The pressing need for ‘power to speak unto the people’…

So that letter finally gets to make an impact now the columnist have gotten hold of it… Brian Feeney is probably most direct and accute in his answer to our question: “A legitimate complaint, or case of bullying from the top?” Accroding to him, it was neither. Rather it was weakness:

The Belfast Telegraph’s sin was to point out that the executive has failed to address the precipitous drop in sales and output here and the corresponding ascent in unemployment. Martina Purdy’s sin was to ask for an explanation for the same gaping hole in the bucket. In both cases the response from the Office of First and Deputy First Minister was to forget that they are elected to serve the public and that the public require answers.

Machiavelli is worth referencing in this context. His advice to rulers and political leaders was to make your position as contestable as possible. That way it keeps you strong, and your political institutions strong. As Fionnuala O’Connor noted in her slot on Hearts and Minds last night, neither party leader is accustomed to an internal culture of contestability. But if politicians are to really engage with the public, and importantly in this post troubles era, remain relevant to ordinary people, they must make themselves more rather than less available to media interrogation: whether it be hostile or friendly…

Otherwise the air of unreality that glowers around Stormont, whilst the rest of the island and the kingdom burns is chewing up the credibility… Silence is not an option. Feeney again:

Today the taoiseach is going to announce another round of savings, in his case ‘in government’. He’s going to reduce the number of junior ministers by five and instantly save a few million euro. He has already announced changes to pensions for ex-ministers who are TDs and reductions in expenses. Here, the good times roll. What we need here, and soon, is a rallying statement describing the financial circumstances of the north and explaining in terms what’s going to be done.

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  • Brian Walker

    Mick, I take the old fashioned view that the parties are shooting the messenger. Coalition government marks one sea change in political and media strategies and the recession marks another. They now have a modicum of responsibility and it feels mighty uncomfortable. Naturally, they’re in a funk about what to do about the recession. After years of smootching up to the media and becoming vastly more professional in their media handling, old bullying characteristics are breaking out under pressure. As I argue below, the parties are facing a whole new era of political choice. What are Unionists, Republicans FOR any more other than to harvest votes? In a coalition government hedged about with strict rules of governance, sectarian victories will be much harder to win. So frustration breaks out, revealing internal confusion. At the risk of sounding pious, they could try honesty and good government.

  • Danny O’Connor

    What is needed is a comprehensive review of how the assembly spends it’s block grant,and what it is spent on.Which projects can be initiated to stimulate the economy,which can be put on the long finger.
    What is required, is that the executive,start behaving like a government ,the clue is in the word executive.
    Up until now ministers have been overseeing their own departments and fighting their own corner,it is now time to govern collectively in the best interest of all the people of Northern Ireland.

  • fin

    I’t’ll be interesting to see how this plays out while times are bad and budgets tight. SF need to continue win votes as does the DUP and every other party. Howeverwhile the DUP and unionists need to most definitely make NI and the union work SF don’t. Been pragmatic the worse living conditions become in NI the easier the sell for a UI.

  • Brian Walker

    Danny,
    You raise a very interesting point about the future of devolution. The split responsibility for taxation ( UK) and spending (mostly the devolved Executive) is in the longer term unsatisfactory but the locals will be only too relieved to pin most of the blame for spending cuts on Westminster and Whitehall. The depth of the recession will change some of the rules of the political game in ways that have yet to clarify but Scotland under the SNP at least will probably still agitate for wider financial powers.

    My own Constitution Unit has published the following analysis by my Edinburgh colleague Alan Trench in a recent book, “Britain’s Constitution to 2020”. http://ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/files/media/press-releases/2008/13-11-08_ConstitutionalFuturesRevisited_ScotlandWales.pdf
    This one will run and run..

    Extract:

    “Tax raising powers for the devolved governments. These are essential for the United Kingdom to function properly as the decentralised state it has become as a result of devolution…. The financing system underpinned by the Barnett formula (is) unsustainable… A new system will need both to satisfy political demands for fiscal and political autonomy in Scotland, Wales and
    Northern Ireland, and the needs of equity across the whole of the UK. However, reform will depend on the positions of both the UK and devolved governments, and be more difficult during an economic turn down.”

    You could say that! Whether those demands will quiet down or ramp up under the twin pressures of spending cuts and a Conservative government remains to be seen.

  • Fin, I don’t know that that follows. A UI would only be attractive (on these grounds) if the Republic was doing better than the UK. And the opposite is the case.

    Also – and Northerners are spectacularly blind about this in my experience – a UI would require a referendum in two jurisdictions. Taking on an expensive Northern Ireland would surely look less and less attractive to taxpayers down South as their own economic woes bite. Why would worse living conditions in NI make a UI easier to sell in the Republic?

  • “they could try honesty and good government.”

    Have these ever been tried, Brian?

    Some friends and I have been looking at the Rathlin ferry saga for almost a year now and we’ve been mightily unimpressed by the behaviour of Ministers, MLAs, departmental committees, UK and RoI civil servants and the MSM.

    EU officials are currently processing a complaint under the one year old pilot fast track procedure, some MLAs have had a private briefing by civil servants yet the MSM has said absolutely nothing. As for the EU commission Belfast office, a senior official there was unable to distinguish between Rathlin and Magilligan-Greencastle 🙂

    Those of you with an eye to detail will note that Rathlin Island Ferry Limited, the company established to operate the Ballycastle-Rathlin ferry service, doesn’t appear on the insurance certificate for the troubled passenger-only ferry, the St Sorney. Apparently the vessel is on charter to RIFL but the paperwork was not updated at the time or during the many months that followed even though the vessel has been subjected to a series of inspections by UK and RoI officials.