Month: September 2010

An opportunity to reinvent government.

The posturing, positioning and indignant defiance over impending reduction in government expenditure is rife. But it is not just David Cameron who thinks Northern Ireland has a command economy that matches anything once boasted by the Soviet bloc.

In the rent-seeking economy of Northern Ireland, it is deemed politic to blame others for the withdrawal of funding across the economy.  It is also an indictment of both the poverty of aspiration and lack of imagination among the political class.

Much of  Northern Ireland government spending is decided in Whitehall, for example social security spend, or Europe, the bulk of DARD’s money pot. Much of the discussion will be placed on efficiency of Departmental administration of those funds.  The range and scope of much of health expenditure is also directed from Whitehall, though there is a great deal of scope to review how that money is managed and spent.  Similarly, education could be reviewed in the context of building and deepening academic excellence at all levels rather than political polemic. More importantly, as the political class seems increasing remote for the electorate, perhaps it is time to think how government could be devolved back to the individual. Northern Ireland government requires a total rethink.

The thinking has to start somewhere. thedissenter asked Eamonn Butler, Director of the Adam Smith Institute for some basic pointers our politicians might take on board when considering ‘cuts’ in a wider dimension. Five questions in almost as many minutes. Eamonn is keynote speaker at the Agenda NI seminar Rethinking Government on 26th October at the Grosvenor House Conference Centre, Belfast. It will be interesting to hear how the politicians, social sector and business community respond to his thinking.

It is not time to cut government in Northern Ireland: it is time to take the opportunity to reinvent government in Northern Ireland.

Eamonn Bulter is Director and co-founder of Britain’s leading free-market policy think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, and a leading author and broadcaster on economics and social issues. Westminster insiders look forward each week to his wry online commentary on politics and politicians.

Along with his colleague Dr Madsen Pirie, Eamonn is the winner of the 2010 National Free Enterprise Award, for the greatest contribution to furthering the market economy. In February 2010, Total Politics magazine ranked Dr Butler at 30th on a list of key unelected figures whose work and views exert measurable political influence today. He is Vice-President of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international association of distinguished economists and entrepreneurs, founded in 1947 by the Nobel Prize winner F A Hayek.

Eamonn is author of books on a wide range of subjects, from economics through psychology to politics. These include easy-read introductions to the economists Milton Friedman, F A Hayek and Adam Smith, and a short explanation of how markets work, called (modestly) The Best Book on the Market, which he wrote to be “so simple that even politicians can understand it.”

The ADAM SMITH INSTITUTE is one of the world’s leading think tanks. Through its research, education programmes and media appearances, it promotes free markets, limited government, and an open society. It also has a regular blog.

Today, these timeless ideas are more important than ever. Government spending is near 50 percent of GDP, the budget deficit has reached historic levels, and the state intrudes into almost every area of our lives. Businesses are tied up in red tape, and families struggle under a growing tax burden.

The Adam Smith Institute does not aim to think about policy for its own sake, but to change events. It works with politicians from all sides, and engineers policies which are not just economically sound, but calibrated to be politically deliverable too.

The Institute has an enviable record of success. Throughout its history, it has been at the forefront of moves to reduce taxes, inject choice and competition into public services, and create a more free and prosperous society.

But the Institute’s work is about more than simply affecting policy; it also aims to educate young people. With its easy-to-read beginners’ guides, its student conferences and seminars, and its school and university visits, the Institute aims to reach and inspire the next generation.

Is Unionism Prepared for Change?

The News Letter Union 2021 Series of articles through the summer has been an interesting read.  It also provides thedissenter a useful way to address the second part of post-election review: Part 1 having looked at relative electoral strengths, historical and current.

Having looked at the News Letter’s list of questions thedissenter has reversed the order to start with consideration of what challenges 2011 might hold for Unionists. There is every indication that Sinn Fein is gearing up for another crisis and more talks within the next twelve months – chip, chip, chip. The big question is then ‘how prepared is Unionism for the road ahead to 2021 and beyond?’, including the challenge of starting to prepare for that journey now.

This is a slightly longer version than appears in the News Letter, free from the paper’s 600 word limit.


Moving Forward Part 2

It is not about whether or not a Sinn Fein First Minster is acceptable. The current political structures, into which both the DUP and UUP have bought, mean that this is a possibility though far from a certainty.

In his recent News Letter article Alex Kane rightly outlines the challenge for Unionists should Sinn Fein be the largest party at the next election.  While electoral pacts have been discussed widely, alternative strategies have been absent in public discussion.

There is a widespread acceptance that we have a great deal less than good Government at Stormont.  Following on from Hillsborough, we are still waiting for Ritchie and Empey to get back to the Executive on improving process to make Government work. It is most likely that the failure is fundamentally within the structures.  In which case, likely solutions are only possible with a complete rethink.

Stoic acceptance of the institutions as they are is down to a failure of Unionism at the outset to have had a clear agenda for Government – devolution seems to have been an end in itself. If neither main Unionist Party leader is willing to serve as Deputy First Minister then are they prepared to bring the house down?

Being ‘prepared’ would mean having an alternative pathway, and working hard on preparing the ground for such a scenario.  Regardless of this scenario playing out in the event of Sinn Fein being the largest party, the growing logjam and catalogue of failure to deliver, may mean a time-out is demanded from the public. Hillsborough showed how hopelessly unprepared Unionism is in planning for the future, too willing to deal with the minutiae (badly) and seemingly unable to challenge a tired and empty Republican narrative – St Andrews before, Belfast before that, and before then….

All very well, but what would that prepared pathway be? A plan for Government by voluntary coalition that would provide accountability, stability and mature democratic checks and balances?  Fewer Executive Departments for sure, and far fewer than 26 local Councils: unnecessary for a small geographic area of under 2 million people – 3 Councils perhaps, or none at all?

At a bigger level what would that Government be about?  The recent Centre for Social Justice Report, Breakthrough Northern Ireland,  has shown the challenge in rebuilding society – all the billions of EU Peace funding shows that money is not the solution.  Are our areas of deprivation worse than the worst in Manchester, Liverpool or even parts of London? Are we that special? Troubles aside, economic and social breakdown is a story familiar too elsewhere in the UK with identical themes.

The corollary of social breakdown is even greater challenge in respect of education, where the selection debate has overshadowed the failings at primary level. If there is social reform, there must also be economic reform.

The time for the end of the Invest NI life-support machine is coming – the business sector is as much grounded in a dependency culture as the social sector. Nationalists cannot complain about a significant reduction in Northern Ireland’s public sector. If there is to be an all-Islands economy (one of the largest in the world of which we are already an integrated part) then the public sector engagement in the economy has to be reduced to the UK level (even at its current high of 50%) . Perhaps we should aim to be close to Irish Republic’s smaller public sector, otherwise a reduction in corporation tax is pointless and should not even be under consideration.

Those who are creating wealth in society must be encouraged at the expense of those who profit from public subsidy. Far from NI Water returning to the Department of Regional Development it must be prepared for the private sector.

It is not necessary for Unionist parties to unite structurally to agree common points on a future for good government.  The Unionist electorate is not a single monolithic body. It does not lack choice in Party, rather in leadership and ideas on moving forward. No matter the number of parties, Unionism is currently failed by a lack of strategic and purposeful leadership.  There would be a collective electorate groan at the thought of the present Unionist leaderships entering more talks on the future of Northern Ireland given their abject failure to date.

What is required to 2021 and beyond is coherent vision and a policy driven agenda that sets out what is necessary for a small, open, free and intelligence-led economy making a positive social, cultural and political contribution within the UK. This, far far more than (and probably in spite of) political manoeuvering or structural machinations, will build and strengthen the Union.

The News Letter’s Union 2021 Series asks 5 questions from contributors:

  1. What do you think Northern Ireland’s Union with Great Britain will look like in 2021?
  2.  What would you like it to look like?
  3. Is unionist unity essential for the achievement of your vision?
  4. If so, what does that mean?
  5. Could you accept a Sinn Fein first minister?