“even worse, it could have been written by Peter Hain..”

In the Newsletter, Alex Kane argues in favour of the UUP and SDLP forming an opposition to the DUP/SF bloc – even if it’s not an Official Opposition. Timely, given that the Assembly today debated, and I use the term advisedly, the Executive’s legislative programme. Stormont Live, video below, caught some of Alliance Party leader David Ford’s amendment speech and it would appear that there might be some indicators of an emerging oppositional approach – at least by back-benchers. Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd clearly thinks so.. and he doesn’t seem too happy about it.. Btw, I’ve not seen the full list of that legislative programme.. but I have seen some of those proposed Bills before – Charity Reform – Legislation on Taxis – and, with the relatives of those adbucted, murdered, and secretly buried by the Provisional IRA in mind, Legislation on Death Certificates.
From Alex Kane’s article

The task of creating an Official Opposition is going to be a difficult one, not least because neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein is keen on the idea. Jeffrey Donaldson has hinted that the DUP is looking at ways of securing a “voluntary coalition government at Stormont”, but it seems unlikely that much will happen. Indeed, it looks like a cosmetic exercise designed to keep internal and external critics at bay.

Meanwhile, the existing arrangements encourage incompetence and poor government. The trouble is, it really is impossible to pinpoint and punish the weakest links in the system. And oddly enough, that’s the one issue the DUP seems most reluctant to address.

It is true, of course, that if the UUP and SDLP, singly or together, withdrew from the Executive in the near future, they would be leaping into a no man’s land. The mere act of describing yourself as the Opposition won’t allow you to be the Opposition. Yet it is equally true that the ongoing lack of an Official Opposition will undermine democracy and ensure a form of government which will, in fact and in effect, be less accountable and less relevant than Direct Rule. Is that what we waited 35 years for?

Update In the comments zone, David Ford adds

Let us have a quick look through the 18 Bills that make up the legislative programme. Issues such as 1-libraries, 2-education structures and 3-reform of public authorities have been floating around in the review of public administration for several years. Legislation on 4-diseases of animals could easily have been introduced under direct rule. The issue of 5-taxis was being discussed before the Assembly was suspended in autumn 2002, and 6-road freight licensing legislation has been delayed for nearly as long. There are two 7,8-Budget Bills: well, we all know that nothing is more certain than taxes, and that those Bills will happen.

The Department of Finance and Personnel has produced three tidying-up Bills dealing with 9-presumption of death, 10-building regulations and 11-civil registration. The 12-Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is a modest undertaking. The 13-Children (Emergency Protection Orders) Bill, which we have just passed, complies with obligations under human rights, and the 14-Public Health (Amendment) Bill complies with the requirements of the World Health Organisation.

The tidying-up of 15-charities legislation, though welcome, has been floating around for ages and is long overdue. Legislation on 16-pensions, 17-mesothelioma and 18-child maintenance is being introduced simply to achieve parity with the relevant law in Great Britain. Therefore, to suggest that their programme is one of significance and substance rather stretches the imagination, given what we have come to expect from the Executive.

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  • Mick Fealty

    Hard to argue that there’s not a deal of incompetence amongst some of the portfolio holders. To be fair though these guys are in the early stages of learning how to ‘do’ government.

    However, the most worrying aspect of the Ritchie story (and it’s had echoes in various other stories both before and since) is the willingness of parties to breach ‘collective responsibility’, ‘for narrow party political interest’.

    Mitchel McLaughlin muses at the end of the clip whether this is the beginning of an opposition, when it is absolutely clear already that every party is in this for themselves. It has at times looked like Machiavellian politics gone mad!

  • Pete Baker

    “To be fair though these guys are in the early stages of learning how to ‘do’ government.”

    Superficially, perhaps.

    But as you say,

    “it is absolutely clear already that every party is in this for themselves.”

    That, in a mandatory coalition, is not compatible with good and accountable government.

  • David Ford

    Pete

    My quick run through 18 Bills (check against delivery…)
    Let us have a quick look through the 18 Bills that make up the legislative programme. Issues such as 1-libraries, 2-education structures and 3-reform of public authorities have been floating around in the review of public administration for several years. Legislation on 4-diseases of animals could easily have been introduced under direct rule. The issue of 5-taxis was being discussed before the Assembly was suspended in autumn 2002, and 6-road freight licensing legislation has been delayed for nearly as long. There are two 7,8-Budget Bills: well, we all know that nothing is more certain than taxes, and that those Bills will happen.

    The Department of Finance and Personnel has produced three tidying-up Bills dealing with 9-presumption of death, 10-building regulations and 11-civil registration. The 12-Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is a modest undertaking. The 13-Children (Emergency Protection Orders) Bill, which we have just passed, complies with obligations under human rights, and the 14-Public Health (Amendment) Bill complies with the requirements of the World Health Organisation.

    The tidying-up of 15-charities legislation, though welcome, has been floating around for ages and is long overdue. Legislation on 16-pensions, 17-mesothelioma and 18-child maintenance is being introduced simply to achieve parity with the relevant law in Great Britain. Therefore, to suggest that their programme is one of significance and substance rather stretches the imagination, given what we have come to expect from the Executive.

    Mick

    You say they are “in the early stages of learning how to ‘do’ government”. But Ministers have been in post for six months. Would they still be “learning” in Edinburgh or Cardiff, never mind London or Dublin after that time? They also had Special Advisers funded by the former Secretary of State for Wales, etc and Assembly staff time in the Programme for Government Committee post St Andrews.

    Is the thesis that they cannot agree, and that’s why there is nothing new in the Legislative Programme and nothing new in the Programme for Government, not equally valid?

  • Truth & Justice

    If the UUP and SDLP went into oposition and withdrew from the executive would the two UUP seats go one to the DUP and one to the Alliance, im not sure about the SDLP seat. I have to say i do find it sends out very congflicting signals when a UUP & SDLP ministers support issues at the Executive and then oppose it at the Assembly looks like splits rather than an oposition?

  • me

    Very good performance by David Ford there. He raises some excellent points.

  • d’Hondt

    If UUP withdraw, next picks go to SDLP and DUP.
    If SDLP withdraw, next pick goes to DUP.
    If both withdraw, next picks to DUP, SF and Alliance. (If Alliance refuse, then DUP)

  • DC

    Pretty much agree with what was said by David Ford and the non-response from Ian Paisley Snr goes to show that he can’t comment unless he bent double reading off a sheet.

    In terms of opposition, perception may well be nine-tenths of the law, so even if there isn’t an official come legal opposition that which is viewed as such and played out in the media sufficiently enough to the extent that it is amplified as a functioning one, then this should sufficed its purpose.

    Talk the talk and then walk the walk then you’re in business.

  • Mick Fealty

    David,

    I have no problem with that interpretation. With the exception of Margaret Ritchie, and to an extent McGimpsey, they’ve pretty much ‘done the messages’ for our former direct rulers.

    Though it’s also clear that some minister’s still haven’t worked out that they should address the Speaker, rather than other MLAs directly.

  • Sam Hanna

    I thought Ian Paisley’s performance was appalling. The guy is clearly past it and looks totally out of his depth in the role. Ford sounded good and raised some interesting points

  • New Yorker

    Six months seems like more than enough time to learn to do the job properly. If they are incapable or unwilling, you need new people. You may also need new elections to let the people register their opinion on the performance after more than half a year. At this rate, you’ll be begging for a return to direct rule ministers.

  • Comrade Stalin

    In my opinion the Executive can probably get away in their first year of government with continuing the agenda of the direct rule ministers, this reminds me of how the Blair government between 1997-1999ish stuck to the Conservative spending plan and framed most of their government activity around that. However, things are going to have to change quickly, and we are making no apparent progress on the “work-in” that the DUP and Sinn Fein promised back in May.

    On the subject of an opposition, I think it would be great if the UUP and SDLP withdrew in order to join the United Community group and form a de-facto opposition. The SDLP have been performing reasonably well in raising difficult questions and dealing with difficult matters; the UUP are clearly not happy at getting scraps off the table. If this happened I would expect that Alliance would refuse the executive seat, so they would be redistributed between the DUP and SF. Alliance have been performing very effectively given their size but things would be even more interesting with a fuller opposition. That said, the thought of siding with eejits like McNarry doesn’t fill me with much excitement.

    New Yorker : trust me, despite the cynicism here, we don’t want to go back to direct rule, and what we’ve got right now marks an improvement (if not a particularly compelling one). The biggest obstacle to progress is the civil service who have been used to running the country by themselves. I’d like to see the Assembly getting it’s own staff, and new staff recruited to support the Ministers rather than the existing civil servants. The UDA funding affair left the clear impression that the Assembly and the Executive are regarded as little more than procedural hurdles by senior civil servants.

  • fair_deal

    I have a general concern that the performance of a government is directly related to the increase in legislation it proposes and passes.

    David Ford

    “Ministers have been in post for six months”

    1. It is a multi-party enforced coalition. It is not a system designed for speed. Although Alliance (along with the DUP) did have the sense to recognise the need to change this in the recent negotiations.
    2. They only had confirmed what monies they had two months ago. Should they have been producing lots of legislation and worrying about paying for it later?
    3. You are undoubtedly aware of the consultation processes in policy and legislative development that are generally required and the additional requirements in Northern Ireland. This means it is far from easy to do something speedily (never mind if the processes actually achieve what they say they do).
    Even if the Executive had started with an agreed legislative programme on the 8th May they would have not been in a position to bring much of it forward today as the processes and assessments would have been ongoing.
    To try and blame it on ministers is disingeuous. If the past Executive is anything to go by some are probably prisoners of their civil servants but an effective opposition goes beyond the personal. Your former colleague Seamus Close was a strong critic of these processes (and their usefulness) perhaps he could offer some ideas for reforming them.

  • DC

    “To try and blame it on ministers is disingeuous”

    Aye FD all you say above could be applied to any certain outcome, while it may be disingenuous the fact remains nothing innovative has happened.

    And that’s about it really. In contrast to the six months, the reality is the DUP have had years to think up some ideas. At the recent North-South and BIC nothing was mentioned, they haven’t much idea what they want and have failed to get down to the brass tacks associated with party and party policy.

    Just what does the DUP want?

    And this little gem:

    “If the past Executive is anything to go by some are probably prisoners of their civil servants”

    Given the recent DUP performances I doubt that very much.

  • fair_deal

    DC

    “the fact remains nothing innovative has happened.”

    1. And the fact remains we have a series of limitations of ministerial power and processes that actively negate against speed and innovation
    2. My comments weren’t restricted to DUP ministers.
    3. The first NSMC and BIC meetings were largely for show.
    4. The core problem with this line of criticism is it is simply too soon. In 18-24 months if significant things haven’t appeared then it will be valid.

    As an outsider looking in, the DUP Policy Unit seems to have been deeply involved in elections and negotiations so beyond broad brush approaches to government of economy focused, smaller government plus the likes of academic selection, I would share your opinion that not enough detailed policy work seems to have been done.

    Time will tell if the policy unit successfully adapts to the new situation.

  • DC

    Brass tacks FD, brass tacks let’s get down to them…

    Taxis, c’mon
    Charity Reform, c’mon.

    Please.

    They DUP have had years being on the side line what can they do, is this what its all about: Getting it Right?

    Sorry but taking all of the above into consideration, and referencing Alex Kane, not much political punch in Northern Ireland, especially by those who seem so keen to see it succeed.

  • fair_deal

    DC

    The way policy and legislation is developed and the system of governance are brass tacks. A multi-billion budget is brass tacks. As I said come back after 18-24 months.

    As an aside I think the charity law stuff actually is important and well overdue (although it will never be a topic to set the public imagination alight).

  • DC

    Ok, well is it possible to get back those salaries from are ministers who are clearly delivering Direct Rule ministers agendas.

    That’s some pay day there up in Stormont, up in that grand setting on the hill with grand salaries to boot.

    Perhaps Robinson should suck up some of his own effeciency ideas and get a pre-fab knocked up on a brownfield instead for ‘legislative’ use and shut ineffecient Stormont down for that purpose, because the grand setting doesn’t match what’s being offered.

    Well 24 months it is then, great value for money.

  • Hogan

    We often hear the SF/DUP axis crowing about the impudence of the SDLP and the UUP ministers not being fully committed to the executive. There is no moral compulsion on them to be so.

    Yes there may be a legal compulsion but that is because the Shinners and the duppers shat themselves at St Andrews at the prospect of the middle ground parties sniping at them leaving their loveless marriage horribly exposed.

    They negotiated a strangle-hold executive oath to give them a club to make others tow the line.

    Ritchie, Reg and McGimpsey are committed to their departments and thus fulfill their public duty to the people of the North.

    You might ask how can this be so if they do not pull together with the other executive ministers?

    Well they were given a masterclass between 99-03 by Robinson, Dodds, Campbell, Morrow and anyone else the DUP decided needed their day in the sun.

    Sauce for the goose…..