In defence of politicians – without overdoing it

Frances McDonnell in the Irish Times rightly points out the limitations of Northern Ireland ministers and their political interest in trying to shied voters from some of the effects of recession. She suggests that NI adopt southern multimillionaire businessman Dermot Desmond’s idea of recruiting outside experts to become ministers. The fallacy in this idea is that all ministers have to do it to find the Big Right Answer to some thorny problem and put it dynamically into action. But that’s seldom the case. What politicians have to do is to square circles and steer a course through often conflicting demands and pressures. For that job, experience of democratic accountability, despite all its coat trailing and posturing, is essential.

Business and other expertise should certainly have a more prominent role and business folk should become far more plain speaking. NI business is far too narrowly focused and timorous. I guess they’d run a mile from Desmond’s idea anyway.

Northern Ireland’s talent base and expertise are spread too thinly. Think tankery and consultancy beyond the management and accountancy giants is almost unknown and should be extended. New ideas are desperately needed. Business plans for government departments can help clear thinking and transparency. But a bottom line business approach is seldom right for the even more complex business of government. The UK experience of ministers outside parliament is to say the least, patchy. And when you look at it, how many business people have fared much better in their own fields?

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