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Is Robinson’s axe bearing down on the wrong bureaucracy?

Peter Robinson’s speech targeting the ‘political bureaucracy’ this morning was message crafted with publicity in mind. While it achieved this, we must be clear that the public policy ramifications are opaque at best.

The speech followed Gordon Brown’s lead in admitting that cuts are coming in public finances. The DUP have stubbornly refused to admit the trouble that the Northern Ireland budget is in for more than a year – but with the national debate moving on beyond 1970’s rhetoric, Robinson has also, correctly, moved his argument on. Whilst he sought to save face by rejecting SDLP and UUP papers on the public finances as “economically illiterate”, this was clearly a change in tack.

Northern Ireland’s “political bureaucracy” is a burden which we cannot afford to carry going forward, and should be the first port of call for the cuts agenda was the adapted old message in the speech. The BBC evening news carried this as the headline, and took several positive interviews from the business community, who told us that the peace agreement structures should be dispensed with.

The UUP have not engaged with this debate well, however for good and understandable reasons. Whilst the Nationalist parties oppose such overtures on the basis of Belfast Agreement safeguards, the UUP cannot so easily stand on such ground. They are also caught in the headlights of their own message of fiscal responsibility and small government. In reality, Robinson’s blunt phrase “political bureaucracy” has two elements.

Firstly, the Executive is without doubt very large. Eleven departments with 14 Ministers for our population is extremely cumbersome. In seeking to find function for such a number of departments, policy responsibility is split in a way that can at times seem rather arbitrary, and can slow the process of government through lack of engagement between departments with close to overlapping responsibility. The number was subject to much more negotiation during the Belfast Agreement talks than may seem reasonable, but from a Nationalist perspective a large number guarantees a strong voice in the consociational Executive Committee.

On the matter of cost, UUP Leader Sir Reg Empey has correctly pointed out that it matters little how many times the number of civil servants is divided for as long as you keep the same number. Simply reducing the number of departments in pursuit of economy is little more than tinkering around the edges.

The second element is the Assembly, which on the face of it also seems large when one considers that it has more members than the Senates of the United States, Australia and Canadian. It is here however that it appears that the argument becomes subtly sinister.

The number of Assembly members was devised, it is generally accepted, to ensure that both Gary McMichael and David Ervine were elected and that the loyalist paramilitaries had their representatives. In the event, only Ervine was successful. However the method of election, the single transferable vote of 6 members per constituency, was also adopted with minority representation of a broader kind in mind. It was to ensure that a Nationalist was returned in Lisburn, and a Unionist guaranteed in Londonderry. It arguably also ensured the survival of the Alliance Party.

What we are left with is a mathematical balance that guarantees a strong opposition to the lead parties in each ‘tribe’. Whilst this was probably not a concern for the powers that be at Whitehall in 1998, today it proves a useful counterbalance.

Arguing that Northern Ireland needs a 108 member Assembly for reasons of strong parliamentary democracy is not an argument that would be popular with the public, or one that is helped by the overall quality of representation.

However what is undeniably true is that a 72-member Assembly would decimate the UUP and SDLP, possibly to the point of destruction. The fact that doing so would fill a mere £5 million of the black hole in public finances that the UUP estimate to be £1.7 billion and the SDLP £2 billion, is one that is never publicised and as a result the debate is hideously ill informed. It also does not throw a flattering light on the First Minister’s intentions.

The UUP and SDLP will not bring forward this argument, they couldn’t. Post ‘Expenses-gate’ and with Stephen Nolan constantly and deliberately feeding the at times unfair public perception of Stormont, such an argument would be madness.

However the saving grace for the future of choice between Assembly coalitions will oddly be Jim Allister. A large assembly means a large Unionist bench, and a large Unionist bench divided three ways is very much in the interests of Sinn Fein. They will not countenance a reduction in the number of MLAs, certainly not before they have had their turn in the First Minister’s chair.

The real target for cuts should not be political opposition in Parliament Buildings, it should be the bloated and decadent excesses on the rest of the Stormont Estate. Numbers of Civil Servants is excessive, and strangling the private sector. That however, is another sacred cow which no political party can afford to slay in public.

Filed under: Assembly reform, finances

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