By Stephen Orme
As a student of Politics, I am all too familiar with the governing institutions and history of Northern Ireland.
Because of this I find it impossible to allow Mr Oliver’s article (here), “In Defence of Politics”, to go unchallenged.
At the risk of over-generalising, Mr Oliver appears to argue four main points:
:: Our current political system has given us stability and peace.
:: We have a basically functioning Assembly with an agreed Programme for Government and Budget.
:: The 2012 “Our Time, Our Place” project is an unmitigated success.
:: The Assembly is doing all it can with very limited powers, and its problems can be found in all legislatures.
Before offering a rebuttal to the above convictions, it must be noted that this Assembly is the first form of government Northern Ireland has seen that is both legitimate to the whole population, and stable.
Such an achievement, in a country racked since its inception by conflict over its very existence, is enormous.
However to the generation coming of age in the new post-conflict Northern Ireland, an absence of war is not enough. Wholesale reform of the Assembly is needed to ensure our future is not simply coloured by the conflicts of our past.
In response to the first point, that the Assembly has delivered stability and peace: Yes it has, but at what cost? And at what stage does stability become stasis?
Mr Oliver points out that of the five jurisdictions of Britain and Ireland, ours was “the only one not to change hands last year” – and somehow this makes us “the envy of other polities”.
One must immediately ask, in what state is our political system when automatic re-election is deemed a good thing?
In the last round of elections in Britain and Ireland, Westminster, Holyrood, Dublin and Cardiff all experienced changes in governing parties.
Does Mr Oliver really think that the NI Assembly could survive if Sinn Féin and the DUP were to experience a sudden removal from power?
On the second point, that we have a “functioning Assembly”. This is true in the legal sense only: by no objective definition can the Assembly be said to be a functioning legislature.
Programmes for Government and Budgets are agreed either behind closed doors or outside Assembly doors altogether, by those parties with the controlling stakes, the DUP and Sinn Féin: these decisions then go unchallenged by an Assembly that is either unwilling or unable to stand and argue.
Regarding Mr Oliver’s verdict on the “Our Time, Our Place” project – this can only be termed “faultless” by someone suffering from a highly selective short-sightedness.
The Titanic Building is beautiful. But it cost £90 million and, according to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board itself, is at a high risk of operating at a loss within 5 years.
Meanwhile, I find it perverse to celebrate Derry-Londonderry as the UK City of Culture when the large majority of that city’s residents wish to leave the UK altogether. This is not a cause for celebration, but introspect.
Finally, Mr Oliver argues that the Assembly is doing well with what powers it has, and has issues which are identical to other devolved parliaments. Not so.
As well as the “frustrations” – incompetent MLAs – that Mr Oliver tactfully refers to, our Assembly suffers from a constitution that actively discourages the intelligent, caring, hard-working young person from seriously considering becoming an MLA.
After all, why attempt to improve public policy by joining a body in which decisions are steam-rolled by two highly disciplined and utterly powerful parties?
The First Minister Peter Robinson recently stated that the Assembly would be judged by “delivery, not survival”. By this measure, the Assembly since 2007 has utterly failed.
Simply by surviving the Assembly has succeeded in maintaining peace, and this is an achievement that must be acknowledged.
However those structures which secured peace by paying off the extremists of both communities have also resulted in an Assembly which does not engage, does not scrutinise, and does not deliver.
We are not, as Mr Oliver suggests, a glass half-full or even a glass-half empty. We are a 1998 car, hopelessly stuck in the mud.
Stephen Orme is a final-year student of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast.