The Stormont Executive has twelve departments but they’re not like the twelve disciples. They don’t have a single leader they can all look up to. They’re little self-governing colonies, each with their own leader.
Their main purpose is to destroy those outside their own party group and their first big opportunity comes in May’s election. In the meantime ministers could try to damage colleagues from within. There’s no such thing as collective responsibility. They could behave like Ichneumon wasps. They lay their eggs in caterpillars and then the larvae hollow out their host’s body from the inside. Ok so it’s an extreme analogy – but there’s no incentive for ministers to work together and every incentive for them to be difficult.
Before Christmas, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson published his draft budget. It was a “Christmas present for the people of Northern Ireland,” as he called it. Water charges weren’t to be introduced, sports facilities would be renewed and jobs would be created. It was all good news. But, as is so often the case, the devil was to come in the detail. The bad news was down to the other ministers. Now we know. We have each department’s budget statement. They’re highly variable.
Some commentators have given ministers marks for their efforts. Conor Murphy, Caitriona Ruane, Michelle Gildernew and Arlene Foster score better than the others. Taken together the most remarkable thing about the plans is their lack of consistency and cohesion. Some include firm proposals while others just list possible options.
Now it’s time for the rest of us to comment. Interest groups should definitely respond but if you’re unattached to a group would you know where to start? No? Me neither. If government ministers can’t devise plans consistent with other minister’s plans how can we ordinary mortals without civil service back-up be expected to cope.
What’s clear is that they have at least one eye on the election. Doesn’t the endless petty point-scoring get you down? It’s such a painfully obvious ‘game’.
There remains a question mark as to whether or not our unique system of government can work in the longer term. Yes there have been some big advances and we should be thankful for that. Justice powers were devolved early last year and Peter Robinson seems increasingly willing to work with Martin McGuinness. But the parties still don’t need to work constructively together. Can such a system survive when some ministers are expected to take more unpopular decisions than others? We’ll have to wait and see. The jury is still out on that big question.