Have the Assembly got the guts to face up to recession?

How will the Assembly parties deal with the recession? They’re in a new type of dilemma that goes with devolution. If they start a blame game with the UK government as Nigel Dodds seems to be suggesting, they’ll look impotent to their own voters. If they take the tough decisions within their own range of powers, they risk unpopularity. Political reform would be a good start but have they really the stomach for it? it’s a great idea to cut the size of the overblown political institutions. But why limit cuts to the size of the Executive? Why not take an axe to the tally of 108 MLAs, which compares with 78 for the 1973 and 1982 Assemblies and a mere 52 for the old parliament? The trouble is that cuts like these are about much more than efficiency, as Nigel Dodds well knows. They’re toxic political matters and relate to the balance of parties in the Executive and so to the stability of the whole fledgling system of government.
Adds. Alliance party calculations on the impact of a 72 seat Assembly on the party share out of seats in government, illustrates the problem, as reported by Mark Devenport. The DUP and Sinn Fein are rightly or wrongly suspected of making a power grab with the proposal to reduce the number of departments at the smaller parties’ expense. Cross community agreement will therefore be hard to reach. A sensible trade-off would be to entrench cabinet collective responsibility much more firmly rather than trying to concentrate power in the OFMDFM, like the moves to deal with headline grabbing emergencies in Financial Assistance Act 2009. A good example could be set by offering to cut the size of the massive OFDFM. But the trend unfortunately seems to have been the other way. The SDLP’s £400 million savings plan could be practical starting point. But who wants to jump first? Sadly – very sadly indeed – it is probably too much to hope for that the Assembly as we know it will tackle to additional costs of sectarian division, whether you fully accept Deloitte’s cost of £!.5 billion a year or not. A point of departure here would be to tackle the future of secondary schools provision, currently in deadlock as far as the eye can see over academic selection. My fear is that the Assembly parties will want to ride out recession without political risk to themselves. And the chances of exploiting the financial crisis to go for radical reform like integrating education are round about nil.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London