Owen Polley: If Doug Beattie drags the Ulster Unionists left, he will not be offering voters something new

Last week, the DUP’s new leader, Edwin Poots, was trying to reassure journalists that civil war was not breaking out in his party.

Friday, 4th June 2021, 1:54 pm
Updated Friday, 4th June 2021, 2:01 pm
Doug Beattie at Stormont, where ministers are comfortable shuffling money about and making popular announcements on spending and doing nothing to reform NI’s bloated public sector. If Mr Beattie wants to be trule different he would break out of this cycle of telling voters what they want to hear. Picture Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

By comparison, the UUP’s incoming supremo, Doug Beattie had a more positive start to his time in charge.

There seemed to be genuine enthusiasm about his leadership prospects, on social media at least.

Beattie used his first week to explain articulately his sense of personal identity, which he says spans Irishness, as well as Britishness and Northern Irishness.

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He’s spoken about building an ‘inclusive’ party that appeals to women, younger voters and LGBT people, as well as marginalised working-class groups.

These are broad strokes that establish a style that he hopes will mark out his leadership and distinguish it from the more traditional view of unionism most commentators attribute to Edwin Poots.

Nobody would expect Beattie to produce detailed policy proposals so early in his tenure, but a more pointed critique of the problems at Stormont shouldn’t take too long to emerge.

It’s ok to talk about ‘progressiveness’ and ‘inclusion’, but it doesn’t address issues that start with a lack of grown-up parties that take responsibility for difficult decisions when they prove necessary.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is an unavoidable starting point for any unionist leader. Its economic effects are serious and, perhaps even more importantly, it represents an ongoing challenge to the United Kingdom’s integrity.

It will dominate the political debate in Northern Ireland until solutions are found to its most damaging features.

However, this new difficulty joins a host of long-standing issues that have been neglected by Stormont ministers, reluctant to take action that may be unpopular in the short-term, or unable to act because of divisions in the power-sharing executive.

Beattie’s colleague, Robin Swann, is currently in charge of the most prominent example: Northern Ireland’s health service.

After devolved government returned to Stormont in 1998, a series of reports pointed out that the province had too many acute hospitals and needed to shift resources to community care.

Swann’s time as health minister has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, but, like his predecessors, his talk of reform has tended to focus on additional funding, rather than streamlining bureaucracy or putting these reviews into practice.

Similarly, our schools estate includes thousands of empty desks across multiple sectors, with many small, unsustainable schools that struggle to deliver a quality education on budget.

Before Sinn Fein collapsed power-sharing in 2017, the department of education commissioned detailed reviews to recommend specific closures and mergers, but this work seemed to disappear after Stormont got back to business in 2020.

Northern Ireland’s entire bloated public sector has for years required major reforms.

Indeed, the ineffectiveness of our civil service was exposed by investigations into the renewable heating scandal (RHI), which highlighted the dysfunctional relationship between senior officials and political representatives. Meanwhile, a steady stream of reports from the province’s audit office and its public accounts committee revealed a culture of waste and inefficiency.

These problems contribute to the plight of the private sector, which is weak in comparison with other parts of the UK.

Stormont has success in attracting inward investment, often by offering companies grants to set up here, but they’ve failed to address low levels of productivity, a comparative lack of entrepreneurship and outdated infrastructure.

These are just a handful of important issues that have been neglected over nearly 25 years of on-off devolution.

The point is that no party in Northern Ireland talks convincingly about reforming the public sector so that it works more efficiently and complements rather than holds back the private sector.

Neither do any of them talk about the necessity, or the longer-term advantages, of taking difficult decisions to close down hospitals or schools. Stormont ministers are far more comfortable shuffling money about and making popular announcements on spending.

If he interprets ‘inclusive’ and ‘progressive’ as codewords for dragging his party to the left, Beattie will struggle to offer anything different.

Whenever genuine reform is mooted in Northern Ireland, there is invariably an outcry from powerful public sector unions and the vast machinery of third sector organisations hooked up to a supply of public money.

If, on the other hand, the UUP wants to be truly different, it should be honest with voters, rather than telling them what they think they want to hear.

It could, for example, explain that building a prosperous province with excellent services might entail some unpopular choices. That’s what responsible government is supposed to be about.

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