Belfast Telegraph

Stormont needs to evolve: the old way no longer works

Trade union activists on the streets — but five-party coalition at Stormont isn’t the best model to deal with real issues like building prosperity
Trade union activists on the streets — but five-party coalition at Stormont isn’t the best model to deal with real issues like building prosperity

By Liam Clarke

Is this the beginning of the end for Stormont? It may seem a strange question to ask after the parties defied most expectations - sometimes even their own - by producing the Stormont House Agreement and a budget. The problem is that pulling together on this point almost killed the Assembly off and implementation is far from certain.

Making real decisions on difficult issues is really a bit much for our five-party coalition and they are unlikely to do it either quickly or efficiently. All the structures are against that and, while I don't expect any speedy collapse, they no longer suit our needs.

Look at the recrimination which followed the devolution of welfare reform. The basic picture was fairly simple - Sinn Fein blinked and accepted that we would introduce the new UK welfare system here without any additional funds from London.

The "concession" is that another system is to be bolted onto welfare reform which will, it is claimed, ensure that nobody in Northern Ireland is worse off as a result of the change. This is an open-ended spending commitment if ever there was one and it is unlikely to last for ever.

More cuts in benefits, or changes in the system, across the water will increase the cost if we try to create a welfare system where there are winners, but no losers.

That could be a bureaucratic nightmare, with one body to assess claimants' entitlement under the old benefits, which must be matched by top-up payments, and another to calculate the portion which London will cover.

More fundamentally, it is no concession at all. We are paying the welfare costs, and the fines, from our own resources and that was always open to us. Put another way, we have to cut it from somewhere else, or else charge new taxes.

This needs more joined-up economic thinking and a more consistent ideological line than we see at Stormont. At present, we have a series of aspirations about putting the economy first, protecting victims and motherhood and apple pie.

The lack of consistency is shown by the fact that we were hundreds of millions in debt after years of politicians telling us about all the progress that had been made and complaining that the media were too negative.

Yes, there have been achievements in terms of investment and with regards to security we are in a far better place than before. Nobody can deny that.

There is an Indian story of a man who built a boat to cross a river. When he got to the other side, he was tempted to carry it on his back, because he had found it so useful that he was afraid to abandon it.

Our present arrangements at Stormont are like that. They got us this far, but they are starting to hold us back. They are condemning us to lengthy discussions, brinkmanship and splitting the difference where we need smart, quick decisions based on best evidence.

The present, cumbersome coalition was necessary to provide buy-in. The inevitable downside was that it forced parties who strongly opposed each other into government, where the larger parties pushed the smaller ones around, leaving only a few MLAs on the opposition benches.

Forcing parties to make inelegant compromises on issues where they profoundly disagree is like the old joke about getting a committee to design a horse and seeing it coming up with a camel.

The Stormont House Agreement isn't a final, or perfect, solution, but from April there will be funds for parties to move into opposition.

Relinquishing power goes against the grain for politicians, but if small parties keep getting overruled that calculation will change in time.

Some of the smaller parties may eventually feel opposition offers them a better chance of rebuilding than getting bulldozed in government.

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