Ministerial responsibility, or passing the buck?

Michael Shilliday’s terse description of yesterday’s debate provoked a lot of ire on Slugger yesterday. Not having seen the said debate, I assumed it was about Irish medium education. Turns out, it was about the classroom assistants dispute. The debate seemed an even tempered affair all round until the Minister got up to speak. It’s notable that she refused to give way to any asked for interventions, until the end. Then Sammy Wilson (no doubt putting his Westminster experience to good use) got this in:

Mr S Wilson: It is nice to see that the Minister, who did not have any time to accept interventions from the SDLP or anyone else, was able to spend 30% of her time attacking me about my attitude to, among other matters, academic selection, the working class, the Irish language, equality, and the treatment of women.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: No; I only have five minutes. I will not give way, nor will I attack the Member, so she need not worry.

However, he went on hint that the minister was happy to enjoin battle on anything but the subject in hand:

The Minister says that she wants to deal seriously with this issue, yet she spends 30% of her speech addressing her comments to another Member on subjects that are not being discussed. If I were as paranoid as Mr Butler, I would think that she were carrying out a witch hunt. However, I am not paranoid. I am quite happy for her to make those sorts of comments. That is what we expect to happen here. However, I will not take lectures from the Minister that Members on this side of the House are not concerned, or are expressing only pseudoconcern, about the matter.

Mr McCrea, a Member for Lagan Valley, tabled the motion because, in spite of the promise that the Minister made on 19 June — which was over three months ago — when she thought that the matter was urgent, it has dragged on and has still not been resolved. She can point the finger at the Committee for Education and the Assembly and ask what they have done.

We are not the employers. We are not even the paymasters. The Minister is the Minister — she is the one who is responsible. We have no role in the negotiations.

So where did the subject of Irish language education come from? Well, from Mr Wilson of course. He drew attention to the fact that the Minister had made no provision in her departmental budgets for an increased offer to the Unions:

Since 19 June, on something that we were told was urgent, she has had two meetings, one with each side. She has clearly not given the matter any priority in her financial dealings. As far as I know, the £30 million that was available has not been upped. In the meantime — true to form, I am going to mention it — she has found plenty of money to hand out for her favourite project, the promotion of the Irish language. Mainstream education and the concerns of youngsters with special needs across Northern Ireland, and of those who deal with them, take second place in this Minister’s priorities behind the promotion of her own political ideology and the things that she wants to promote.

So, the question is: has Minister Ruane backed herself into a corner? If not, and she wants to move to resolve the dispute with the Unions (and her party spokesman) what is going to cut from her provisional budget to pay for a renewed offer?

Adds: Basil McCrea:

“There were only a couple of points that came up in the debate, because she spent eight minutes attacking everyone else, about everything else, rather than talking about the issue. The Minister was asked a number of specific questions, and she did not answer any of them. That is not the way to go forward in this Assembly. For the Minister to fall out with just about everyone in the Assembly, including the entire Education Committee save Mr Butler, is not a clever, winning strategy.”

MOst interesting is the final amendment from Jeffrey Donaldson was passed without a vote:

“, by convening an urgent meeting of the Department, employers and Trade Union side in the dispute, with an agenda to include (a) retention of the Special Needs Allowance; (b) retention of the 32.5 hourly pay divisor; (c) NVQ III and the job evaluation exercise; and (d) adequate pay protection arrangements, in order to prevent disruption to children’s education.” — [Mr Donaldson.]