Why government is not taken seriously by Eamonn Mallie

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First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont Castle


At Westminster there is a coalition government of Conservatives led by David Cameron and Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg.

In Dublin there is a coalition government involving Enda Kenny leader of Finne Gael and Eamonn Gilmore leader of the Labour.

In Stormont Castle we have Peter Robinson leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness leader of Sinn Fein at the helm. These two leaders are in essence the government of Northern Ireland. The ministers from the other parties Alliance, SDLP and Ulster Unionists are essentially satellite ministers running their own fiefdoms.

When one observes what happens in the London and Dublin governments despite the many differences in philosophy and values there is one constant. We witness government at work. Vince Cable or Michael Gove may well fire off in different directions from time to time in the Cameron/Clegg administration but the coalition government drives the programme for government good bad and indifferent.

One does not sense whether one agrees or disagrees with the tone, direction of travel or policies of the Dublin or London governments that they are not functioning administrations.

This brings me back to Stormont Castle and our so called government. We have two co-equal First Ministers who are endlessly at war over one issue or another. It would be churlish however not to acknowledge the success and delivery by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson on inward investment.

To what else can one point as genuine progress for the ‘greater’ good of ALL the people of Northern Ireland? Very little. Sectarianism and bigotry are rampant and reinforced  under this administration. Ministers couldn’t even agree on a common stadium for sport. What we are getting is a continuation of sporting apartheid at Ravenhill, Casement Park and Windsor Park.

This same apartheid obtains when it comes to education. We don’t train our teachers in shared training colleges here. Our doctors train together in the same hospitals and even the police train together but the fundamentals of life in Northern Ireland are being built on sand. We have inherited a divided past and history. Children are imbued with anything but homogeneity in outlook from their mothers’ knee informed by religion, politics, class etc.

Life follows on for the greater part along segregated lines of church, school, sport.

When the so called Troubles broke out many Protestant middle class parents shipped their children off to universities in England or Scotland, many of them not returning. This has resulted in our local universities increasingly nationalist in make-up. This is not necessarily a fault line in these universities but the real strength of university life ought to be diversity and the experience of engaging with others of same and diverse persuasions. This also results in a capacity for tolerance and an acceptance of the other person’s  point of view. We end up deaf talking to ourselves.

This reality is playing out in our society. So many commanding positions in Northern Ireland are increasingly held by individuals from a catholic nationalist background. Examples include the office of  Lord Chief Justice, Director of Public Prosecutions, Chairman of the Bar Council and  the post of Attorney General.

The new Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Paddy Johnston was on radio the other day talking of his vision for Queen’s. Paddy could have easily done the same interview fluently in Irish.

This is partially down to the outworking of The Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1947 which was closely modelled on the GB Butler Act. The main tenets of that act were that education would be compulsory for all children up to the age of 15. Primary education would end at 11 when children would be assessed by tests which would determine what type of secondary school they would attend.  Facilities such as free milk and dinners would be made available. The funding for the Voluntary (Catholic) schools was raised to 65%.

Grants for third level education also introduced, opened doors to the universities to many less well-off people.

The inherited practice of patronage or nepotism in the  Protestant working class community in The Shipyard and in Shorts Plane manufacturers  left an awful legacy when the slump happened. Education had taken a back seat in working class Protestant districts. The Catholic Nationalist community snatched at education as the route out of poverty. The 1947 Education Act exploited by the Catholic community is still impacting.

Herein rests the challenge for the people in Stormont Castle. We need big united leadership emanating from the Castle. We need new united thinking addressing values, challenges, concepts aimed at giving us as a society, focus and direction magnetically pulling us all in the same direction – not in opposite directions.

None of this can take place if our First Ministers fail to realise one thing: they are elected to serve and work for us all of us and not for selfish party interests. At that point we will have evidence of a functioning government absent to date.


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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Paul Doherty on

    Functioning government is a pipe dream, this “fudge” is the best we can hope for until realism hits the working class unionists; and middle class unionists start to be excersised about traditional income streams being denied/shared. The only other fast track to a normalised society is the further diversity is our population, with elected representatives from a cross section of the world population. But who would come here in their right mind?

  2. I have just added a comment on Terry Wright’s blog on your site. I think there is an institutional tyranny of the majority over the minority as JS Mill would argue. This will create political apathy even further, and many will feel almost disenfranchised a stheir views are not represented. The system needs changed but change management is difficult. For that we critically need good leadership and politicians with honest and strong hearts.

  3. Agree with you except for this bit:

    What we are getting is a continuation of sporting apartheid at Ravenhill, Casement Park and Windsor Park.

    It is quite unfair to lump Ravenhill in with the others. It is one place (in sport, at least) where the opposite is happening and the supporters are becoming more and more desegregated. Look at the flags (flegs?) there – very few Northern Ireland flags and more and more true Ulster provincial ones. Also look at the number of kids and families who go there. All are very comfortable with the whole atmosphere and package at Ravenhill.

    • Agreed. But the Unionist agenda is not being set by these middle class unionists, it’s being set by people like Frazer and Bryson. Brian John Spencer’s blog on
      The Emigre – Moderate/Middle Class Protestants aptly describes Unionist politicians lack of leadership which is marching a generation of loyal youth into a political cul de sac.

  4. The logic of what you say can’t be lost on Unionists politicians but they seem to refuse to acknowledge their obligation to loyalist youth. Consistently peddling the myth that the real difficulties experience by protestant working class youth are caused by ‘themuns’ is selling their constituents short and leading another generation of protestant working class into mindless violence.

  5. Eamonn, you should not have said about the ’47 Education Act being exploited by the Catholic community. No-one has told the unionists about this Act which must have been another secret deal between Westminster and Sinn Fein. Can we expect another resignation threat from the FM?

    As far as political progress is concerned, this can never happen until there is some generosity of spirit from our ‘leaders’, and I’m afraid this is totally lacking from the unionist side. Any benefit to the nationalist side seems to necessarily cause pain and loss to unionists.

    Until that mindset is changed at the top, filtering through the ranks, we are totally incapable of making progress.

  6. Why Government is not taken seriously can be debated all day. The real concern is that, as opposed to the population of the other countries of the UK and in Ireland, people do not recognise within our devolved institutions any real semblance of a functioning government. The greater frustration is that as an electorate we can do little or nothing about it.

    The other jurisdictions mentioned enjoy one significant difference over NI; through the ballot box they have the power to change their government. We do not. What we have is a bastardisation of democracy born of expedient in 1998, where to achieve some kind of functioning government, an enforced power sharing agreement was imposed. The lack of thought of the downstream effect of getting this model wrong were set aside in the Blair euphoria of being the man who ‘solved’ the Irish problem.

    The Westminster Government may be a coalition but they will be seeking to influence the electorate to provide a majority government next time around. That fundamental of democracy is denied to us.

    Therefore, all we can do is vote for parties and people and D’Hondt ensures that voting for a particular party policy line (should one exist) on education or health or the economy becomes a Ministerial lottery, because all the children must get to play. Also given the very significant ideological differences between SF and the DUP on almost everything the chances of getting any meaningful policy decisions across government takes years to achieve.

    The very most we can do is change the balance of power between the parties in government, but we cannot reject them at the ballot box. This has provided a kind of government in perpetuity and the net effect of this was brilliantly summed up by Lord Justice Coghlin at the judicial review of Edwin Poots’ failure to publish draft guidelines on abortion:

    “It can be interpreted by the governed not so much as the diligent work of government (but) as a paralysed government that because of its cultural and religious divisions simply cannot bring itself to discharge its duties”

    There is also one other considerable difference enjoyed by the other jurisdictions. A single party (or a coalition) act to deliver joined up government. Our system never can nor ever will in my view provide this kind of Good Friday Utopia. In coming together our parties remain poles apart. The more DUP and SF can pander to the mindset which ensured Haass would never succeed the greater their hope of retaining power.

    Consequently the real debate needs to start and stay with the NI electorate’s denial of democracy and any change cannot be left in the hands of the NI parties. If there was a glimmer of a chance that traditional democratic government could return to NI then I do believe many of the silent majority, the non-voting middle class, the disillusioned youth or whatever class or label you wish to apply will become involved in political life here.

    On the economy and FDI – there needs to be a strong economic analysis carried out as to the additionality that Devolution has brought to inward investment, which would not otherwise have been delivered under Direct Rule. In the limited number of areas where any progress has been achieved since 2007 I do not easily buy into the notion that but for Devolution some things would not have happened.

    My sense is that increasingly NI is no longer prepared to wait for the political class and is getting on with things regardless, always helped by a little largesse from DETI, but the net rebalancing of jobs shows the increase in lower paid and part time work.


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