Members of the DUP have tabled a motion to be debated at the Assembly on Monday 19 January calling for a reduction in the number of government departments. The motion, tabled by DUP MLAs Simon Hamilton, Peter Weir and Ian Paisley Junior reads:
"That this Assembly recognises the importance of ensuring that the maximum amount of public spending is directed at frontline services; and calls on the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to bring forward proposals to reduce the number of government Departments."
Although not specified in the motion or the DUP's press release, the number of Executive departments envisaged appears to be six. Simon Hamilton, quoted by the BBC, said: "We used to have six and I think that should at least be a target number to get it down to."
The number of Executive departments is decided by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting jointly, so while the DUP may be able to count on Peter Robinson, nothing will happen unless Sinn Féin agrees.
The interesting thing about this DUP proposal is that it is, in fact, beneficial to the nationalist block, and detrimental to the unionist block. With the current strengths of the parties in the Assembly, a ten member Executive (as at present) actually gives unionists a majority – 6 Ministers, to 4 nationalist Ministers. Any even-numbered Executive with less than ten members would have equal numbers of unionist and nationalist members. An eight member Executive would have 4 unionists (3 DUP, 1 UUP) and 4 nationalists (3 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP); and a six member executive would have 3 unionists (2 DUP, 1 UUP) and 3 nationalists (2 Sinn Féin, 1 SDLP). Odd numbered Executives would have one more unionist than nationalist Members.
So why are the DUP proposing to increase the strength of nationalists in the Executive? Their claimed motivation is to 'ensure that the maximum amount of public spending is directed at frontline services', but since the number of civil servants would not change, the administrative costs of providing this 'front line' spending would change very little. Greater economies could be gained by reducing the number of advisors and office costs for each Minister – but in fact, if each Minister in a six-member Executive had greater responsibilities they may well feel the need for even more staff and administration, and thus the saving would be minimal.
The actual outcome of such a slimming-down of the Executive would be to ensure nationalist responsibility for exactly half of all policy areas, with the concomitant increase in the visibility of nationalist Ministers, policies and outcomes. The losers would be the DUP itself, who would lose two Ministers, and the UUP and SF who would each lose one. It is a very strange political party that proposes to reduce its own power and position, for no particularly strong reason.
This is a bizarre proposal from the DUP, and one that this blog will continue to watch, to see if there is not, buried within it, some ulterior motive that is not immediately obvious.
20 January, Update:
The Assembly voted for the DUP motion, but with Sinn Féin abstaining. This does not mean that the proposal will actually lead to a reduction in the Executive in the short term, as it must be agreed by both the DUP and Sinn Féin. But the vote shows, at least, that Sinn Féin are not strongly opposed to it. The SDLP, unfortunately, disgraced themselves by accusing the DUP of "a power grab". The DUP denied this, correctly pointing out that it would mean fewer DUP ministers. It seems that the SDLP cannot do simple arithmetic.