Belfast Telegraph

Is the writing on the wall for a shared future?

Political Editor Liam Clarke asks: Can the Executive ever really deliver? Or is it time for a change up on the hill?

The Stormont Executive can’t be faulted for ambition — it aims to improve all our lives, with the economy and health top of the list in its Programme for Government (PfG).

The problem is that it operates a system that is lavish, complex and slow. It is also facing economic challenges which are among the most severe in the history of the state.

In the Assembly which ended last May, only 67% of the targets set in its Programme for Government were met, although many of them were not particularly ambitious.

Most other governments would be pilloried for that sort of record in the middle of a boom. It didn’t seem to matter at the time — the main achievement was for a Sinn Fein and DUP-led administration to stay in government.

Now that the institutions are secure, voters are expecting more — and the politicians know it.

As Peter Robinson, the First Minister, put it last November: “Four years ago, for the first time in a generation, we completed a full Assembly term and began building a better future for Northern Ireland.

“In four years’ time, it is not survival, but delivery on which we will be judged.”

Delivery on pledges like 25,000 new jobs by 2016 won’t be easy and it will be even harder to prevent more jobs being lost.

Our system of government is a lumbering beast, expensive to maintain and slow on its feet. We have 108 MLAs, proportionally twice or three times as many as Wales, or Scotland, and 15 ministers, counting juniors. The decision to foot the bill for so many was seen by the last Labour government as the price of peace.

All but four MLAs are in governing parties.

The difficulty of building consensus among so many parties explains why seven months were spent agreeing a Programme of Government, something which takes days, or weeks, in most democracies.

With all parties in government, the Assembly has little independent role.

It discusses everything that hits the headlines, but hasn’t passed much legislation so far and generally acts as a rubber-stamp for Executive decisions.

We badly need an Opposition at Stormont to reduce the pressure for consensus and to fully scrutinise the Executive. We also need fewer MLAs — but it doesn’t look as if we are going to get either before the next election.

Commitments made in 2007, just before the property bubble burst, reduced our room for manoeuvre. Then, it was hoped to raise £1bn-a-year by selling off surplus Government property and £175m by selling and leasing back civil service offices.

Robinson and McGuinness hoped to raise another £900m from the Treasury, citing the province’s special needs. After the Tories got in, there were long arguments over whether Labour had, indeed, pledged this extra money.

None of that money materialised, but the pledges made on the back of it remained as sacred cows. For instance, the Executive has foregone about £500m-a-year in revenue from water rates and most parties are pledged to hold the line at least until the next election, which will probably be held in 2016. Domestic rates were also held down.

This was popular with voters — water charges would cost most households £400-a-year — but it weakened our leverage with the Treasury when we ask for more funds. They can argue that we haven’t raised what revenue we can from taxes, which are paid everywhere else in the UK. The price has been cuts in other departments, accompanied by stealth taxes, like rises in car-parking charges and the shopping bag levy.

It has also made it more difficult for the Assembly to agree cuts in corporation tax, which all parties agree would boost foreign investment, help rebalance our economy and produce more revenue in the long term.

However, they would come at a cost of about £400m-a-year to the block grant — much the same as the cost of water rates. That is unlikely to be implemented until at least 2016, even if it is agreed in principle this summer.

Refusing to raise revenue locally makes the Executive’s plans vulnerable to expected cuts in the block grant.

So far, Sammy Wilson, the Finance Minister, has protected civil service jobs, but the deep cuts in England mean that, under the Barnett formula, we will get less money from Westminster.

This poses difficult choices in the coming years.

The elephant in the room is sectarian division.

Although ministers have made a number of important confidence-building gestures, by attending events like sporting matches, what we lack is a plan to build a shared society.

The failure to do so costs up to £1.5bn-a-year in duplicated services and it could put every other advance made in jeopardy.

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