Alan Love argues that the time is right for PolicyNI – given the inability of local political parties to focus on what is important.
We have very peculiar system of Government in Northern Ireland. At the devolved level the Northern Ireland Executive is restrained by a system of mandatory coalition with government departments assigned to political parties in approximate proportion to the number of seats they hold in the Legislative Assembly.
There is a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister selected from the two largest parties on either side of the long defunct sectarian divide. Neither has any real power other than the negative ability to bring the whole structure crashing down. Each can deny responsibility for the actions of any minister outside his own party.
There is no provision for an officially recognised opposition to hold the government to account. Indeed, with five of the assembly parties having departmental ministers drawn from their ranks, opposition is confined to ineffective sniping between members of the governing parties.
Key legislation requires a 60% majority with 40% from each of the defunct sectarian blocks. Members can easily make such a weighted majority a requirement for any legislation. Therefore, ministers find it well nigh impossible to bring in any controversial legislation and the system stagnates. Most effort of the Assembly is expended on endless bickering about cross-community issues and similar matters involving the perpetuation of sectarian institutionalism.
Meanwhile, matters of vital importance to the Northern Ireland Electorate go virtually unnoticed. For example, the 2008 UK Climate Change Act extends to Northern Ireland following consent by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. The provisions of this act will require expenditure of over £50 million per day by the UK taxpayer of which £1.25 million per day will come from the Northern Ireland taxpayer. Whatever one’s views, doesn’t the expenditure of £52,000 per hour merit more attention from our MLAs than the finer points of which sectarian grouping is getting more advantage out of some initiative or other?
Of course, many people in Northern Ireland do campaign for serious issues such as that of my example above. Once upon a time political parties provided a platform for such campaigning. Alas, our stagnating political system has left the voicing of real concerns an inconvenient nuisance for party leaderships..
That is why I welcome the PolicyNI initiative and its potential to bring together those who argue for change in the way we are governed, not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom. Progressing democratic change is not the sole preserve of elected representatives. It is the right and responsibility of all interested citizens.