Why I voted against it

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In this article SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood outlines his belief that the launch of Stormont’s finalised Programme for Government (PfG) is a lost opportunity. He adds that the PfG should have grasped the opportunity to envision a political agenda beyond the restrictions of Westminster...

I found myself this week a little frustrated by the fact that our President is restricted from entering the day to day discourse of political affairs. The principle of this Presidential policy is, of course, entirely right and reasonable. Nevertheless my frustration remained intact. Why you may well ask? Why concentrate on such an obscure area of political tradition?

It was the launch of Stormont’s finalised Programme for Government (PfG) which brought it on. We’ve now waited 10 long months, since last May’s election, for a governmental programme. It was finally forthcoming.

Far be it for me to attempt to accurately interpret the views and attitudes of President Michael D Higgins, but my gut political instinct told me that his views would have been most enlightening concerning our PfG here in the North.

Hence my frustration that he could not comment.

Ireland has been blessed in her Presidents. We in the North, for obvious reasons, bade a reluctant farewell to President McAleese after her 14 years in office. Her thematic endeavour of ‘building bridges’ ran in tune and in tandem with our on-going peace and political processes. Although in its early stages, I have a feeling that the theme promoted by the presidency of Michael D Higgins could perhaps prove of equal value to the circumstance of stable devolution which we now enjoy.

President Higgins has been causing something of a quiet stir since taking up office, giving a variety of lengthy speeches around the country. The main thrust of these speeches argues that, combined with the financial hardships of the present, there is equally ‘an intellectual crisis that is far more serious than the economic one which fills the papers, and dominates the programmes in our media’. In essence, he argues, that the combined retractions in our public and private finances have consequently led to a retraction in the horizon of our intellectual scope and ambition. That a lack of money has in turn led to a lack of ideas, equating to a lack of belief in government, society’s and individual’s capacity to overcome political problems. President Higgins has described this phenomena as an intellectual winter.

It is this thought which brings us back to Stormont’s PfG and my party’s criticism of it.

A Programme for Government is traditionally designed as a statement of intent, articulating the vision and progress which it is hoped any given democratic mandate can achieve. It should be something to look forward to.

The lack of coverage or excitement surrounding our own PfG in the North, be it in the media or amongst the public, therefore spoke volumes.

Let’s be clear, there were welcome elements within it. The increased tourism targets, the commitment to centre a Creative Industries hub at Ebrington, the inclusion of the City of Culture, are all positive developments. Credit where credit is due.

Overall though, based on its macro economic and social vision, our PfG did not instigate or garner a hope that radical, required change is being undertaken by Stormont’s leadership. Rather, there is an overwhelming sense that the agenda being pursued by a Conservative government at Westminster is being passed on to our people.

In other words the retraction of ideas and ambition, of which President Higgins has spoken, has soaked into our own Executive.

The problems we face here are too great for such a lethargic and constrained mentality.

Unemployment, especially amongst the young, is rife. 8.4% here in Derry, 60,000 across the North. These numbers do not even touch on the thousands who have been generationally economically inactive. Our business exports remain low in comparison to the rest of the island, our private sector remains weak and our public services face the prospect of becoming further stretched.

It is such circumstances, I would argue, which demand broader ambition and bolder ideas.

This PfG should have grasped the opportunity to envision a political agenda beyond the restrictions of Westminster. This PfG could have set out a road map to garner the richness of our renewable energies through the Green New Deal. It could have unlocked the potential of social enterprises. It could have set a firm example for the protection of those most vulnerable in our society during this prolonged recession. It hasn’t.

The great misfortune of this, is its lost opportunity. A consequence of unwanted austerity is that it results in many economic and social ambiguities being stripped away. Only the fundamental pillars of our society remain.

The opportunity, now therefore, exists to build and fashion these founding pillars into a society capable of meeting the aspirations of our people.

As President Higgins paints it

‘It is in the winter we can see the bare trunks of trees, the encroachments of that which threatens the growth of our spring’

This PfG should have been a clear and commanding articulation of the North’s ambition. It wasn’t. Instead Stormont’s leadership chose a statement of stunted aspiration.

I’m glad I voted against it.