Towards coherent government, or a well paid, but disorderly commune-on-the-hill…?

Fintan O’Toole has a useful piece of research (subs required) in his column today, even if the premise doesn’t quite stick. It’s interesting to contrast it with the current situation in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein seems to be following a strategy of extraordinary candour regarding Executive discussions pf the work SDLP Minister in the new Executive, Margaret Ritchie (a key rival to one of SF’s hopefuls in the next Westminster election). O’Toole’s highlights the importance placed on collective responsibility, by quoting Ahern’s words in the Dail last year:

“Questions as to the business conducted at cabinet or cabinet committee meetings have never been allowed in the House on the grounds that they are internal to government. The reasons for this approach are founded on sound policy principles and the need to avoid infringing the constitutional protection of cabinet confidentiality.”

But he’s dug further:

As Séamus Dolan of the law faculty at NUIG has explained with admirable succinctness: “The concept of cabinet confidentiality flows from the notion of collective responsibility, as referred to in Article 28.4.2. Collective responsibility mandates that individual ministers present a united front to the public, and individual ministers must each offer public support for government decisions and policies, regardless of their own private or personal views on the topic. This, by implication, means the individual minister is not entitled to criticise government policy or decisions if he wishes to retain his ministerial office.” Or, as the all-party committee on the Constitution put it even more succinctly, “the only way to record dissent from a government decision is to resign”.

With regard the Aer Lingus Shannon (no) Show, O’Toole argues that Willie O’Dea is not compliant with the Cabinet’s position. Therefore it is unlawful.

The situation in Northern Ireland’s mandatory coalition government is different. Cabinet responsibility appears to be an entirely notional matter, uaccounted for, except for specific cross community issues, in the legislation amending the Northern Ireland Act, and specified here.

The only conspicuous assertion of voluntary “Collective Responsibility has come in the unlikely form of Peter Robinson coming to the aid of Michelle Gildernew, when the Sinn Fein Agricultural Minister for Agriculture faced by criticism from his own party colleague for selling off public land.

But it would seem that whilst in theory O’Dea’s playing both ends off the middle can be censured (though not necessarily sanctioned) in the Republic, in Northern Ireland there is nothing to stop a small scale civil war going on between ministers (and therefore departments) for interests beyond and outside the conduct of the Programme for Government.

It has to be said that it is the natural instinct of political parties to seek out and exploit weaknesses in their opponents. And indeed, many have argued that the absence of a legitimate space for such legislative combat that is the very weakness of our Peace Processed™ legislature.

As Pete noted yesterday Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy, has even put details of ‘cabinet discussions’ into the public domain. In some respects this is surely preferable to the law of Omerta invoked by Bertie in the Dail (quoted above) since ministers should stand or fall on the quality of their own decisions.

But it also begs the question as to whether this is a short term bout of party bullishness, to be tucked away once the Westminster election is over and done? Or is a precedent, that if serially repeated will rip up any chances of Northern Ireland settling down to sorting its many problems. If it is so easy for Ministers to duck collective responsibility, what chance is there these institutions of producing coherent, never mind joined up, government?

As Patrick Murphy noted in the Irish News on Saturday, regarding the absence of a clear economic strategy from the First Minister Ian Paisley:

It is all very confusing. What role does he see for the state sector in our economy? Does he believe in privatising water services, for example?

Or is he just the nominal head of a loose federation of minister whose common economic thread is to spend public money to win political popularity?

After 100 days in office, the first minister’s economic policies are still a mystery.

We deserve better. But who in the assembly will ask for it?


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  • slug

    The DUP’s economic policies seem to me to be not all that confused. If anything I find the UUP harder to work out, while the SDLP and SF are respectively social democrat and socialist, in their emphasis.

    The DUP seem to me to be classic pragmatic centre-right – emphasising fiscal responsibility, favouring lower tax on business, calling for cuts in government waste via reduction in number of govt departments, showing a general scepticism of large landmark government-financed projects, opposing the abolition of grammar school system, trying to clamp down on sickness abuse in the Civil Service, etc. However they are ain favour of infrastructure investment – e.g. Peter Robinson has been keen on developing some of the light rail projects that have been considered.

    I thought Murphy’s piece was a bit superficial in places but I agree with his main point that there is a need to develop more sophistication in economic thinking among the NI parties.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think Patrick was questioning the coherence of the government’s position, not simply the DUP’s. Des Boal categorised the new party’s position as “right wing in the sense of being strong on the constitutional issue, to the left on social issues”.

    Its instincts may have moved to the right as it has begun to subsume the fringes of UUP, but with restraints of the mandatory coalition it will struggle to break free of the current status quo.

  • slug


    I think the necessary effect of mandatory coalition is that the Executive cannot any clear unifying ideological standpoint.

    Instead the emphasis must be very pragmatic, with the emphasis on getting things done that everyone agreed need to be done, and not much else.

    Thus – given tbe breadth of perspective wihtin the Executive parties – it would be unhelpful in terms of the overall relationship between Executive parties for the FM (or DFM) to try to claim his government has a particular ideological position on economic policy.

    That may be a problem with the present system. If it is seen as a serious problem then reform of the system will become an important issue.

  • DC

    This analysis about policy was shown up throughout the NSMC and BIC when neither parties really showed what they wanted out of them apart from a few pics here and there. These were supposed to be the big arenas in which to integrate and co-ordinate!

    I would go as far as to mention education policy as well. Of course we all know the DUP are keen on grammar schools, yea; but, if you don’t pick the Education ministry then what can you do about it?

    Also look at infrastructure, needs massive reform, yea; but, who was left that too?

    A party of government, possibly, but by heck the DUP didn’t half leave all the areas requiring reform to other parties.

    Self-exclusion and side-sniping come to mind? A party of opposition too right but pledges on salient policy concerns minimal.

    More reviews anyone? Water and Rates are back in the mixer and we’ve already had Language Bill consultation round 2.

  • slug

    “Self-exclusion and side-sniping come to mind? ”

    Hardly. The DUP jumped right in there with the most strategic powerful and central department of them all – DFP. Next up – recognising the importance of the economy – took Trade and Enterprise.


    SF’s treatment of Ritchie on this is pretty shabby and I think people will see through it. Ritchie has surprised people (certainly me) with how strong she has been, while Ruane has surprised with her relative invisibility.

    Where will C Murphy and the others stand if (when?) Ritchie makes good on her threat?

  • lib2016

    Ritchie can´t be seen to be depriving vulnerable loyalist communities, full stop. Not if she wants to cling onto any vestige of respect for the SDLP, she can´t.

    This policy is as well thought out as the ´rent and rates´ strike which nearly destroyed the SDLP in its infancy all those years ago.

  • Mick Fealty

    Is that a prediction we can hold you to lib? It comes as some surprise that any nationalist party cares too much for funding for loyalist communities. SF has been fighting a rearguard action against funding in loyalist areas on the basis that nationalist areas are the ones with greater need.

    SF’s statement that this is a departmental means they can attack her, but it also appear to give her carte blanche over who and how the money gets distributed. If it is genuinely a departmental decision, who can stop her at Cabinet level? Kind of tough call for the two Unionist parties to force her to accept lower standards that the basic one she’s made public.

    The problem I think she may have here is that she is calling attention to fact that the money is supposed to be routed to an organisation that still has all of its guns. I know this is what Hain was planning to do, but his political capital was not dependent on what people thought of him or his decisions as SoS for NI. Even if he offered the money with no strings attached.

    This is the line I expect SF is pushing on every doorstep in South Down…

  • I believe that locally elected politicians, no more than the British imports now gone, have only a superficial impact on the way the Civil Service misrules this place. Superficial in the sense that ministers will be able to implement aspects of philosophy which reflect their ideology as long as it doesn’t fundamentally rock the boat.

    So that’s how Margaret Ritchie gets to make an apparent threat to the UDA – but in reality, in so many different ways, unseen and unhighlighted, the state system makes allowances for the loyalists and comes in with the handouts to keep the main players sweet.

    As for water-rates etc, all the parties will bite the bullet because they’ll be told who holds the purse strings.

    You’d never guess but I do have a focus on the Irish Language Act, which I believe is being spancilled by civil servants and has been from day one. Be it the misleading consultation paper, the ill focused draft legislation, the curious consultation process in its entirety. The big mistake that was made at the birth of this new regime that the senior civil servants who have been pulling the strings up to now weren’t told that they would have to re-apply for their own positions again. Sure we would lose some expertise if they were discarded, but that loss would be outweighed by the gains from losing their incompetence and status quo approach.

    Enacting an Irish Language Act which actually adds to our lives here in the north is the first real test of this new regime – and so far it’s failing.

    I also fail to see how the DUP minister can successfully steer this bill to the statute books given the constant refrain of ‘No Irish Language Act’ from his party. Surely this means that this matter is going to end up in the courts….

  • DC

    Don’t be so paranoid and defeatist OC. Hang in there buddy, I don’t believe the Seniors are like that because the protections to language are afforded in the GFA outworkings and indeed in the St Andrews agreement.

    The Seniors busted their balls to get the GFA driven down the throat of the DUP and indeed other said political ‘extremes’.

    If the DUP block debate over a language bill then you may well be correct about a legal challenge in terms of violation of mutual respect and recognition of diversity as gold-plated in the content of the GFA.

    Europe is also breathing down the British government’s neck on this one to ensure minority languages are maintained and given recognition.

    Not one for American cultural hegemony I support the right to encourage minority languages where there is a clear interest from, and critical mass of, speakers in a region who wish to have their language legally recognised, especially when accessing services.

  • DC

    “Hardly. The DUP jumped right in there with the most strategic powerful and central department of them all – DFP”

    Well paradoxically, the ‘strengthening’ of consensual Executive decision-making rests with issues that cut across departments, and well, DFP must be the most affected department in terms of seeking consent on decisions due to its cross-cutting nature. I may be wrong but lets see.

    Looks like Robinson wont be able to exercise as much freedom to dictate as opposed to other ministers who can, like ehm DSD, DRD, DofE, you know all those other departments in charge of delivering reform. Of course, the DUP also left Health. Nice.

    Leading for Ulster, Leaving it for Others, more like it.

  • lib2016


    Just seen your post – the very first speech at Stormont by Adams included a plea for the loyalist communities to be helped, most particularly in the field of education. I´ve never seen any insinuation supported by fact that McGuinness, Adams or any other prominent Shinner believed in a zero sum game when it comes to allocating resources between the communities here.

    That said, it´s a right and proper thing to defend the allocation of resources according to need. How else are we to move on from the past and engage the next generation? The people who are already at school and who will decide the future of Northern Ireland.

    It is a common tactic to claim that those who oppose privilege are merely being one-sided, that Martin Luther King for example was being anti-white or that Ghandhi was simply being anti-British. You are far too intelligent to believe that.