No reason why the Assembly cannot hire in talent if the parties cannot form a workable Executive

As Soapbox recently suggested (20 January), “There is no reason for the Assembly to not be operational, just because the Executive cannot function.” Soapbox was suggesting that “direct rule ministers should be held accountable by a working Assembly.”
However, there is another option, which is for the Assembly to appoint non-parliamentary ministers.
There is no reason why the Assembly cannot hire in talent if the parties cannot form a workable Executive from their own numbers. And if there becomes any serious risk that Direct Rule will be contested if the Republic’s government isn’t given a role in it, this option neatly side-steps that dilemma.
The Netherlands, Belgium, the USA and Mexico all have a strong political tradition of the separation of powers, with a strict rule that members of parliament cannot also serve as ministers of the government. In other words, the ‘legislative’ is fully separated from the ‘executive’.
For example, if MPs are appointed as ministers in the Netherlands, they are required to leave parliament. Most of us have not been particularly phased as US Presidents bring in a range of unelected officials to run the Federal Government, so why not do it here?
A wide range of countries actually combine parliamentary and non-parliamentary ministers. Even Westminster has done something like this too. Gordon Brown appointed eight such ministers by putting them in the House of Lords before appointing them as ministers.
Sir John Major has raised the possibility of dispensing with the need to make external ministers of state Lords in the first place.
As well as preventing the need for Direct Rule, there are other advantages to non-parliamentary ministers for Northern Ireland. It massively expands the pool of talent available to take on ministerial roles from the 90 MLAs to literally tens of thousands of plausible ministerial candidates from Northern Ireland and beyond.
It also would allow experienced CEOs and specialised technocrats to focus on improving pubic services and policies rather than worrying about electoral competition between the parties.
If such a route were taken, the Assembly would grow in stature, and the chairpersons of its committees would have a much more significant role to play. This is the case in the USA and other countries where ‘checks and balances’ between the legislative and executive rely on parliamentary scrutiny rather than loyalty to a political party.
Ideally, post-election, at least some of the political parties will manage to form a workable Executive. But it would be no harm to have a Plan B that would help consolidate mature self-government by Northern Ireland’s elected Assembly as an alternative to the loss of public funds and democratic control that Direct Rule would entail.
Nat O’Connor is lecturer of public policy and public management at Ulster University.

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  • Gopher

    Gordon Brown is hardly a shinning example. The “New Labour” penchant for creating unnacoutable Tsar’s, as the spin doctors nicknamed them or “Peoples commisars” which would be a truer appelation for those surrogates of presidential power hidden in the Lords by Blair and Brown was purely a personal and despotic device.

    The fact that 1.8 million people out of a country of 65 million can’t get democracy to work is a reflection on us not of anything else. Direct Rule is coming you can either go back to killing people if you dont like it or you can get your act together and govern those 1.8 million.

    Finally there is absolutely no eveidence that direct rule will cause the loss of any public funds, if anything, it will redirect them from the pet secterian projects of the assembly to something useful. It will cost the man in the street nothing infact quite the opposite.

  • On the fence!


    Is that a euphemism for these seldom named geniuses that flit about from quango to quango filling their pockets and leaving trails of overpriced, uncompleted and/or ineffective “projects” in their wake. While us plebs at the bottom of the food chain get short-changed yet again!

    Or the “academics” which get hoisted in front of us on a regular basis to impart their wisdom on all things political, social, environmental and economic, yet have never done anything significant in the real world apart from being “academic”.

    Sure a clatter more “jobs for the boys” (and girls!) is just what we need.

    To be fair, it might work other places, but given the “cliquey” nature of just about everything here, it’s a pretty ridiculous suggestion. Try to find someone in this country with a successful business background (not in the public sector!) yet no political connections and let us know how you get on.

  • Nat O’Connor

    “Hiring talent” is just an Americanism for “recruitment”, with nothing more implied other than a nod at the ongoing process of President Trump nominating government officials. Whatever your views on Trump, most people don’t find it unusual that US government officials are not drawn from Congress. It’s just a different way of doing government, and it has worked in many countries.

    Northern Ireland has a larger population than at least 50 independent countries, including Luxembourg, Cyprus, Estonia, Iceland and Malta. There are cliques and elites in every system, yet reasonably stable, efficient governments do get created. And there is no reason why people from outside Northern Ireland couldn’t be recruited as ministers either, just as they are in the public services and business.

  • file

    No reason at all … apart from this stipulation in The Northern Ireland Act (1998):
    “The nominating officer of the political party for which the formula in subsection (5) gives the highest figure may select a Ministerial office and nominate a person to hold it who is a member of the party and of the Assembly.”
    And apart from the fact that First and deputy First Ministers have to be appointed first BEFORE ministers can be appointed.

  • Nat O’Connor

    You could look at that differently. New Labour did bring in a lot of unelected “Tsars”, but when Brown made some would-be ministers into Lords he brought them in the system of Parliamentary scrutiny and accountability.

    The Netherlands might be a better example, as they have done this for years.

  • On the fence!

    So what is the point of your thread relative to where we are now if what you’re telling us about is pretty standard procedure?

    For me anyhow, you need to be more detailed about how this might play out over here. We are in a mess, and with little signs of immediate relief, so anything constructive and practical would be very welcome.

    But, with respect, I don’t see anything along those lines in your original submission.

  • Jim M

    Oh well. I remember a few years ago someone suggesting the ‘Justice Minister Problem’ could be solved by hiring, say, a badass ex-Garda Commissioner…sounded fun, but not possible, it seems.

  • Granni Trixie

    And look at the success of those bought in experts, the SPADS ?

  • On the fence!

    I deliberately avoided that as it would have been too easy!

    And to be fair, I think what he’s getting at is something a bit different (in theory at least), but in this place it would just end up being more of the same!

  • Andy Lindsay

    It’s a nice idea but Ministers did appoint the SpAds. Imagine if same actually running the place (tho I’m not sure it could be much worse)!

  • file

    See above, On the Fence. His original suggestion is ruled out by the provisions of The Northern Ireland Act (1998), which he maybe should have read first …

  • On the fence!

    All that means is that it is ruled out as things stand at present.

    If it genuinely had something to offer then I’m sure it could, would, and should be accommodated.

  • file

    So you are suggesting that because of the RHI scandal we could be in the area of re-writing legislation?

  • On the fence!

    I think everyone with a bit of wit knows that the assembly hasn’t been collapsed and us staring in to the teeth of an election followed by goodness knows what, because of the RHI scheme.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I remember that, not without a dash of perhaps elephantine irony, I’d suggested a while back on Slugger that as our elections are highly predictable, we simply turned to appointing some talented politics graduates from our Universities as MLAs and avoided the whole dreary round of expensively acquired disapointments every election here seems to inevitably lead to. And now, a very serious version of my flippant suggestion……..

    I would imagine that Nat’s name could readily be put on such a list………

  • file

    But do you want The Northern Ireland Act (1998) to be re-written, regardless of why you think The Assembly has been collapsed?

  • lizmcneill

    Off topic, has there been anything more on this story?

    Article says the GPs had planned to meet today to decide whether to resign en masse or not.

  • On the fence!

    Firstly, I am NOT a paid politician, this ISN’T “Hearts and Minds”, and you are in all probably (although I’ve no definitive proof) NOT Mark Carruthers so there’s no point interrogating me as if it that were all so.

    What I DO want is a system of governance for Northern Ireland that works, that gets the country moving forward even a wee bit, that’ll give the youngsters who for better or worse love this place a reason not to leave. And I’ll consider just about anything that could possibly move us in that direction, because it now seems like we’ve spent the last twenty years going nowhere.

  • Michael Dowds

    Elect the First Minister(s) directly with requirement for 65% of vote.

    The elected First Minister could then appoint the ministers, with Assembly Committee approval.

    Would require a change to legislation too.

  • file

    Fairy Nuff. I want to see how far you are prepared to go to get out of a mess. I would not mind rewriting the Good Friday Agreement in some aspects of it, but that is a big step!

    [Actually I am Mark Carruthers, and I am still over-excited about a unionist politician speaking the truth/saying something interesting last week on The View. Sorry!]

  • Nat O’Connor

    The point is that the NI Assembly may fail to elect an Executive, whether due to personality clashes, policy disagreements or just the deep divisions that exist between the main parties.

    After that, the assumption is that NI will return to Direct Rule. That means executive decisions being taken by the NI Office and NI Secretary, James Brokenshire, who will presumably have to hire some extra staff to take on the workload of leading nine ministries. There is no gravy train in suggesting that the same resources might be better spent on hiring in external people as ministers.

    Paul Gosling (Soapbox, 20 January) made the reasonable suggestion that the NI Assembly should continue to function in order to provide scrutiny and more direct accountability of the NI Office to the people of Northern Ireland, rather than only via NI’s MPs in Westminster.

    I’m going one step further by arguing that a quite ordinary practice elsewhere is for ministers to be appointed who are not members of parliament. Yes, this may require changes to legislation, but a breakdown in self-government in Northern Ireland is a major constitutional crisis, and if legislation is needed then that is only a relatively minor issue in the greater scheme of things.

    What is more important is to introduce the idea. Having external minsters is not some radical, never tried notion. Direct Rule is more unusual.

    The arguments in favour of external ministers would include:
    – to keep the Assembly up and running, with something like ‘normal’ politics
    – to provide NI with some domestic stability on bread-and-butter policy issues like healthcare, education, enterprise supports, etc.
    – to retain the democratic accountability and responsiveness of the executive to MLAs
    – to strengthen the Assembly in carrying out its functions of scrutiny, oversight, etc.
    – to bring in some new faces who genuinely care about public services and the quality of life in Northern Ireland, but who have been turned off of electoral politics

    The political parties would continue to have a strong voice, and an electoral mandate. They might find it easier to co-operate on just maintaining the Assembly rather than having to work more closely together as part of an Executive.

    None of this threatens the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, as set out in the Good Friday Belfast Agreement.

    There are variations on how this could work. It could be done if the Assembly could agree to elect new First and Deputy First Ministers to chair the new government. Or the NIO could recruit them, and have candidates vetted and voted on by Assembly committees.

    All of this is proposed as a Plan B, if the parties really can’t compromise and patch up their differences in order to form a working Executive.

    The real question is whether people in Northern Ireland would be willing to give it a try.

  • Zig70

    There is something inherently snobby about the educated middle class thinking they would be better at running the country. If they are so good then stand up and get counted.

  • Brian Walker

    Look, direct rule would require primary legislation at Westminster anyway.

    This is an imaginative suggestion. One thing against it is that too many people might grow to like it and therefore delay an Executive comeback; as it might be so much more preferable (to the parties not the people), than the castor oil effect of DR

  • file

    Direct rule would require nothing more than the stroke of a pen that Trump has been doing in the USA to reverse a regulations that is already there. This suggestion is completely contrary to the GFA, the St Andrew’s Agreement and The Northern Ireland Act (1998). Here is an imaginative suggestion: let’s appoint a benevolent dictator. Do you know any? What about George Mitchell? Is he free?

  • aquifer

    A proper system of funding direct to political parties would allow them to hire their own talent. Thatcher’s system of members fiddling their expenses is a squalid mess, and allowing members to hire their family for help, and to rent offices from supporters, produces nepotism and cash windfalls. We have got to get adult about funding democracy. Free market downsizing just leaves the corporate lobbyists in charge.

    Funding parties directly would also reveal how useless or incorrigible they are. e.g. What do we think of the behaviour of the SFDUP SPADs?

  • notimetoshine

    Hardly snobbery. The denizens of Stormont have clearly shown themselves to be incapable of the job at hand. So why wouldn’t you consider suitably qualified professionals for their positions?

  • On the fence!

    OK, thank you for the clarification.

    Unlike some others I do think it’s reasonable to speculate and consider any potential option that would assist in establishing effective governance here.

    However, two major stumbling blocks remain. Firstly, finding genuinely capable, non-political candidates for the posts. Secondly, even you could find that mythical, totally neutral person, that would probably just ensure that they’d be equally detested by everyone and they’d be out of here as quick as you could say “scundered”.

  • Nat O’Connor

    Firstly, there are no perfect neutral candidates in any country. But what keeps them straight are the formal institutions: For example, the documents they have to provide; the regular updates they have to give to committees; the questions they have to answer on demand; the official statistics that measure the outcomes of their work; and so on. The key issue is setting out a set of rules–under the control of the Assembly–to control the behaviour of non-parliamentary ministers.

    Unelected ministers also do not have the luxury of an electoral mandate to hide behind… i.e. we often see ministers dodging questions from committees because they know their party will back them and they can claim that it is the people of their constituency who will be the final judge of whether they keep their job. In contrast, the appointed minister knows that he/she has to satisfy a majority in the Assembly to stay in the role. (The US Congress grilling of Presidential appointees is a good example of this in operation. Congress members will vote against their party if candidates aren’t up to the job).

    Secondly, there are plenty of competent people who would do the job for a combination of public benefit and the salary they’d receive. After all, there are competent people leading public services in Northern Ireland for just these reasons. One can be cynical about public services, but some things in Northern Ireland work quite well compared to many other countries.