Why we have a duty to make demands of our politicians after May 5

Pictured at a pre-election televised debate earlier this month are UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, DUP leader Arlene Foster, Alliance Party leader David Ford and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. Picture: Hugh Russell

And so we enter the home straight of what has so far been a very lack lustre election campaign. Maybe the sparks will fly between now and polling day on May 5, or maybe our politics has just run out of spark for now.

Certainly there has been no high profile ‘fuss at the bus' moment, and thee has been no constituency defining debate such as that which effectively rendered Cecil Walker a beaten candidate in his last campaign. It could be the case that the excitement (yes, politics can be exciting, occasionally) will follow the election campaign and count, when the parties sit down to agree a Programme for Government. That is certainly a feature of this election which differs from the past.

All parties have agreed that immediately after the vote, and prior to the first meeting of a freshly constituted Executive, the parties who have had an entitlement to ministerial seat bestowed on them by the public, will meet, negotiate and hopefully hammer out a roadmap for the next five years. In the past the D'Hont mechanism has been run and ministers already in place before the programme is agreed.

This new method makes sense, in lots of ways. One of the main faults in the outgoing Assembly and Executive was a failure to approach problems in a genuinely cross-departmental way. Sure there were lots of ministerial working groups and positive sounding statements about ‘working together' but the evidence of the outputs is thin on the ground.

That leads to a situation where corporation tax is going to be cut, as are student numbers, which is nonsensical and just an example of one policy colliding with another, rather than complementing. The silo approach means that ministers protect their own budget and priorities above anything else and it means that when the Executive says the economy is at the heart of the Programme for Government, the laudable sentiment is undermined by political reality.

The two-week period set aside for the Programme for Government discussions may prove to be a worthwhile investment of time if it creates a more cohesive government. It also increases the potential for the smaller parties to have a say in setting the agenda; Sinn Fein and the DUP will want the others around the Executive table and concessions could be won on key priority areas, what Stephen Nolan likes to call ‘red lines' when subjecting the party representatives to excruciating interrogation.

David Dobbin, the chief executive of Dale Farm, recently chaired an ad hoc group which examined energy infrastructure and cost in Northern Ireland. He was moved last week to call for a ‘more collective Executive' amid criticism of the lack of action on energy costs. His warning on the potential closure of more manufacturing plants should ring in the ears of the politicians as they set out their priorities.

The new Executive will be a streamlined version with the number of departments and ministers reduced to nine rather than the previous 12 and that too offers some hope of a more joined up approach to policy making.

The business community should not under-estimate the challenges which will be played out politically post election. The wish-list will always outweigh the available resources and difficult choices have to be made. All the while the outside world is making a case for their own issue to be put ‘at the heart of government'.

Candidates and parties will have been lobbied relentlessly as they pulled together their manifestos, and that's a fair part of the democratic process. Just last week the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors was making the case for increased infrastructure spending, and had the courage to call for the introduction of domestic water rates to fund the spend required, even though that is likely to be met with a stony silence from the parties.

The retails sector wants further investment in town centres and a reduction in business rates, the hospitality trade is demanding an overhaul of licensing laws, the Universities need increased investment, as does our outdated water and sewage systems. All of these are legitimate aspirations and do have a place in a new Programme for Government, but this list doesn't even begin to take account of the need for increased and smarter health spending, the woes faced by our schools or the valid claims of the arts sector.

Consider also that the tough negotiations around Programme for Government will take place immediately after an election which is tiring, frustrating and involves a huge personal commitment for each candidate.

So we are entitled to make demands of our politicians, in fact we have a duty to do so. But keep some empathy in reserve too, this time round the election on Thursday week isn't just an end point to a campaign; it's the first step in a setting up the joined Executive which we all want to see.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Angela McGowan


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