So, if Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood had their days in the sun over the previous two weeks, yesterday was the government parties’ turn. Alan has already covered some of the (in my view, necessary) acts of generosity between the two parties.
As I argued with Gerry Kelly during the back end of Radio Ulster’s election coverage two parties in coalition is infinitely easier to manage than five (methinks Gerry protested too much at the time).
In Health Sinn Fein will take back a big spending ministry, but I expect only on the basis of the FM’s £1B cover in order to to preserve current spending rates. Ms O’Neill (the first SF Minister to serve twice) will find Health more of a battleground than Agriculture ever was.
Paul Givan is not a popular choice amongst nationalists or liberals. But the DUP have an internal coalition to maintain and the traditionalists have to be given their red meat. Lagan Valley, once the preserve of the UUP, needs internal recognition too.
That it was picked up so late – with the contentious areas of Culture and Housing – may or may not indicate this was a pre-negotiated process. The architects will hope that means some ministers will not be too individually enterprising.
In abandoning both culture and education, where has Sinn Fein left the Irish Language project?
The appointment of Mairtin O Muilleoir as Finance Minister is public compensation for their continuing agreement/acquiesence to outsource Justice. He will be sheilded from the internal criticism Sean Farren and Mark Durkan took in the pre 2002 Executive by colleagues.
Peter Robinson made good use of the role in 2007/8 in order to shape the first budgetting rounds, and the party’s dominance of the Executives ever since owes much to retaining that role. But unlike the Treasury, Finance is no primus inter pares.
But Mairtin himself will be good for the optics, particularly in the south where (despite Pearse Doherty’s noble efforts) ‘Sinn Fein economics’ has become a byword for illiteracy.
Will he try to ‘own’ corporation tax as a step to a UI? Or fight it as it slices into increasingly scarce existing budgets? His ‘baptism of fire’ begins at the June Monitoring round when he “will be faced with some difficult decisions in relation to the allocation of resources”.
His DUP twin at Economy, Simon Hamilton, could have been groomed for the job. He’ll be glad to get out of Health where he talked a good game but which has neither the capital resources nor the public sympathy to effect the serious reforms like Donaldson.
As Rick Wilford pointed out on Talkback a few days ago, this of all the Ministerial briefs does have space for some serious policy innovation, with Invest NI having resources and money to disburse to reflate a constricted private sector economy.
A game of positive tag with O’Muilleoir at Finance could bring both men and their parties some serious rewards after a long period of toy-town government. It’s not, despite appearances heretofore to the contrary, rocket science.
That’s one to watch out for by the way, rather than a confident prediction.
The appointment of Chris Hassard to Infrastructure comes as Gerry Adams is talking up the Narrow Water Bridge (originally SDLP sponsored) project in the Dail. Good to see joined up action; we’ll wait and see if it comes to anything other than PR.
Sinn Fein’s ambitions here (they held DRD for four years) have been thwarted because of the poor state of North-South relations, and the southern economic crash. Unionists have backed both the A5 and the bridge: the lack of southern cash has stymied them.
Peter Weir at Education is a sign the DUP are going to take education seriously. Not that Mervyn Storey could not have taken on the role (his ratings amongst educational insiders is high), but he’s both senior and fresh.
As Chris Donnelly noted this morning on Talkback (right at the start), he will need to avoid some of the key mistakes made by his Sinn Fein predecessors and avoid dividing the Executive and find some means to tackle exceptionally high levels of educational inequality.
Overall Sinn Fein did their usual gender/geographic balancing perfectly. In addition, for what’s now the only party to have gotten older in the last election, they have a noticeably young ministerial team. Sensitivity perhaps to what’s now a much younger SDLP?
The DUP seemed more focused on redistributing talent. But aside from the First Minister and junior Minister Alistair Ross, the DUP Executive team is all Co Down based. With Chris Hassard, I declare five out of the eight departments for the Kingdom of Down.
So, finally Justice. Clare Sugden is young for Ministerial office, but she’s carved out a niche for herself in a short time in the Assembly. As even Jim Allister conceded, she’s likeable, before going on to say that she must understand it is ‘a policy of desperation’.
David Ford was quick to spot the real danger: events dear boy, events. Neither SF nor the DUP have a good record in backing the police or the justice system if and when it suits them to default.
That’s her major problem in getting through the next five years. In the meantime, her approach will be “to achieve change incrementally by building relationships with her new executive colleagues”. [Genuinely, good luck with that Claire! – Ed]
As for Sinn Fein, there’s no sign of any negotiated deal. It suits them to steer clear of a difficult matter for them internally and to avoid the grievances of dissident Republican prisoners. But permanently handing Justice to Unionists is a bad signal all of its own.
That was a point not lost on Colum Eastwood yesterday. In fact, SF has slammed the door on any nationalist taking the role of justice Minister when they agreed to have it taken out of the d’Hondt mechanism. That’s not an item that was previously on anyone’s equality agenda.
What they have to do to make a success of this term is pretty simple. And that’s just to get down and do their jobs. The difference in depth of experience between the two party teams tells its own story in that particular regard.
They should start with a degree of goodwill. But we should also note that in granting the official opposition a mere 2/3 of the salary of one SpAd, they have concocted a scorched earth policy towards any opposition.
As Brian rightly notes, as with all oppositions, “the initiative rests firmly with government; their success depends on the government’s failure“. And yesterday was the New Stormont Government’s day in the sun.
Now, and only now, let battle commence.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty