When you are in a hole, it’s a wise move to stop digging – By Terry Wright

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Prior to the recent restoration of Stormont there were many who would have welcomed an election and an opportunity either to renew the mandate of current representatives or elect new MLAs, untainted and unburdened by the baggage of RHI, abuse of power, incompetent decisions at the heart of government, as well as the social and health implications flowing from a willingness to wantonly allow devolved government to remain suspended for over 3 years. That London and Dublin chose not to address the disquiet and opt for short termism to restore what the electorate has been rejecting, has not served to dispel the view.

To coin a phrase, it has not gone away and hangs like a cloud over the new Assembly. MLAs serve a community within which many will assume selfish motives and party self-interest in political decisions and actions, until it is proven otherwise. This is the legacy of the last 3 years and more. It is not caused by cynicism but the evidence of procedural manipulation alongside concealed and darkly coercive decision-making which has emerged from well-publicised disclosures.

The mostly unfavourable and widespread comments on the pay rise awarded to MLAs and the rush by the parties to limit damage and distance themselves from the decision by seeking to reject the award and direct money to charities, is further evidence of the depth to which the reputation of and respect for representatives in Stormont has sunk.

The public response to the award is not just about the money nor untimely optics.

Politicians have a mountain to climb in earning respect and gaining confidence. A few days in, they have made a shaky start and viewed from a distance, give all the appearance of inhabiting a political village in a parallel universe.

Behind the populist clamber to the microphones and cameras to announce decisions that, in all probability, were awaiting the signature of a Minister, lies the truth that Stormont has been placed in ‘special measures.’ Recent election results and the message which canvassers got on the doorstep, coupled with the leverage of the latest crisis in the health sector focused minds into acceptance. The Secretary of State had a strong hand to play and used it effectively.

Read between the lines and it becomes clear that in ‘New Decade, New Approach’, London and Dublin have provided Stormont with a roadmap to move forward and exercise more accountable stewardship over governance and scarce resources.

It bears all the hallmarks of a ‘Manual on Effective and Efficient Decision-making for Errant Individuals.’ Underpinned by a robust brief to the parties to move away from ‘ourselves alone’ and work together, the document charges chastened representatives with eradicating wasteful spending on out-dated zero-sum divisions which inform policy decisions and perpetuate segregation.

The First Minister recently stated that: “Good government costs money.” She above all, should know that poor government costs more. The lesson has not been lost on Westminster.

The community still sees old habits and discredited practices in place. These cannot be addressed by self-preserving codes. This type of loose echo chamber self-regulation has not worked in the past and brings uncertainty where the opposite is paramount. The number and role of Special Advisers is a case in point.

The vast bulk of public opinion is that there are too many and that their salaries are too high.

If the First Minister and Deputy Minister act jointly, sharing advisers, whose function is to support sound decision-making in the interests of all, should be the norm.

By definition, if the role of the Ministers is to promote, as stated a ‘shared and ambitious strategic vision for the future’ the present number of personally assigned advisers will be duplicating work. It has been shown to be wasteful practice. If the parties want ‘party functionaries’ to feed in to policy and whip party support, then let the parties pay for them; not the public purse.

Much of Jim Allister’s rhetoric is unpalatable but he is right to insist on a more robust process for appointing and managing special advisers. That the Executive, lacking an ear for the wrong notes, has shown reluctance to comply, feeds doubt as to the double-mindedness of the parties and points to a lesson poorly learned. Rumours circulating with regard to former representatives rejected by the electorate now in place at Stormont awaiting appointment as a highly paid special adviser, do little to persuade that the promised transformation is under way. It sits alongside the practice of appointing family members to jobs without open contest or reference to transparent criteria.

Political leaders who fail to see this are guilty of self-deception and stall public acceptance of the new regime.

Civic society wants to see a coherent and strategic shake-up not least in scrutiny and transparency. It has hitherto, with exceptions, been too relaxed and ineffective.

It is clear from the document that London will have a role in stringent financial monitoring however, with the five biggest parties now in the Executive and the absence of an Opposition, there is opportunity to produce a deliberative democracy around the provision of Citizens’ Assemblies or Civic Forum, well beyond giving access to favoured lobbyists and advocacy groups.

Both are mentioned in ‘New Decade, New Approach’ but as yet, comment, like the proposals is limited and disappointing in scope and creativity. It is recognised that ‘Structured Civic Engagement’ can contribute to sustainability of the institutions, yet the relevant paragraph reads almost as an afterthought. Could it be that the main parties wish to keep their distance from a process which could yield the scrutiny and transparency the electorate would welcome?

If so, they need a bigger view of the world and, to stop digging.

In the context of Northern Ireland ‘ourselves alone and siege mentalities’ have, over the last three years, been shown to fail.

It is civic society in many forms which has exercised political maturity, channelled resentment and done most to maintain stability when the politicians deserted their desks.

Without the input and support of meaningful civic engagement, there remains a risk of a return to politics which are power-driven as opposed to value-driven. This may accommodate orthodoxy, trade-offs and ideological piety but will put at risk the social, financial and procedural change we have been led to expect in ‘New Decade, New Approach’ and the opportunity to do things better


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