Devolution not a panacea…

Patrick Murphy is sceptical about whether a re-vitalised Assembly will be the panacea that some expect. He cites several reasons. The third of them, the unlikihood that “social and economic conditions will improve here because a new executive” certainly raises an important caveat:

Such claims of better and cheaper government services are based on the implicit assumption that members of the assembly can achieve greater efficiencies in public spending than direct rule ministers. Thus we are asked to believe that given the same amount of money, the north’s politicians will deliver improved public services in health, education, roads, water and local government.

All available evidence suggests that the opposite is the case. Our politicians have a poor record in financial management in district councils and education boards. Their financial strategy seems to rest on populism, an approach which is hardly conducive to public sector efficiency.

At council level they can disguise poor financial management by raising domestic rates. But on education boards they have often been left exposed by their inability to work within a given budget. The assembly works on the same basis. Assembly members can influence the amount they spend, not the amount they receive.

This inability to vary receipts locally is probably inevitable in the short term, given the iron straight jacket of the designation system. If the DUP and Sinn Fein have nothing else in common it is an understanding that populism (under the limit aegis of devolved government in Northern Ireland is the probably the only thing likely to attract cross community support in the ‘house’. Note how the SDLP took the Ministry of Finance last time out, and then took the lion’s share the blame for shortfalls in the spending Ministries – even though it continues to be the Chancellor who determines the size of the cake.

Of all the devolved administration, only Scotland has tax varying powers, which to my (uncertain) knowledge have not been invoked in eight years of tenure. It’s a huge risk for whoever decides to use it, and given the nature of the mandatory coalition mechanism – short of the adoption of a Tallaght strategy – we are unlikely to see it in operation in Northern Ireland anytime in the near future.

But recent audience reaction on Any Questions to Pat Doherty’s ill-received attempt to push the blame for the closure of the Tyrone County Hospital away from his ex-ministerial colleague Bairbre de Bruinonand onto direct rule minister Des Browne, shows that in the Assembly/Executive there is phenomenally more transparency than in the Health and Education Quangos, and substantially more risk (and potential long term reward) for genuinely ambitious politicians who take tough decisions.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Gerry Lvs Castro

    Absolutely spot-on. This is what many of us have been saying for years — our local ministers achieved absolutely zip during their tenure in office that wouldn’t have happened with less hot air under direct rule — they’re apparently expected to make radically different decisions by slicing the same cake in a different way.
    A reformed executive will just be more of the same — childish slanging matches, endless squabbling over ministerial posts, bloated expense accounts and the same direct rule decisions with a slightly sectarian slant.
    Scrap the squabbling shop — let the windbags run the super-councils and use the vast amounts of money saved to avoid water charges, with the left-overs going to hospitals and schools.

  • opendebate

    Mmmm. Patrick raises some interesting points and some thoughts on our MLA elected reps.

    Many MLAs in my experience (yes I did work at stormont) would be no more than parish councilors anywhere else.

    Not up to the job, big fish in their own little locality ponds………

    Where the heck is the sense of responsibility? Do people think the rest of the UK are happy to continue write cheques and let the little orange and green MEN play their sily little games?

    With children starving in Africa, it is damn disgrace that millions were paid to so many lazy sods for DOING NOTHING AT ALL. I challenge any party brown-noser to spell out WHAT all of their well paid MLAs did.

    No more than half a dozen would have been involved in ongoing contact with the govt. What diod the rest do? So spell it out folks…..

  • slug

    I tended to like some of the policy initiatives of New Labour, particularly things like Tuition Fees for the Universities, which bring money to the local universities and allow them to pay the competitive salaries to academics, which are needed to keep/attract top professors in an international market. The local parties would not have been willing to take unpopular decisions like that.

  • opendebate


    That’s right. They love to play the populist…..while pickling up a hefty annual cheque from the taxpayer, but taking NO responsibility.


  • Alan

    *The local parties would not have been willing to take unpopular decisions like that. *

    Or is it that they can’t make those decisions?

    If we had a weighted majority vote, requiring negotiated policies across the departmental responsibilities, at least we could begin to move towards decisions not being based on a sectarian head count. Currently, manifestos are meaningless unless the party gain the relevant ministry. Suddenly, De Honte becomes valued because it removes engagement on issues, the ultimate Electronic Random Policy Indicating Equipment.

    Even if SF or the DUP were to be denied ministries, a civil liberties based approach to the assembly voting system could make a difference.

    Keeping things as they are leads only to a marriage of inconvenience for those within the magic circle of ministries and those without.

  • barnshee

    an ENORMOUSLY sensible item for the questions itasks of the local politicans-keep asking them

  • lib2016


    Some of us are so desperate for any sign of change that we’ll accept horse-trading as a big step forward from throwing rocks at each other.

  • newmissfitz

    I dunno guys. While I think Paddy is making some clever points, what is the endgame of what he is saying?

    If things are working well without a local governance, the clear implication is that we dont need anything local at all.

    Right, so do we keep the status quo? I dont think that would be the view of Paddy Murphy, so where is that leading us? Back down the joint authority pathway, simply because we are unable to perform the tasks of self governance?

    The other point I would take issue with would be the contention that there was a political vacuum in the North under the ancien Stormont regime.

    There may have been a inclusivity vacuum, but there was a democratically elected government that evolved into one that provided a protestant state for a protestant people. However, I have made the point that this was not the founding intention of the state, it came about for a variety of factors.

    In much the same way the succesive governments in the south moved from the stated aims of the proclamation and created a very narrow catholic culture and state, excluding those of other religious faiths.

    I dont condone keeping an empty assembly open, but I wonder where the line of thought in this piece is going?

  • Alan

    *Some of us are so desperate for any sign of change that we’ll accept horse-trading as a big step forward from throwing rocks at each other. *

    Not sure where you going with that?

    I’d like to get to the horse trading too. It feels at the moment, however, that the parties are out collecting stones to see whose pile is bigger than the others, before they start using them in the assembly chamber.

  • slug

    Hain made a most interesting and encouraging speech today – check out the NIO website.

  • sluggingmissfitz

    is this the one you mean? its the one about shared future,

    He was heckled in Newry when he gave it and 20 of the delegates walked out. I happened to be there and they all looked rather angry and were handing out leaflets outside.

  • Rubicon

    Sorry to interupt but this is the most recent thread that may be relevant.

    The IMC have repeated their mistake and if you want a look at their report (due tomorrow) it’s at:

    I guess the IMC doesn’t spend any time on slugger!