Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Why this education mess should teach us a lesson

The next Assembly provides an opportunity to replace ministerial autocracy with good governance, says Mark Neale

For all democrats, regardless of their party-political affiliation, Caitriona Ruane's recent interview in the Belfast Telegraph must serve as a serious warning surrounding the issues of ministerial accountability and her commitment to collective responsibility.

Regardless of what an individual minister might believe, in any democracy, a minister who delivers ideologically-driven policies, in the face of the overwhelming popular opposition of the majority of the electorate, can only be regarded as semi-dictatorial.

Equally, any government or Executive that allows a minister to act in such a way, acquiesces in the undermining of democracy.

The founding principle of democracy is 'government of the people, by the people'.

Alarmingly, Ms Ruane's interview confirms what many have feared: that this particular Sinn Fein minister does not, and will not, respect the will of the people.

Fundamentally, the rights and wrongs of the educational policy debate are irrelevant.

Where a minister acts without popular support, Assembly backing or Executive endorsement, their actions must be described as autocratic. The fact that rogue ministers remain able to operate within the Executive in an unchecked manner remains a corroding flaw in our current system of government.

Even though this was raised at both St Andrews in 2006 and at Hillsborough in 2010, the key parties - the DUP and Sinn Fein - have failed to resolve this problem.

Without radical change, the current system - created by the 'blindman's bluff' ministerial appointments system - ensures the potential for departmental dictatorship can, and ultimately will, continue.

To be fair, this is not a problem of Caitriona Ruane's making; this is a structural problem that goes to the heart of the Executive.

Essentially, the running of D'Hondt, immediately after the election, before any agreement on the key priorities for government, creates the circumstances whereby ministers can, and do, act without reference to the centre or their ministerial colleagues.

Ultimately, using a pure D'Hondt system for ministerial appointments ensures that individual political parties create and run the Executive in a non-coherent, and ultimately non co-operative, manner.

Several weeks ago, the Ulster Unionist Party proposed a radical alternative to the current system. Such a proposal would see intense negotiations prior to the formation of a new Executive, creating an agreed agenda for government.

Northern Ireland has come a long way; the Belfast Agreement has changed Northern Ireland and its politics and, most would agree, for the better. Now is the time for the next step.

Our next Executive cannot be formed on the basis of mutual veto and distrust. The UUP suggestion is both bold and courageous, but it has been distorted and buried.

The Executive must operate as one, not as a group of individual ministerial fiefdoms ruled by ideologues pursuing personal crusades.

Northern Ireland needs good government but without the adoption of such radical changes as the Ulster Unionists have proposed, nothing will change.

Each party entering this forthcoming election must decide if the future is to be based around the status quo, or mutual veto and distrust? Or will our Assembly come of age and develop new ways of working; ways that will bring about the end of dictatorships and the introduction of good government?

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