New Executive won't deliver if left to be an ivory tower
LAST Friday our firm, in partnership with the NI Chamber of Commerce, organised an event which looked at our new Executive and Assembly and examined how the business community can best engage with the new political set up at Stormont.
By necessity the event, hosted in the magnificent offices of Allstate, was organised at short notice but was nevertheless very well attended with more than 80 businesses registering within just a few days. The chatter among attendees over tea and coffee was notable for a few reasons.
Firstly there is no doubt that the rebooted Stormont Executive carries with it the goodwill of the people here. Okay, there was no dancing in the street to celebrate D'Hont being run, and people are by now wary of placing too much faith in a political system which has to date under-delivered. But the parties and the Ministers do have support. So too does the Secretary of State.
Among the business people I have met since last weekend Julian Smyth is admired, for being more active than his two immediate predecessors (insert your own joke here…) and for clearly being determined to stick to his deadline of January 13. Without that I think we can all accept that the talks would still be rumbling along.
The Executive is a mix of the experienced and the fresh faced. Arlene Foster has always been a minister under devolution, never a backbench MLA; Edwin Poots is now on to his fourth portfolio; Peter Weir, Conor Murphy, Michelle O'Neill have all been ministers before. On the other side of the scale Nichola Mallon, Deirdre Hargey, Naomi Long and Robin Swann are taking up ministerial office for the first time but all have political experience from varying senior roles and none should be overawed by office.
All of that experience will be necessary if the Executive is to address the very serious issues we face as a society. The New Decade, New Approach ‘deal' is heavy on aspiration but light on the financial muscle required to deliver the many crowd pleasing pledges within. The financial package published by the NIO last week was underwhelming and in fact amounts to the first serious obstacle to the Executive.
Julian Smyth is also being very clear that even the limited additional funds come with strings attached and a new joint committee which he will chair will review public spending going forward. That sounds like a pre-baked answer to the criticism which will inevitably be contained in the report of the inquiry into the RHI scandal.
But the Secretary of State is also challenging our politicians to agree their own priorities and to get serious about taking responsibility for raising additional revenue from our own means.
Isn't it ironic that in 2007 former Secretary of State forced a devolution deal among parties in part by threatening to impose water charges, now we have a deal with water charges, or some variation, firmly on the political agenda?
None of the options to raise new monies available to the Executive are popular, but government cannot be about being popular all the time. Pay parity for public workers is great, and our nurses and teachers do deserve a rise, but its an illusion that parity exists on the other side of the accounting table. A government which is forever low tax and high spending is not sustainable and serious conversations are needed about initiatives which will raise funds.
It remains a nonsense that we have free prescriptions across the board, that anyone including full-time workers and well off retirees receive free public transport, while we continue to pay no water charges and lower tuition fees than elsewhere in the UK, while our political leaders demand additional funds. Those demands, legitimate and worth making, would sound much more realistic if some hard decisions were taken at home too.
Within the first week of the new political dispensation the possibility of water charges was raised by Edwin Poots and quickly dismissed by his own leader and by Sinn Fein. The issue of tuition fees was raised by Arlene Foster and rejected by Michelle O'Neill. It all has the air of kite-flying and solo runs when what we need is a strategic and joined up conversation, firstly among the Executive parties and then with the public. All of that may come in time, in fact it needs to.
With all parties back in the Executive and a public more tuned in to the financial pressures faced by government this could be the time to have open discussions about the hard choices. The Executive is hampered by only having two years left on the current mandate but even 24 months offers some time to begin to move on a transformation agenda.
Back to last week's event. Our underlying message was that the business community, just like civic society and the third sector, has a role to play in ensuring we have a sustainable and effective government. We all have a duty to engage our MLAs and Ministers; the Executive and Assembly will not deliver if left to be an ivory tower.
The Assembly is back - and we're all in this together.
:: Brendan Mulgrew (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: PaulMcErlean