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.

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