Belfast Telegraph

Why Executive has a lot to learn about leadership

Sorting out the shambles in our education system forms the litmus test of the Assembly's fitness to govern - not policing and justice, argues Sir Reg Empey

If it's possible for two parties to solve parading in just two weeks, how long would it take the Northern Ireland Executive to solve education? And no, that isn't a joke.

The Executive is broken - and policing and justice is a mere sticking plaster.

The Ulster Unionist Party has a historic commitment to Northern Ireland's stability, but this does not mean putting our hands up for quick fixes.

We need - and we are prepared to work towards - a systematic overhaul of the dysfunctional and, frankly, embarrassing Executive.

The cracks in Stormont are plain for all to see: pour in more power, wait for the inevitable political freeze and what are now visible fault lines will soon become gaping potholes.

Northern Ireland is suffering because political will is being put before the public need - and that is simply not good enough.

I am prepared to join SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie in co-chairing an Executive working group to deal with the dysfunctionality of the Executive.

I am prepared to do so because that is what this country needs - and community need must come before political ideology.

However, the Ulster Unionist Party will not be used to fill seats and participate in a charade of inclusivity.

We must be enabled to effect real change. The people of Northern Ireland want - and deserve - no less.

In-fighting and political manoeuvring has allowed the real issues to be swept under the carpet and that is unforgivable.

How can we, in all conscience, fiddle with policing and justice while education has been left to burn?

Education, health and jobs - these are the critical issues on everyone's lips.

Yet they are being sidelined by grandiose 'talks' aimed at grasping more and more while we achieve less and less.

We need to see our Executive working as it should before we load it further with this most contentious of responsibilities.

If we can't work together to achieve agreement on how to move children from one school to the next, then I dread to think of the mess that could be made of policing and justice.

That is too worrying a thought to contemplate.

To be frank, I am ashamed that, in spite of the Executive's obvious failure, there is sufficient arrogance within our institutions to demand more power.

We can't manage what we have, yet we're prepared to bring Northern Ireland to a virtual standstill once more in the pursuit of further gains.

In what sphere is incompetence given such reward?

The Ulster Unionist Party will be weighing and measuring the Executive in the coming weeks and months.

Whether we believe it is fit to take on policing and justice will be determined by how it exercises the powers it has already got.

It is unconscionable that we should turn a deaf ear to the pleas of parents and children, struggling with an unregulated system of tests.

Instead of one process, imperfect as it was, we now have a plethora of tests, utter confusion and mounting anger. That anger is entirely justified.

We have failed children. We have failed their parents. And we have failed their teachers. This cannot be allowed to continue.

If there is one thing that the policing and justice issue has made clear, it is that we have got our priorities all wrong.

We can manage to form a body to sort out conflict over parading, which is to meet daily for two weeks. That is certainly very welcome.

But where was this level of commitment when education was kept away from the Executive table for two years?

A way forward must be found. We need to demonstrate that making things right for the people of Northern Ireland is what we're really concerned with.

Push-me-pull-you politics is cutting no ice with the electorate - and rightly so.

All-party consensus on education must be step one in proving this Executive's maturity.

I, in conjunction with Minister Ritchie, will be working hard to change the systems that allowed it to be kept from the Executive table.

It is then up to Minister Ruane to decide whether dogmatic ideology is more important than the needs of all communities.

We owe that to the electorate, and to every generation that comes after.

Education, as I have said before, is the litmus test of the Executive's functionality.

However, Ulster Unionists have other issues that we want addressed and, given the opportunity, we will discuss these with the other parties.

We will work to fix this mess, but our Executive colleagues need to be prepared to do the same.

It is time to spring-clean Stormont.

Let us resolve the education debacle in the next few weeks to prove to all that we are fit to exercise more powers.

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