Election year, again.

Motivation has been hard to find at the outset of 2011. It’s election year, again. To get started, a view on where matters stand politically in Northern Ireland generally.


The UK Government’s economic measures to tackle the country’s financial deficit will start to impact on all citizens in 2011. It will be a tough year ahead for everyone. The cost of living is rising, with households already noticing  increased costs creeping through to the weekly shopping. Just as households need to keep their spending under control, the need for good and efficient government at all levels is essential. Northern Ireland is not an exception in this regard.

Northern Ireland media focus in early 2011 seems to be on health inefficiencies and disorganisation, before that water was in chaos; before that, roads; an education department at odds with its schools; an agriculture minister who failed to properly account for the land being used for farming. And so on…

With each Department being largely independent of the Executive, except when requiring collective cover, it is no surprise that initial budget ‘agreement’ failed to indicate anything more than broad allocation of spending across Departments. Subsequent budget negotiation appears to be largely through the media rather than round the Executive table. The budget process is not building confidence. Rather than rethinking and shrinking government, the talk is of expanding revenue – taxing to spend on the same old, same old.

It is difficult to be very positive about politics in Northern Ireland in the months, or years, ahead. In almost every aspect of Government the Stormont Executive is a sorry excuse. Inspiration, ideas and impact are absent. Ideology, intransigence and incompetence seem to be the order of the day, to a greater or lesser degree.

Of course Party leaflets will drop through the letter boxes in the run-up to May’s election outlining the achievements of this government, of which almost every Northern Ireland political Party is now part.  Some of this is already being tested by the DUP and Sinn Fein, to greater or lesser success. Most 2011 election information will be little different to that provided for the Westminster election in 2010 – can anyone remember any of the key election promises from less than a year ago? Fine words bearing little momentum towards, or even capacity to kick start, necessary change.

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland would benefit from an effective opposition.

If ever there were a time for the UUP and SDLP to ditch government and enter ‘opposition’ it would be now. They are largely irrelevant to a Government steered by the DUP and Sinn Fein, serving only to underscore the validity of the system; strengthened in 2010 by the arrival of the Alliance Party to the trough.

Of course there is no ‘money’ available for an official opposition. Naturally, financial consideration comes before principle and doing the right thing.

The failure of a DUP/Sinn Fein led government is no surprise because there is no common cause; no common vision binding together the programme for government. Compulsory or enforced coalition, with a prohibition on voting a party out of government guarantees deadlock and failure.

Far from being “an extraordinary endorsement” of progress in NI, as suggested by Secretary of State Owen Paterson, Martin McGuinness as First Minister would only prove that the deck chairs on the Titanic have once again been moved.

The jobs that seem safe at present are those of the political class, who huddle around any of their number under threat. This represents the most often quoted success of Stormont, that it exists. That seems to be enough for our politicians. In the words of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness respectively, following on from Hillsborough 2010:

“… there will be no going back to the past.”

“We need to make life better for our children and for our grandchildren.”

Of course we cannot go back in time, but neither should we stagnate without change. With the authority of power comes responsibility to use that power wisely ‘for our children’; and if the electorate believes that power is not being used wisely, that the future being shaped by an administration is not attractive, then surely it should have the democratic choice to vote for change.

The Belfast Agreement is over twelve years old.  It was a creation of its moment. Time to move on.

A government that cannot be fundamentally changed has no democratic mandate. Just ask an Egyptian.

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