent.

In the meantime, in spite of the severe change in the global economic environment, the Executive failed to update its programme agreed in 2008, in spite of the requirement to that effect in the Belfast Agreement. This meant that the latest Budget was constructed without a guiding policy envelope.

Public reaction has followed this evidence of growing inertia at Stormont since the heady hopes associated with the Belfast Agreement. A total of 71% of eligible voters took part in the referendum on the agreement. But turnout has fallen repeatedly at subsequent elections, to just 54.5% in May last year.

And 'Making a Difference'? In the 2010 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, 69% said the Stormont Assembly had achieved little or nothing.

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