Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth is a military tactic which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while withdrawing from an area. The current tactics of both Catriona Ruane and Edwin Poots have certain similarities.
Ruane is unable to truly realise her vision of ending academic selection and as such, having ensured the destruction of the 11 plus itself, seems intent on placing as many road blocks in front of the grammar schools and any others who still wish to retain academic selection. Of course she proclaims that she is about to produce concrete proposals but apart from a rather vague set of suggestions about transfer at age 14 we have seen little. As I have suggested previously it is not necessarily Ruane’s job to do this alone but it is her job to instruct civil servants to draw up plans. If she were doing this she could easily show us parts of this work in progress to demonstrate that she does indeed have a plan. Her failure to do so does seem to imply that if she cannot properly end academic selection she will simply create chaos both by incompetent inaction and indeed incompetent action. Essentially an educational scorched earth policy. I see that the UUP are trying to remove Ruane’s power to decide on post primary education. This is an interesting suggestion but I am most suspicious that the mutual veto will scupper such a plan.

Moving on to our next scorched earther: Poots. In his case I am yet again brought back to Hamlet. When Hamlet says “To be, or not to be, that is the question” some suggest that he is proposing suicide by doing nothing. Or to change to another analogy Poots seems a little like a latter day Diogenes making a virtue of sitting in Stormont doing nothing regarding the Irish language, the Maze etc. Of course unlike Diogenes, Poots does not live in a tub, seems disinclined to wander about with a lamp in broad daylight and does not do too many mad things in public though Pete Baker might disagree on that last one.

The problem of course is that Poots has been put in the Department of Culture to do precisely nothing: nothing about the Irish language and nothing about the stadium. If he wanted the Maze he would have to have the shrine or SF would veto the whole idea. The other possible venues are also very likely to be vetoed. I suppose the DUP’s worry was that if SF had had culture they might have pushed the Irish language via ministerial guidance, hence, by passing the veto. As such Poots has to sit doing nothing about these issues and getting frequent abuse for his trouble.

These two ministers demonstrate in stark relief the abject idiocy of our mechanism of government. Due to the mutual veto any controversial constructive action can be vetoed. (By constructive here I merely mean an active change introducing something new.) What cannot be vetoed is a destructive or negative controversial action. Hence, whilst Ruane can end the 11 plus she cannot produce anything new (even if she were personally capable of such a thing). Poots can stop the Maze or the ILA but cannot produce anything positive lest it be vetoed.

In his recent speech to QUB Democratic Unionist Association Robinson claimed that “…it is the Executive which is in charge not disparate ministers acting to their own narrow party political agenda.” He is of course half correct. Individual ministers cannot start new projects and proposals without executive approval. They can, however, as Ruane (and previously Ritchie) have shown stop things without executive approval.

So as long as the DUP is prepared to stop things and prevent things then they may be relatively content. However, if they do have positive ideas regarding the future they will only be able to enact them with the help of SF. That help will of course come at a very considerable price. Robinson knows full well that his own party’s political agenda is just as impossible to advance without SF’s help as SF’s is without his help. This then is one of the fundamental problems of the current system of government. Unlike most coalitions we do not have true cabinet government, and the parties are so divergent in their aims that expecting this to be “one of the most governments anywhere” is just silly.

I know that the DUP have previously intimated that they would like to see the situation changed and these issues addressed; I am inclined to believe them. Again, however, due to the nature of the veto and the mandatory coalition, I do not think this is possible.