So yesterday was the “New Stormont” Government’s day in the sun…

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

  • Kevin Breslin

    One Department you forgot was DAERA … you urban city slicker you.

    The Climate change deniers get Environment has no impact on the DUP vote but having the Eurosceptic DUP in charge, where there may be a Brexit and a loss of CAP payments, possibly with the whole of that £56m deficit transferred is a dangerous matter.

    You say Agriculture may not be a battleground (it has been before in Irish history) but the money we are talking about is significant, on what is the North of Ireland’s Number 1 single industry, if I’m not mistaken.

    Brexit may make Farm Subsidies 2017’s “Welfare Reform” spat for the Stormont Budget.

  • mickfealty

    I didn’t so much forget it as to neglect to mention that’s where the good ole DoE has gone. [Now I understand one irrate Green party person getting angry with me for leaving it out this morning.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m trying to figure out what SF’s strategy here is.

    The overall theme here for them is the abandonment of departments that have anything to do with “equality”. They’ve ceded the department that deals with minority languages, the funding of the arts and festivals, and LGBT equality concerns to a DUP Free Presbyterian moral hardliner. There was a unique opportunity here to publish a sexual orientation equality strategy, which has been parked at OFMDFM for years now. SF passed it up.

    It looks to me as if, at least in the short term, SF plan to try to sell the benefits of devolution to nationalists by announcing some major infrastructure projects. Narrow water bridge is one; the reinstatement of the A5 project is another (back in October, Martin McGuinness said that if the A5 did not go ahead, there would be no Programme for Government). They’ll also be up front when the announcement about the devolution of corporation tax is made – that is if they can get an already fidgety base to agree to the public spending cuts that will be required to implement it.

    I suspect we are also looking at transitional arrangements here. The present and previous First Ministers have both passed through Finance on their way to the top. Perhaps in the second half of the term we’ll see McGuinness retiring and an orderly handover to Máirtin.

  • Nordie Northsider

    Here’s another strange one: SF are very exercised about the absence of a stand-alone arts ministry in the Republic but don’t have anything to say about the arts being submerged among a dozen other things in the North. Strange, that.

  • Declan Doyle

    Best of luck to the new administration but let’s be real. Once the media decide to oppose it from day one, they have little chance of impressing anyone.

  • Vince

    Judging by the past 24 hrs the media actually appear to be relatively fawning. The journalists and politicians, in general, just appear too cosy. There is this phenomenon of individual MLAs/ministers somehow being great guys and girls ……..but then collectively being pretty rubbish. Can’t quite figure it out. However, the DUP/SF do have majority support from the electorate (again) so they should expect a reasonable and balanced hearing………as should the new opposition parties.

  • mickfealty

    Partitionists!! Seriously, they are getting genuinely eccentric.

  • Declan Doyle

    The whole concept of the DUP and SF as partners in government is still something that one finds hard to visualise. Incredible progress in just a handful of years.

  • Vince

    I actually think that they have been getting on pretty well for a few years – just staging the occasional sham fight to keep their voters happy. They have scarcely tried to land a glove on each other for at least the past 2 elections. The issue is whether that can actually deliver a government that works and changes the daily lives of ordinary people in a positive way – although I don’t vote for either, I really hope they can.

  • Declan Doyle

    Well the symbolism is important, but can they change peoples lives for the better against Tory cuts – nope.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m not sure this is true entirely. Health inequality is a major issue in NI and the fact that SF now has control of both the health deptartment and the finance department provides them with an opportunity to address health inequality. In addition the infrastructure portfolio provides an opportunity to seek to address inequalities in relation to infrastructure, particularly on an east west basis. For example out of 54 train stations in NI, not a single one is located in either Tyrone or Fermanagh. Equality is not only about gender issues and the Irish language.

  • Nimn

    There is no crisis for them to get their teeth into. Claire Sugden put paid to that. The next piece will be the PfG consultation, but even then that will be sold as part of an inclusive process with ‘the public’. Problem with that is that it opens a public wish list around which expectations cannot be met within a constrained budget. That will give the media all the brickbats they need. Expect a watered down set of targets /indicators which is sold as what the public wanted.

  • Redstar

    Just a new set of snouts in the trough. We all know they do nothing but administer Tory rule. Any doubts about that were dispelled when at first sign of trouble they handed the decision re cuts straight back to their Tory masters.

    A glorified council with added limos and expenses- including plenty of extra goodies for family members and ” special ” friends.

  • NotNowJohnny

    You keep banging the same drum but offer no insight to what you believe is a viable alternative. So perhaps this is your opportunity to clarify what you suggest the DUP and SF should do differently. What is the viable alternative which would be better from your point of view?

  • mickfealty

    Yes, it’s also an attempt to construct an democratically unassailable manifesto a posteriori. The idea of consultation is a good one, that I’m strongly in favour of. But is this okay? is not anything other than we asked everyone and they said it was okay to do it like this.

  • Nimn

    I was reading the BBC news website which heads with the Finance Minister calling for HMT to lend to the Executive. he cites two areas – housing and Magee college expansion. On the first the ability to borrow against present and future rent revenue by Housing Associations is already established with the Co-Ownership model some years ago under Margaret Ritchie. When it ran out of cash to build the banks were able to lend on that basis and get the houses built again. He also needs to sit down with Paul Givan and consider the social housing strategy and how private sector money can be leveraged into that to support increased borrowing to build houses where the rent base is at scale. Eamonn McCann will have plenty to say there.

    The same with Magee. The model for the UU Belfast campus expansion worked well with EIB only too willing to lend as it fits their criteria exactly.

    In both these cases the borrowing did not add to the sum total of borrowing for the UK and was ‘off balance sheet’. That is the important issue and may be the one the Finance Minister is getting at. However, I don’t think he will get much of a hearing in Whitehall. This is where his background in business should come into play, encouraging the private sector to develop the special purpose vehicles which would allow such borrowing. Whether that sits well with a SF minister is another matter entirely.

  • Nimn

    You have it. The last Executive increasingly used public consultations to ask the kind of closed questions at such a high level that skewed respondents towards a ‘yes’ answer. – Do you agree that health reform should deliver better outcomes? – that kind of question.
    While public consultation is a good thing more and more we are being asked to comment on what Colm Eastwood called bluer skies and greener grass. The timing is all and the PfG is a good example of rushing to the public to ask them to taste a half baked cake and comment on its potential. Simon Hamilton’s last public consultation on health reform was issued on the basis of a 30 minute speech in November 2015 asking people if they agreed with a broad direction of travel. It would be worth dissecting the coming PfG consultation to see where the substance, if any, lies.

  • murdockp

    So are we saying that SF will support alternative financing such as PPP / PFI? if so this is a watershed moment for the construction industry

  • mickfealty

    Exactly. Consultation is going to get more and more important as we go into a more complex and and anarchic (I use the word in its best sense) world and institutions of all kinds (public, private and other) need all the navigational equipment they can get.

    Successful participation is predicated on a value ‘return on engagement’ for both parties. I’d venture further to suggest that engagement is the new investment. But that requires a level of transparency/accountability that’s not evident here.

    Consultation has to be specific, allowing the politicians to figure out what s/he could not do on their own. That actually means going through the Rumsfeld list and asking citizens to help you fill in the blanks. Doing it when you already know the answer you want is counter productive in the end.

    Offering the public what you have already agreed privately to do as a manifesto commitment makes sense when you’re in a fully mandatory coalition, but it leaves little space for the public to add any value other than say yes or no. If, as you say, it is sufficiently broad as to sound like all things to all men it’s pretty worthless.

    BTW, I’ve already featured one of your comments at the top of the thread, now there’s another. Keep em coming!!

  • Skibo

    Far as I remember PPI/PPP was used when MMG was the Education Minister.

  • Brendan Heading

    Health inequality is a major issue in NI

    What is “health inequality” ?

    For example out of 54 train stations in NI, not a single one is located in either Tyrone or Fermanagh.

    That might be because there are no railways out there. Are SF going to build them ? Where are they going to get the money ?

  • aa o’cearra

    Health inequalities will be difficult to address while the public retains its ‘all services available in my local hospital’ mindset.

    The excessive number of acute hospitals here swallow cash at an alarming rate, leaving very little for true transformative changes in service delivery. But so far, nobody seems to want to break the eggs to make this particular omelette.

  • Gopher

    The housing market in NI has just dipped (again) I’m not sure borrowing money to build more social houses to undercut both private rental and house ownership is going to drive an economic revival. It is likely to depress the market further. Unbalancing the housing market towards social housing will also have the effect of driving up the lending criteria for first time buyers.

    Asking to borrow money when your feet are under the desk for five minutes and for social engineering instead of infrastructure leaves me unimpressed.

  • Gopher

    Another thing which should not impress the new executive is the finance minister attempting to usurp the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Economy Minister and Communities Minister by stating where the borrowed money should be spent is interesting. It is his remit to ask the various departments where they feel additional money should be spent not do their job for them. I think power has gone to Martins head already. If only there was an opposition.

  • Nevin

    “David Ford was quick to spot the real danger: events dear boy, events.”

    The Minister of Justice is probably just a bit-part player during the course of ‘events’:

    These meetings provide participants with an opportunity to have a general discussion and to exchange views on progress of the parading season in Northern Ireland. No decisions are taken at these meetings and there are no discussions about operational matters relating to specific parades.

    Ministerial responses are often fairly woolly. Perhaps decisions already taken are announced at these meetings. The qualification in the final sentence doesn’t exclude discussions about ‘operational matters’. There’s no mention of Irish government ministers and officials although they would very definitely have an interest in the proceedings. When I sought some assistance from an Irish official on another matter, he was unable to help as he was busy dealing with people ‘who were throwing things’!

  • Nevin

    Some detail in this Irish News link, Skibo.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Re your question regarding health inequality, I’m not sure if you are asking this as a serious question because you genuinely don’t know, but I will respond on that basis. The Irish Institute of Public Health refers to health jnequality as ….. Preventable and unjust differences in health status experienced by certain population groups. People in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to experience chronic ill-health and die earlier than those who are more advantaged.

    Such is the importance given to health inequality that the Dept of Health has its own health inequalities monitoring system in place to determine the nature and extent of health inequality in Northern Ireland. Rather than abandon departments which gave anything to do with equality, tackling health inequality is likely to be one of the new SF health minister’s key priorities.indeed it is No. 2 in the new pfg’s list of indicators.

    As to your rather pedantic point about railways … my point was (I’m sure you understood it the first time) that there are inequalities within NI as regards infrastructure which SF can now seek to do something about. Access to transport is just one example. I don’t think your comment warrants a more sophisticated response than that.

  • Nimn

    There is a need for social housing in NI – approx 2,500 homes a year over the coming Assembly term. Currently the demand is being propped up by the private rental sector where buy to let landlords in many cases have an eye to a permanent tenant courtesy of NIHE.
    How social housing is funded is another matter. Social Housing is a revenue generator. The current housing stock of 90,000 or so generates a rental income, against which banks will lend if they are allowed to.
    The breakup of the NIHE into three or more private sector or not for profit landlords frees up government borrowing for social housing and allows landlords to borrow directly from the banks.
    Whether NIHE is broken up or is spun out of Government as mutual or other vehicle deserves greater discussion but the model is sound.

    In this case the Department of the Communities should become an ‘enabling department’ which should have an independent housing regulator (currently proposed as a departmental function) to set rent levels, agree investment and target new builds and maintenance standards etc.

    In terms of private sector homebuilding this will be demand led, butI don’t believe that social housing will have an effect on bank lending to individuals as there is a differentiation between commercial and individual lending but the common denominator is the same – essentially the commercial risk to the bank.

  • Nimn

    and when Bairbre de Brun was Health Minister she said that the it came to building a new hospital in the South West she would consider all forms of funding including PFI.

  • Nimn

    I’ve skimmed the PfG Framework document and also compared with the Scottish PfG on which it is supposed to be based. Some comparisons leap out. NI has 14 outcomes on which I doubt any person could disagree. Scotland has 5 priority areas under which there are a series of cross cutting outcomes and an underpinning legislative programme to deliver legislative change where necessary. This is very different. Will NI be so brave?
    The NISRA indicators are where most commentators should focus their attention and crucially look at the NISRA PfG measurement annexes available on the PfG website:
    The full PfG framework document contains the 42 indicators used to provide some measure of success against the outcome. The NISRA document shows that 9 of these currently lack the data to measure or report on the outcome. That is a concern but the indicators themselves require much greater sub-categorisation and clarification before any reasonable commentary can be provided. For example Measure 39 ‘reduce reoffending’ is to be measured by “reoffending rate’ – is that a total reoffending rate, or one which is broken down by types of offence, offender type, (first offender /multiple offender); by age group, geographical spread; whether in or out of work at the time of reoffending; whether in home at time of reoffending and so on?
    Some ‘simple rules’ should have guided all of these indicators, based on evidence from data analysis across all of the Ministerial functions. These data already exist. In particular, based on such an analysis and in a world of very constrained Block Grant settlement where is the greatest beneficial economic and social impact to be gained in terms of investment in infrastructure and services and how does that translate into service delivery models?
    This is exactly Scotland’s approach. They do not see every pound spend as a Criminal Justice pound or a Health pound or an education pound, but seek to measure the full economic and social return on investment across government from investment in services. This is entirely sensible, but in our ministerial fiefdom politics of the past joined up government has been all but impossible. With DUP/SF at the helm now, (leaving aside Ms Sugden to make up the numbers) this should be possible. It remains to be seen to what degree ideology becomes the enemy of progress.
    Consequently I would have liked to see not outcome measures but impact measures for the economy and society across each of the 14 areas in the PfG, with attendant RoI and SRoI measures/ indicators attached.
    As the entire PfG is constructed it allows the greatest possible latitude to DUP/SF to hide in a fog of statistics as to whether they succeed in the next five years.
    It should be the opposition’s task, and wider society in general to demand a much more robust measures of success from what is a feather light framework document on which only the most churlish or disaffected could disagree with the proposed outcomes. As Colm Eastwood said – greener grass and bluer skies.

  • Gopher

    I think your underestimating exactly how many houses the *Finance* minister wants to build. I believe when I use the term social engineering with regards the minister he is thinking in strategic terms rather than need. I Imagine Ministers are going to start enforcing their demarcation lines

    If social housing made money we would not need to borrow money for it would be easy to cobble together the finance to work a sustainable package. The fact is it is not.

    The commercial risk to the bank goes up if there are plenty of social houses for buyers to withdraw to if buying does not work out. There will be little demand for private housing if 3 bedroom houses are built at the public’s expense.

  • Brendan Heading

    Rather than abandon departments which gave anything to do with equality, tackling health inequality is likely to be one of the new SF health minister’s key priorities

    Thank you for the definition.

    I looked at the Programme for Government. Health inequality is item #2. However the measurement they’ve used for it is “Gap between highest and lowest deprivation quintile in healthy life expectancy at birth”. It will be interesting to see how this is actually translated into spending decisions.

    As to your rather pedantic point about railways … my point was (I’m sure you understood it the first time) that there are inequalities within NI as regards infrastructure which SF can now seek to do something about.

    It is not pedantry to address the point that you made. The absence of train stations in Fermanagh and Tyrone is because there are no railways there. This isn’t “inequality”, it’s because sparsely populated rural areas can’t support a viable railway service in the modern era.

    And yes, I know what you’re doing. You’re redefining every possible policy issue faced by the government as one of equality in order to counter the idea that SF have abandoned equality issues. This devalues the word, as now you can say that the citing of every bus stop and every cycle lane is to do with equality in some way. The point still stands; when SF talk about equality in the local context, they’re talking about cultural issues, what flags are flown, what languages are spoken, and so on. Those are the things that they’ve abandoned to the DUP. They’re not, generally, talking about the fact that you can’t get a train to Belfast from Coalisland.

    If you’re going to define “inequality” in terms of transport infrastructure in the cities being behind those of the country you’re going to be very disappointed at the record of this, or any other, government in solving it. And I certainly wish SF the best of luck in solving the problem that poor people are more likely to get sick than rich people – it’s a serious one, but one that has eluded Western governments for decades.

  • NotNowJohnny

    It’s difficult to know where to start here. Inequality is not merely an issue for the department allocated responsibility for equality nor is it limited to cultural issues irrespective of how SF may (or may not) choose to define it. Not that I agree with your assertion that when SF talks about equality in local terms it is only talking about cultural issues. I frequently heard the previous minister of education talk about inequality in relation to education. Inequality is a real issue and impacts on people’s lives way beyond which flag flies on which building or which language one can obtain information in. It’s certainly not something that only cuts across one department like the paying of grants to farmers.

    However if you choose to define it as merely a cultural issue, you should be reassured that the transfer of equality functions from ofmdfm to the department of communities does not have a major impact. The equality legislation remains in place irrespective of who the minister is while even under ofmdfm, the DUP FM had a veto on everything which the department did anyway. It is also worth noting that despite SF being in charge of dcal we still don’t have an Irish language act so I don’t think one should read too much into which minister is in charge of which department. At the end of the day any decision by a minister which is deemed to be controversial has to revert back to the executive anyway. And of course the minister for communities won’t have any say over which flags are flown where or which languages are spoken. Plus the Irish language body remains in place and has its own budget with the budget process now under the control of a SF minister.

    Finally on the subject of infrastructure, I am certainly not defining every possible policy issue as an equality one. I have already covered the health issue but infrastructure is another important one. Access to transport impacts on many things including access to jobs, access to services, access to education etc and therefore is a very important issue in seeking to address inequality particularly in the west of the province. By the way I would have taken your point more seriously if you had made the small leap from train stations to railways and asked yourself the question why are there no railways in the west of the province? After all trains run all the way to towns such as Wick, Tralee and Penzance. It is not merely to do with cities and country. Or one could well ask the question why can one get a train from Belfast to ballymoney, larne, portadown and holywood but one can’t get a train from Belfast to crumlin or glenavy? Perhaps opening up the railways to towns which have a nationalist majority is something which a SF infrastructure minister might seek to do something about.