Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Viewpoint: Short cuts bypass Ulster democracy

Even for someone as impervious to criticism as Peter Hain the row over the Government's handling of the water tax must be causing some anxiety. So many influential voices have been ignored, so many institutions bypassed, that even if the Order introducing the new charge gets Parliamentary approval, opposition to it may be undiminished.

Direct Rule has never been popular under any Secretary of State but it has been accepted as necessary and generally fair in the absence of a democratically-elected Assembly.

Politicians and people have been consulted at every stage because otherwise they would feel that important decisions were being taken over their heads.

Under Mr Hain, however, a different pattern is emerging - presumably with the approval of the Prime Minister.

The Secretary of State has been given free rein to make appointments and introduce controversial new policies without going through the normal channels. Short cuts have been taken. The end, it seems, always justifies the means.

The protests about the water tax and the way it has been railroaded through Westminster are just the latest in a long series. There is rumbling discontent about the chaotic approach to the replacement of the 11-plus, as well as the proposed cuts in local government. And then there is the unfinished business of the new rating system based on house prices, which governments in London and Edinburgh will not contemplate.

In the past, there has been little difficulty with public appointments, because of the strict rules to guarantee fair play, but all that has changed. Making a DUP-approved candidate, Bertha McDougall, the interim victims' commissioner, may have seemed a smart political move but it has backfired badly, just as Orange appointments to the Parades Commission are being challenged. The water tax survived a judicial review, but not without criticism of the short time given to assessing Consumer Council proposals.

Always there is the impression that the Secretary of State is trying to placate one side or the other in the political debate in order to push the peace process forward. But any advantage has proved short term as the parties now discount his strictures, judging that if lines in the sand are drawn they can easily be redrawn.

Mr Hain's strongest argument is that despite setbacks both the reform programme and the political process are still on track. His own credibility, however, is at a low point, especially after yesterday's disclosures that he avoided a Grand Committee debate at Westminster and failed to respond to the Assembly's Programme for Government Committee. Anyone accused by the politicians he works with of "lack of common courtesy" and " disrespect" is in deep trouble.

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