Perhaps what Northern Ireland politics needs is a few more alternatives and less Almighty’s

Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative

Pierre Trudeau

Are we unrealistic about our politicians and the criteria that we use to judge them?

You just have to listen to the Nolan Show or Talkback to hear plenty of criticism directed at our political leaders.  Hell on this website we give our fair share of criticism of politicians. However, recently anytime I hear the chorus of sustained criticism directed towards MLAs and their performance I am reminded of the above quote from the former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau when he faced sustained criticism for his leadership.

What Trudeau meant in his famous throw away line was that when his supporters became disappointed they should have both more realistic expectations and should always remember that whilst he may disappoint, they should always look at who is sitting on the other side of the fence.

Maybe this is what’s missing from politics in Northern Ireland? We have effectively weak alternatives and in many respects the real politics goes on within the parties. As we are seeing due to the weakness in the Labour party, most of the political focus is likely to shift towards the internal dynamics of the Conservative party as they debate Europe and a post-Cameron future. Which at the moment is substantively the only show in town that matters as Labour/Liberal Democrats luxuriate between irrelevance and introspection.

Closer to home we have a similar issues as the DUP (albeit to a lesser extent in recent months) dominates Unionism and Sinn Fein continues to dominate Nationalism. The problem is that in these two parties in many sections of the membership the leader may as well be regarded as the Almighty as they evoke a great degree of loyalty from their party base.

We do need strong leaders, we have seen the result of weakness in the past, but we also need to have parties with internal political dynamics that encourages debate and challenges of the leadership where they stray too far from the party platform or into any ethical quandaries.

Likewise, we need to have alternatives to keep parties on their toes and keep the base motivated to continue seeking new ways to engage with the public.

In conclusion, perhaps what Northern Ireland politics needs is a few more alternatives and less Almighty’s

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  • whatif1984true

    The question “What would make you change who you vote for?” intrigues me. Too often I reckon that allows the person questioned to be credited with having thought in depth exactly why they vote for a particular party. Too many would reply “its obvious isn’t it”. Which is of course not even close to an answer.

  • Kevin Breslin

    David, the problem with wanting our electorate to avoid deifing politicians is the desire that the electorate is infallible too. If we acknowledge the hubris of the electorate, the hubris of the political class is simply relative to that.
    Our electorate is not stupid but that doesn’t mean their judgement is as critical and as fair as to provide the politics that they want.

  • Ian James Parsley

    There are loads of alternatives.

    UKIP and Conservatives; Greens, Workers, various Socialists; NI21; an array of Independents. Countless others have come and gone over the years.

    Yet we’ve had the same basic five parties since the Hunger Strikes. But we’ve had alternatives.

  • Sharpie

    Show me a politician who will say: “I don’t know the right answers, but give me time and I will ensure that the right people have the debate in the right way, and I will act only after I have the right information”. This is a reasonable expectation from me yet I can only think of Latin American, Swiss, and Scandinavian politics trying this.

    Issues are complex, the world is, yet the media still exhort our leaders to be heroic, to be “strong”, and to have the answers, and for some crazy reason many people go along with this, despite every instinct telling them it is impossible, dangerous, and sometimes insane.

  • Granni Trixie

    At th very least i expect politicians to be honest, I would therefore change who I voted for if There was evidence they were involved in systemic, dodgy moneymaking schemes and selling supporters a load of you know what.

  • David Elliott

    I think the question posed is ‘What are our expectations for
    our political leaders?’ I have a great deal of sympathy for many of them. To be
    a Minister means that you lead a department, you have to engage with your
    political party, and you have to engage with your constituents. This is really
    three full time roles. It is very difficult for one person to carry these three
    roles out. Often these people are thrust into a management role. They often
    have no or little experience managing any size of organisation. They are often
    overwhelmed by information / demands from the department from their political party and from their constituents. Often these engagements provide conflicting points of view which the Minister has to attempt to reconcile. Often these people have issues at home (as well all do), and are under enormous pressure.

    Of course, as MLA’s they are looking over their shoulder to
    the next election which is only a few years away. As Ministers or Committee
    chairs they are looking over their shoulder at the party, who has the power to
    re-allocate these positions as they see fit.

    Many of our MLAs reflect our educational system, some of
    whom have literacy and numeracy challenges, and while many have come the
    councillor route through the party they can be articulate without being analytic
    in their information management.

    Due to the orange / green, to and fro, robust politicking,
    many business people, or senior managers have avoided the political route.

    We need a new generation of politicians. I think Conal
    McDevitt reflected a potential new approach. Unfortunately he has gone.

  • Nevin

    “To be a Minister means that you lead a department”

    David, you might like to reflect on this assertion after you’ve read this blog I compiled three years ago: ‘Northern Ireland Governance – The Belfast Deficit’.

    So why don’t Ministers at Stormont chair their Departmental Boards? Why aren’t they implementing the good practice outlined in the guidance prepared by HM Treasury? Would the quality of governance be improved if Ministers, senior civil servants and independent members sat around the same table when key decisions are taken?

    Corrections/suggestions appreciated.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    The rest of the UK regional ministers seem to cope and how do they, the MLAs, “reflect our educational system” which we are oft told is the best performing in the UK. The simple fact is that we don’t run governments in this place, we play factional politics. Many of the ministerial MLAs are, frankly, incompetent and would never “pass an interview” for the ministerial job, so we need to understand from the respective parties why they keep nominating these “clampets”. Actually showing up to do their jobs would, of course, be a start!

    Sympathy for MLAs will be in short supply on this board/region.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I don’t think anyone is asking for Gods, but some sort / any sort of “credible” alternative to the current sitcom would be a “blessing”

  • David Elliott

    Hi Niall – thanks for the comment. There are Northern Ireland
    Departmental Boards with Non-Executive Board Members already established within each Department. My understanding is that they provide the same service as broadly outlined in the Treasury document. I think the key phrase for the role of the Board in the Treasury document is this, with emphasis mine.

    “Boards are advisory in the sense that they will provide advice to the department on issues within their remit, such as strategy and the deliverability of policies.
    They are supervisory in the sense that they scrutinise reporting from the department on performance, and challenge the department on how well it is achieving its objectives.
    Policy will be decided by Ministers alone, with advice from officials. Boards will give advice and support on the operational implications and effectiveness of policy proposals, focusing on getting policy
    translated into results.”

    The role of all Departmental Boards is advisory, to scrutinise and to support. However, and here is the real nub of the issue, “Policy will be decided by Ministers alone”.
    So my understanding is that the Northern Ireland Departmental Boards closely reflect the Corporate Treasury Guidance.

    I think your argument is that if the Board had executive powers then it would lead to better decision making. However, this would entail
    a conflict of interest, as one cannot have an executive function and
    simultaneously an audit/scrutiny function within the same Board.

    Our system also enables the Committees as a scrutiny
    function as well. So while there is an internal departmental Board, there is also a public Committee with additional powers of accountability. Hope this helps 🙂

  • David Elliott

    Hi Sergiogiorgio – thanks for the comment. I don’t wish to sound like an apologist for the Ministers that we currently have, although I am responding to the comment “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative”. Frankly I have found most Ministers to be conscientious, hard working and eager to get to grips with the challenges facing their Department.
    Usually they are initially quite perturbed by all the actions they cannot take. There are constraints such as legal determinations, common law, contractual obligations etc etc. which sets limits on what is possible within a Ministerial term – usually about 2 to 3 years. So they are learning, and usually try their best.

    In terms of UK Ministers – the challenges are broadly the same. As Secretaries of State they deal with UK wide issues, as constituency MPs they deal with local issues, and as Party members they have to contend with the party machinery. Same challenges. Many have been
    back benchers, or Under Secretaries, and mostly senior members of the Party. They have learnt their trade through often long political ‘apprentices’. I think our Ministers are learning through experience. Remember when they were a Minister and an MP, two days in Westminster and two days in the Assembly withone Constituency day. Very difficult to maintain.

    However, apart from a coalition Government with the Lib Dems (a very rare occurrence) most UK Governments proceed with their own agenda throughout their term in Office (assuming they have a majority). Not so here in Northern Ireland. We have a
    mandatory coalition which necessitates constant negotiation. This is tiring, frustrating, time consuming, and thought by most to be necessary, in order to balance the two sections of our society. So I agree, works in Westminster, and with time the Ministerial balancing act of Department, Constituency, and Party will work here too, mandatory coalition notwithstanding.

    Finally, in terms of education, I describe our system as follows. When we are good, we are very, very good, and when we are bad we are awful. Our society generally accepts that our education system at the top end is very, very good. It is. However, OECD reports show that around 20% of children leaving school at 16 cannot read, write or count. The Purvis report in particular shone an unfavourable light on working class, protestant 16 year old boys. A further report compared this group to London, and reported that working class, protestant 16 year old boys performed worse in reading, writing and counting than equivalent boys of Pakistani ethnicity in London. When we are good, we are very, very good, and when we are bad we are awful.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Al fair points David, but refer also to my comment below. And just for emphasis, actually turning up to do one’s job would seem a positive….

  • Nevin

    Thanks for the clarification, David, ‘decisions’ was obviously the wrong word for me to have used. However, whatever the roles of Departmental Boards, ministers, senior civil servants and independent directors are supposed to be sat around the same table with exchanges being chaired by the ministers. Such best practice isn’t being followed by our Departmental Boards.

  • Stravage

    Unfortunately they have all offered shades of the same model, or rewrites, script revisions, etc. The weakest link in a democracy is without doubt the electorate. One must lie to them, offer what can never be achieved, and scare the shite out of them, just to hold their interest. Now then, free Tea & Bickkies