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?

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  • Of course in NI we are often puzzled about what exactly a democracy is, or what it takes to maintain, but so long as most people still like the ballot box then ‘unelected’ ministers are out of the question. Ms O’Donnell’s article is a bit flippant; she cites signs of the current economic crisis in Belfast as being in some way different from any other city on these islands as evidence that NI Ministers just cant cope. Intead of this halfbaked scheme on how to usurp the electorate maybe Ms O’Donnell and Mr Desmond (and for that matter NI Politicians) should consider simply doing the job they have been elected to do? To my knowledge no NI Politician has ever failed his job by fulfilling election promises or carrying out his functions as the electorate can reasonably expect; come to think of it I don’t ever recall any NI Politician having done that before?

  • slappymcgroundout

    She seems to suggest that these unelected ministers make policy. If so, the base objection is that the proposal is simply anti-democratic in the extreme. You all already have a problem with separation of powers, so I don’t know why you’d want to make a bad circumstance worse.

  • granni trixie

    Seems to me that as well as knowledge and ideas for addressing problems such as budget short falls,our MLAs need more know-how as regards how to communicate with each other and negotiate.
    Education and health are I think prime examples of where Ministers lost leverage with collegues through not engaging appropriately,leading to unconstructive relationships.They seem to have a script based on the past eg turning to journalists/the public to air concerns before exploiting all avenues for discussion leading to consensus.
    They need a new script.

  • “Business and other expertise should certainly have a more prominent role”

    It comes with a downside, Brian. What about the separation of Business and State? Do we have any lessons to learn from Ireland?

    We’ve seen how some of the relationships between politicians and businessmen have worked out in the development sphere; parts of the planning process appear to be rotten to the core.

    We also have the relatively unexamined Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust; its sister organisation in Scotland, Scottish Parliament Business Exchange, has faced severe criticism. There could be a conflict of interest if any of the businesses are involved in public funded/subsidised procurement projects, especially those where the procurement process is below standard.