How Northern Ireland can learn grown up government from the ups and downs of southern politics..

It has been a funny (ie peculiar) time in the south. First, the Mercosur deal was finally concluded that would allow Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay to export 99,000 tonnes of beef annually to the European Union.

Irish beef farmers were outraged. Not only would it put some (it is only an additional 1.25% of the EU beef market) further downward pressure on prices, but the fact that Irish farmers are being asked to cut back on production in order to tackle climate change.

But as European farmers are being asked to grow trees rather than cattle, who in the commission or the parliament is seriously going to try to bring in beef from cattle raised in fields that were once rainforest?

Then earlier this week, Leo got a passing mention in dispatches as a potential EPP candidate for president of the European Commission. Government sources were reported saying, no thanks, Leo is happy governing Ireland. Nice talking point, if you can get it.

Finally, and most bizarrely, there was Wednesday’s session in Taoiseach questions on business in his own department. This is not like Westminster’s once weekly PMQs. That would be Leader’s Questions, which takes place no less than three times a week.

In Dublin, Parliament plays a more central role in calling the head of the executive to account, so Taoiseach’s questions tends to be a much duller interrogative affair (in contrast to Westminster’s performative display) in which An Taoiseach is given detailed questions to answer.

In retrospect, it seems that this particular intervention from Micheál Martin got right under the skin of the Taoiseach:

Earlier, I asked the Taoiseach about the Dunkettle interchange. I appeal to him not to be petty, silly and idiotic in terms of his response by asking whether I am for or against the Dunkettle interchange…

Which then brought this response:

I am always amused and bemused that Deputy Martin likes to accuse me of being partisan and personal yet, as evidenced by his name-calling today, he is very capable of being partisan and personal himself. The Deputy reminds me of one of those parish priests who preaches from the altar telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself.

Ouch. After 24 hours of public outcry (his own backbenchers included) the Taoiseach was forced to apologise.

This whole affair describes well the difference between politics north and south.

One, is the degree and intensity of the scrutiny of the executive arm of government (this was towards the end of a two out of three hour stint by the Taoiseach). Stormont allows MLAs minimal cross examination.

Two, is the degree of detailed knowledge the opposition is able to bring to bear on matters of government. In Northern Ireland it is often said that policy doesn’t matter, but this story shows that it can and it could.

Three, the largely unforced error arises largely out of the attrition which arises from oppositional politics. But the wider benefit to the population comes from comparing the government’s earlier claims to the present reality.

This ‘all shall have prizes’ model which defines post conflict government structures in Northern Ireland dispenses almost entirely with an essential tool of accountability. Whatever about Westminster, Stormont only had First Minister’s Questions twice a month.

In my view, this lack of intensity was contributing factor to Stormont’s collapse just seven months into having its first (very weak form of) opposition over a, wait for it, heating scheme. By contrast the Taoiseach has taken his public beating by the press and will soldier on.

However there are some green shoots. Sinead Bradley of the SDLP put in a first class performance this week on the backlog in MOT testing, describing with precision and expertise a problem that faces almost everyone in Northern Ireland regardless of creed or class.

There is no great demand for people to bring government back in Northern Ireland, say the pundits. But it would be more accurate to say that there is no appetite for the kind of government that stops the car and puts it up on bricks every time it hits a pothole.

Whatever about Brexit, we have much to learn from our southern neighbours…

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