By Quintin Oliver
It seems fashionable to knock our politicians – our MLAs and MPs are lazy, incompetent, corrupt, petty-minded and self-serving, apparently, incapable of bold or imaginative decisions, always preferring to race to the bottom, succumb to populism and ignore the evidence staring them in the face… Not just the inevitable taxi drivers report this, but the theme runs through my wider business, social and media circles, too. It permeates how the debate is ‘framed’ in many locations.
Leaving aside that they have ended 40 years of the most recent bout of our Troubles, meaning that 100 people per year possibly owe their lives to this uneasy peace, how should we assess their record of achievement? What have they done, not done and how might they compare to other jurisdictions?
First, we enjoy a political stability that is the envy of other polities – rock solid, certain and predictable; admittedly it represents a ‘stability prone to gridlock’, because of the five-party compulsory coalition and the lack of an opposition, but of the five major jurisdictions across these islands ours is the only one not to change hands last year – nor in the foreseeable.
Second, despite the critics predicting it could not be done, we have an agreed Programme for Government and five year Budget; we have a functioning Assembly, albeit light on substantive legislation, support for law and order, the PSNI and the Prison Service – united against so-called dissidents and any use of violence for political ends.
Third, we have a natural and almost normalised attitude to North-South and East-West relations – no longer pickets outside Dublin gatherings or southern visitors, but business-like negotiations and daily calls to explore an ‘all-island’ approach form unionist and nationalist alike across health, justice, economic development and agriculture.
Fourth, some of the knotty and wicked issues that bedevilled the past decade of stop-go devolution are beginning to be unravelled – the Education and Skills Authority Bill has been laid, a student fee package was implemented, prison reform has commenced, the Reform of Public Administration has been reopened, the Desertcreat Police College tender is being let, the Maze Long Kesh site (even that name was unutterable a year ago) is ready for development by the Board now appointed, Crumlin Road Gaol and even Girdwood have been progressed, and the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre burnt down in 2000, has been emerged Phoenix-like from the ashes!
Fifth, 2012’s ‘Our Time, our Place’ has been delivered faultlessly – with the Titanic Signature Building’s opening, the splendid Mac, Gaelaras in Derry, the new Lyric, and Crescent Arts Centres all contributing to our tourist and cultural offering – even our golfers have excelled. Derry-Londonderry 2013 now looms appealingly…
Sixth, without many economic levers in devolved hands (where have the Scottish debates on devo-max and devo-plus been, on this side of the water, incidentally?), Stormont has still adjusted our rates levy with the ‘Tesco Tax’ redistributed towards rebates for small business and older citizens; water charges have been resisted.
Seventh, we have seen innovative legislation introduced on sexual exploitation and trafficking, pleural plaques – an asbestos-induced condition – on training and controls for young drivers to reduce unnecessary road deaths and high insurance premiums, on autism, on caravaners’ rights, on sunbeds in tanning shops, on use of plastic bags, on smoking in cars with children…
Eighth, have any of these critics been in any other political environment recently? I contend that most political bodies split three ways – the top third are excellent, thoughtful, perceptive, aware of their strengths and weaknesses and of their powers and limitations – and I do believe we have our fair share at Stormont; the middle third can excel on their areas of expertise, perhaps service and advice to constituents or deploying skills derived from their own background or previous employment; the final third are just ordinary people trying their best. My counterparts report the same frustrations – and exceptional politicians – in Holyrood, the Oireachtas and Cardiff Bay alike.
Of course we must all strive for improvement, excellence and better results from our imperfect system, but can we try to see how the glass is to be filled, rather than how we can spill more? Or else we risk further hampering our capacity to tackle the remaining conflict legacy issues and rebalancing our economy.
Quintin Oliver is director of Northern Ireland based lobbying company Stratagem. In 2010 he was appointed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to be its special adviser on Northern Ireland matters.