Reform will certainly come before revolution…

Fortnight magazine has a fictional character called Lord Falls, a slightly revolutionary constitutionalist. It’s a razor sharp satire which does however expose some of the dilemmas in the transition from one political state to the other. It’s the territory that Newton Emerson challenges Pat Doherty’s assertion “that the civil service apparatus of the former regime is the greatest block to bringing about radical and progressive change under a new system of government”, and argues that it ain’t likely to be quite that simple:

There is no question that the NIO is unwieldy and overstaffed but Sinn Féin is not proposing public sector cutbacks or an administrative efficiency drive. In fact, Sinn Féin wants more programmes and more spending in every field of government activity, which can only mean more complexity and more oppressors in pin-striped suits. Rather than reducing the artificially-inflated number of Stormont departments, which would mean reducing the number of Sinn Féin ministers, the party also wants an extra ministry for policing and justice.

If the NIO is going to grow while the “apparatus of the former regime” shrinks then it seems that what Mr Doherty is actually proposing is a good old-fashioned purge. Bureaucrats will become the new securocrats as the Shinners seek out those with unsound political views or suspicious golf-club membership. But how is a political party supposed to enact this dubious policy? Civil servants in Northern Ireland are hired, fired and promoted under some of the strictest equality laws in the world. Should those laws be disregarded? If so, how?

The truth he reckons is that Sinn Fein’s actual plan for engagement with senior Civil Servants is rather more prosaic than that:

The truth is that Northern Ireland is not entering a “post-insurrectionary phase” with “a new government”. It is simply reacquiring a devolved regional assembly under slightly different rules. Sinn Féin will control two or three out of 10 ministries with a further half-share of the first and deputy first minister’s office, leaving it in no position to rewrite the rules of public-sector employment. Stormont’s republican etiquette lesson will amount to nothing more than a bad-tempered episode of Yes, Minister, in which our Sinn Féin heroes blame all their frustrations on the fact that Sir Humphrey is a Prod.

But, as Emerson notes, the real tragedy may be that:

…the NIO badly needs to be knocked down a peg or two and devolution provides plenty of scope to put manners on some very arrogant people. But these opportunities will arise during mundane hearings of the Public Accounts Committee or tedious negotiations at the Department of Finance and Personnel. Sinn Féin simply doesn’t know how to present such achievements to an electoral base fired up with hopeless expectations of tribal victory.

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