Political progress has been modest but parties insist legislation is not the only measure of success

As Stormont is dissolved ahead of May 5's election Political Correspondent John Manley assesses how the executive and legislative assembly fared over the past five years...

Peter Robinson (left) and Martin McGuinness had an often strained relationship during the five-year mandate
Analysis by John Manley

"FOUR or five years from now, we will not be judged on the size of our first preference votes but on what we have done to make life better for the people whom we represent – we will be judged on delivery."

Those were the words of then First Minister Peter Robinson, speaking in May 2011 as the assembly convened after the election.

In the previous four-year mandate, the DUP and Sinn Féin had bedded-in reasonably comfortably during their first stint in government together and with both parties adding to their tally of MLAs, expectations for political progress were reasonably good.

So how much did Stormont actually deliver in the following five years? In terms of legislation, the numbers are neither shamefully low or commendably high – they are just OK.

Drill down into the substance of what has been passed by the assembly, however, and there seems an apparent dearth of imagination and determination.

Of the five dozen odd bills sponsored by the executive – five were private members’ bills – few could be regarded particularly pioneering.

The plastic bag tax is often lauded as an example of an effective, progressive and popular measure, yet it is inconspicuous in its isolation, while its impact on reducing overall litter levels is debatable.

The majority of legislation that doesn’t relate to budgets and other administrative business, merely tweaks the current system.

Most progress meanwhile has been made around the negotiating table rather than in the assembly – the latter merely implementing solutions thrashed out elsewhere in private.

Yet the big ticket issues of flags, parades and the past are endlessly fudged or deferred to commissions.

Any progress should be welcomed, Stormont’s big two parties would argue, and once upon a time that was indeed the case.

However, processes such as the Haass talks in late 2013 and the two subsequent rounds of Stormont House negotiations are merely a substitute for democracy not complementary to it.

In defence of the executive and the assembly you can point to various crises that have undermined the smooth running of the institutions – flag protests, parading issues, funding shortfalls, IRA murder, letters from America, welfare reform – but often the parties themselves bear much of the responsibility for the ill that transpired.

The events early last autumn triggered by the murder of Kevin McGuigan arguably marked a low point in the mandate as devolution was apparently brought to the brink of collapse. In a series of events which demonstrated how abnormal the north’s political system remained, Sinn Féin’s paramilitary antecedents came back to haunt it, prompting the Ulster Unionists to leave the executive and the DUP to embark on its ill-advised policy of ministerial resignations and re-nominations.

It proved a particularly farcical episode for Peter Robinson's party and one that no doubt hastened his departure soon afterwards.

The five-year mandate was not a complete failure but years earlier at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, expectations about the effectiveness of devolved government would no doubt have been much greater.

As the two biggest executive parties are keen to point out, the success of the mandate cannot be judged on legislation alone.

Instead they highlight how 66 of 82 commitments in the Programme for Government have been achieved – a success rate of 80.5 per cent, compared to the previous mandate's 69.5 per cent.

But whether the public will regard these statistics as the delivery they were promised is debatable.

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