Last year the Ulster Unionist conference proved a heady affair. Fresh from striking a historic deal with the Conservative party, Sir Reg Empey introduced David Cameron to delegates at the Ramada hotel.
The Tory leader delivered an exciting address, steeped in unionism, and received a tumultuous reception. This year Cameron’s deputy, William Hague, will attempt to rekindle enthusiasm, which occasionally, during the intervening ten months, has appeared to diminish as UUP members have become reconciled to repercussions of the Conservatives and Unionists electoral pact.
With a Westminster poll imminent, European success secured and senior Tories still committed to a vital deal for Northern Ireland, there is no credible reason why the atmosphere at Belfast’s Europa hotel should not be equally buoyant, tomorrow morning.
The 2010 general election will preoccupy political parties for the next number of months, but, in conjunction with SDLP minister Margaret Ritchie, the Ulster Unionist leader has delivered a gutsy performance in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, centred on local politics. In an article which will, presumably, pre-empt themes to be developed at conference tomorrow, the minister for the Department of Employment and Learning, and his Department of Social Development colleague, have delivered a stinging indictment of the SF / DUP coalition’s performance at Stormont. Empey and Ritchie contend,
“The DUP and Sinn Fein stagger between running the Executive as a two-party carve-up rather than a four-party coalition and using megaphone diplomacy to verbally abuse each other.”
The analysis of government in Northern Ireland, delivered by two of its members, is as revealing as it is unsurprising. This is an executive in which the two smaller parties play a largely aesthetic part, outside the specific duties of their departments. Collective responsibility is a concept employed merely to provide political shelter for Sinn Féin and their DUP allies, whilst depriving the Assembly of a genuine means to hold the executive to account.
This article lays out three main areas where devolved government has manifestly failed. Most conspicuously in education, where the minister has presided over deregulated transfer chaos. Empey and Ritchie call for all party talks in order to sort out Caitriona Ruane’s debacle, an offer which the Sinn Féin MLA has thus far rejected. Furthermore,
“We are also calling for a single-item agenda Executive meeting to be held before the end of November to allow the Executive to at last discuss post-primary transfer. As P7 children, parents and teachers begin to go through the difficulties of the unregulated tests, it is time for the Executive to show leadership.”
The meeting would pledge to deliver an interim transfer process, in order that parents and children might not be subject to anarchy, whilst a longer term solution is sought.
The thrust of the article is the desire to establish authentic four party participation in government and facilitate genuine scrutiny of the executive’s work by the Assembly. The ideas for education are just the most prominent example where a dividend could result.
The DUP, in particular, has denied until relatively recently, the existence of a budget shortfall. It has remained adamant that the original Programme for Government and spending plans were applicable, however the economic climate might change. The UUP and SDLP are suggesting that an Assembly Committee should be constituted, charged with re-examining the budget and plans for public spending. There is also a demand, in the article, for a renewed impetus for shared future, and action on the strategy, now, rather than at an indeterminate date in the future.
This is good, strident, relevant stuff from Ritchie and Empey, aimed at making the existing arrangement work better. It shows that middle ground politics can offer ideas for cooperative, functional government, which are unlikely to come to fruition under a DUP / SF carve-up. In conjunction with a determined, committed approach to the Conservatives and Unionists deal, it offers a positive message to articulate at tomorrow’s conference.