Reducing the number of departments by one and missing the opportunity to meet manifesto commitments

Peter Robinson told me at the end of March that:

I have a well worn copy of the manifesto because I keep it in front of me and I keep looking to see what else we have to do and we have to accomplish.

Like many other local party leaders, this week’s settlement on the number of departments and method of selection of the Justice minster won’t require any pencil ticks to be made on the pages of Peter Robinson’s manifesto.


From the outside, it appears that Sinn Fein won the day, controlling the eventual “settlement”, allowing one non-SF department to be dropped, and splitting its responsibilities between two departments controlled by SF and the DUP.


It’s worth looking back at the process that led to this week’s veto settlement.

Shortly after the May 2011, the Assembly and Executive Review Committee set out to Review of the Initial Ministerial Provision in relation to the Department of Justice and the arrangements from 1 May 2012.

This committee is chaired by the DUP’s Stephen Moutray, deputy chair Sinn Fein’s Pat Sheehan, and its wider membership includes representatives from the Alliance, DUP, SDLP, Sinn Fein and UUP.

The review committee worked through a set of options and sought submissions from all Stormont parties, the independent MLA, OFMdFM, The Department of Justice and the committees that scrutinise OFMdFM and DoJ.

The committee’s report concluded that “there was no broad concensus on any of the options” and agreed to “draft a Report that outlines all the different opinions, summarises the consultation outcome in terms of who endorsed which options and why, and any other comments”.

The report also noted that “a number of stakeholder responses (DUP, Green Party, SDLP and UUP) raised the issue that the Review of arrangements in relation to the Department of Justice provides an opportunity to simultaneously review and reduce the number of Government departments in Northern Ireland.”

The report which includes the minutes of the committee’s discussions, Assembly, a paper from the Assembly’s Research and Information Service and the stakeholder responses is worth a read.


This week’s multi-party talks took the issue outside the committee, outside minuted discussions, and into the world of media speculation and closed door negotiations between just those parties represented on the Executive.

The conclusions of the multi-party have been discussed elsewhere, but can be summarised as:

  • The five parties did not agree, but the Sinn Fein and DUP’s agreement is enough to bring the changes through the Assembly.
  • Justice Minister should continue to be elected by a cross-community vote (which is unlikely to elect anyone other than David Ford as justice minister).
  • Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) is dropped, with its functions split between Education and Trade & Investment.
  • Alliance are not happy.

With differing viewpoints and little room for manoeuvre in terms of side deals, the only realistic conclusion was going to be where Sinn Fein and the DUP could agree to as the two largest parties. And the Sinn Fein position was much tighter and less favourable to change than the DUP.


If you look back to party manifestos from the May 2011 elections, you’ll discover that the agreement on the way forward falls far short of many of the documents presented to the electorate. In fact, Sinn Fein are possibly the only party of the five who took part in the multi-party talks not to have fallen short of their manifesto commitments on the size of the reduction in the number of the departments.

The Alliance Party 2011 manifesto sought “an Executive formed through negotiation, that operates to an agreed Programme”. They wanted to:

Reduce Government Departments from 12 to 8

The DUP 2011 Manifesto made its position clear too.


We propose that the number of Departments should be reduced to 6-8 and propose the following structure.

This week’s agreement was for 11 (including OFMdFM). They went to say:

  • OFMdFM would be reconstituted as the Executive Office with its concentration on dealing with Executive business and including responsibility for many of the central or cross-Governmental functions.
  • In addition there would be seven ordinary Departments.
  • A Department of the Economy and Business with responsibility for all economic issues including skills, sport and culture.
  • A Department for Education with responsibility for young people, schools and higher education.
  • A Department of Health and Social Services.
  • A Department for Regional Development with responsibility for roads, water, transport as well as planning and urban regeneration.
  • A Department of Justice
  • A Department of Communities and Social Welfare with responsibility for Local Government, Housing, Land and Property Services and the Social Security Agency.
  • And a Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development which would also have responsibility for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

Were the DUP brave enough to suggest eliminating DCAL as a standalone ministry during the multi-party discussions?

The Manifesto from the Green Party [via CAIN] – not involved in the multi-party talks – wanted nine departments:

Reducing the number of government departments to nine; Health, Education (including current functions of Dept for Employment and Learning), DETI, Agriculture, DoE (including Regional Development and Rural Development), DCAL, DSD, Justice and Finance and Personnel.

Furthermore, the Green Party favour “selecting the Justice Minister in the same manner as all other Ministers”. That manner would be:

Electing ministers by PR-STV by assembly members. Elected ministers choose portfolio in order of ranking.

In May 2011, several sections of the SDLP manifesto suggested:

Serious consideration should be given to bringing together the government departments currently responsible for matters relating to our environment into a single Energy and Sustainability Department.

CENTRAL GOVERNMENT REFORM  The cost-saving arguments for rationalising government are well made. We have consistently argued that the debate is about more than reducing the number of departments – although we are ready to enter serious all-party negotiations on this.

We need to consider shared services and shared support across government, or between groups of departments, in order to rationalise the system and reduce costs. The various departments – whether at the present number or a reduced number – should not have separate establishments for policy, financial management and personnel matters.

AMBITION FOR REFORM OFMDFM has the competence to propose a redistribution of the functions of departments, including a reduction in their number, and yet has failed thus far to do anything about

  • reducing the number of Stormont departments and ministers, to better meet the major social and economic challenges facing people here. Today, there are 11 departments plus OFMDFM, something of a departure from the Agreement’s provision of up to 10 departments plus OFMDFM
  • creating a single Economy Department, as recommended by the Independent Review of Economic Policy group
  • Similarly, a new Department of Energy and Sustainability, a new Department for Learning, and a new Communities, Housing and Local Government Department – taking on board various elements of existing departments – all deserve further Consideration

Sinn Féin didn’t comment on the number of departments in their 2011 manifesto.

Similarly, the TUV didn’t comment on the number of departments in their manifesto.

The UUP’s 2011 Manifesto made no specific mention of the number of Executive departments or the number of MLAs. However, in his autumn 2011 conference leader’s speech, Tom Elliott said:

Now that the review of the Justice Minister appointment process is fast approaching – it is due in May 2012 – there is a perfect opportunity to streamline and develop a more efficient Northern Ireland government.

All parties have said they want to reduce the level of government structures at Stormont – Now is your chance!

With this ongoing review we have time to reduce the current number of government departments from 12 to at least 8, which would be a reduction of 1/3. I now challenge others to follow the lead of the Ulster Unionist Party – Lets cut the burden on our tax payers, make ourselves more efficient and give the public value for their money.

But let me make this very clear: if we don’t do this together then we will convince no-one.

Yet the UUP statement after the multi-party talks (which they call “All Party Talks” – ignoring the absence of the Green Party and the TUV) does not voice any regret that the number of ministries was only reduced by one, but just says that this is the “first step”.

The UUP has always advocated fewer Departments at Stormont and we believe this agreement is the first step in achieving that goal.


Multi-party discussions didn’t seem to address the other size of government issue: the number of MLAs. Fewer departments mean fewer committees, and that sits well with fewer MLAs (filling those committee positions). For the record:

Alliance wanted to “reduce the number of MLAs to 80”.

The DUP 2011 manifesto says: “We propose that the number of MLAs should be reduced to 4 or 5 per constituency and a maximum of 80 from the 2015 Assembly election.”

The Green Party manifesto recommended:

Reducing the number of MLAs to five per constituency elected by the Additional Member System with 4 MLAs elected by STV on a constituency basis and the remainder from a regional “top-up” list. Any party receiving more than 2% of the regional vote would qualify for regional members to be allocated to achieve proportionality. The Assembly would have 80 MLAs in total.

The SDLP manifesto advocated “cutting the number of MLAs from 108 to 96 by the time of the next election, with a further reduction negotiable after 2015” (taking into account “what we expect will be the consequence of legislative changes in Westminster to have fewer MPs elected from fewer constituencies”).

Sinn Féin didn’t comment on the number of departments in their 2011 manifesto.

The UUP didn’t comment on the number of MLAs in their manifesto.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.