Thursday 29 November 2007

PfG – the dog that didn't bark

In October this blog was pessimistic about the prospects of an agreed Programme for Government (PfG). In a naïve way, we believed that the PfG would be a genuine manifesto for the government of Northern Ireland, covering all of the issues that touch on people's lives and that the Executive would have a say on. Since so many of these issues are contentious, we foresaw enormous difficulties in getting them agreed between the two communities.

We were wrong. The PfG as subsequent published (for consultation) is not a blueprint for government at all – it is a vague shopping list of innocuous promises that no right-thinking person could oppose. It is a manifesto for an election, not for a government.

The PfG is chock-full of impressive promises with aspirational dates. This thing will be done by 2011, another thing will be done by 2016, something else by 2018, … Some of the promises are touchingly silly, like that of 'consolidating and steamlining 70% of government department and agency websites by 2009'; others are just impossible to measure, since the PfG does not provide either the base line figures, or a definition of what its goal actually means. For example, it promises to 'grow the creative industries sector by up to 15% by 2011' – what is the creative industries sector? What will be grown – the turn-over, profit, employment, exports, …? And what does 'up to 15%' mean? It could mean 1%, or 3% or 6%. How does the PfG intend to grow this ill-defined sector by this ill-defined amount? Well, we don't know, because it is just an empty promise.

The whole document is full of this type of vagueness. No wonder the Executive agreed it – firstly because most of the goal dates fall long after the next election (and many fall even after the following election in 2015!), and secondly because the aspirations are so vague and generic that there is nothing to disagree with.

But the biggest flaw in the PfG is what is not in it. It entirely avoids all of the key contentious issues in Northern Ireland! There is the barest of a whisper about the housing lists, and certainly nothing that indicates how the scandalous (and politically inspired) housing situation in north Belfast is going to be resolved. On a related issue, the physical sectarian divisions, particularly in Belfast, are ignored. There is no plan to break down the barriers of sectarian intolerance and bigotry, either mental or physical. There is no mention whatsoever of culture or language issues, or of how the Executive aims to promote the use of Irish and Ulster-Scots, as the Good Friday Agreement requires. Sectarian marches, cross-border issues, … the list of omissions is long and slightly puzzling, until you look at this document in the contest of the Ministerial Code that all the parties signed up to.

The Ministerial Code is the document that sets out the rules for what must, and what need not, be submitted for discussion and agreement to the Executive as a whole. The key section here is 2.4, which states that:

Any matter which:
(i) cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers;
(ii) requires agreement on prioritisation;
(iii) requires the adoption of a common position;
(iv) has implications for the Programme for Government;
(v) is significant or controversial and is clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Agreement; or
(vi) is significant or controversial and which has been determined by the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly to be a matter that should be considered by the Executive Committee

shall be brought to the attention of the Executive Committee by the responsible Minister to be considered by the Committee.

And there is the answer … in sub-paragraph (v), that innocuous little phrase 'clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme' gives it away. Anything that is in the PfG may need to be referred back to the Executive, where it could be vetoed by one or other side, but anything not in the PfG cannot be 'outside its scope', and therefore, unless it clearly 'cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers', it is left entirely at the discretion of the Minister responsible.

So, to cut a long story short, when the DUP, in its 2007 manifesto, boasted about having clipped Sinn Féin's wings by ensuring that it would have a veto over Sinn Féin ministers' decisions, it may have been a little economical with the truth. The Ministerial Code may certainly give the impression that the Executive is the key decision-making organ, but only for issues in the PfG. Since the PfG is so anodyne, there is little if any wing-clipping. The PfG represents the DUP's ineffectiveness.

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