Doug Beattie: It is madness to hand ministers more unchecked powers, and hard to see why DUP is backing this bill

The 1998 Belfast Agreement was far from perfect and it is fair to say the Ulster Unionist Party did not support all of the changes brought about by the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

Doug Beattie is Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann
Doug Beattie is Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann

However, one aspect of the changes brought at St Andrews did curtail the worst excesses of ministers taking solo runs, such as Martin McGuinness – who as education minister decided to abolish the 11-Plus exams without consulting the rest of the Executive.

This controversial ministerial decision was possible because at that stage ministers were able to treat their own departments as little autonomous fiefdoms. There was no collective responsibility, no Executive scrutiny, just a ministerial silo mentality.

The DUP – proponents of the St Andrews Agreement – sought a legal mechanism to prevent ministers going on future solo runs by ensuring major decisions had to be brought before the Executive.

At the time they said this ‘fixed’ the Belfast Agreement and in doing so allowed them to share an office with Sinn Fein.

That is why it is so difficult to understand why the DUP is now supporting the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill which would have the effect of rolling back the hard-won safeguard and in doing so reduce scrutiny of ministers on some key issues. Added to this they are perpetuating a fallacy that they can block any Sinn Fein ministers’ solo runs with the three-minister rule. 

The cold reality is that there is no three-minister rule in legislation, perhaps, a gentleman’s agreement – and a gentleman’s agreement only works if you are dealing with gentlemen.    

As the Ulster Unionist representative on the Executive Office Committee, I made a mistake. I missed the opportunity to challenge this short but highly significant bill when the first and deputy first ministers were before the committee and later allowed it accelerated passage. 

However, if I made a mistake, others knowingly allowed it to progress without scrutiny. 

Even now, as two high-profile Sinn Fein ministers face an investigation by an Assembly standards commissioner, other MLAs are willing to hand them more unchecked powers.

It is utter madness.

The amendments I have submitted are measured and realistic.

They do not touch on the proposals to give the minister for infrastructure more autonomy in respect to planning decisions. I believe the planning process, although not perfect, has checks and balances that can create assurance and allow for scrutiny.

By not attempting to amend this aspect of the bill I have allowed MLAs space to support some of the issues the bill was designed to address around infrastructure projects.

Where my amendments do impact the bill is by ensuring ministers are not given a free hand to act in their own, and their party’s, best interests. My amendments will ensure we have effective and adequate scrutiny at Executive level and will curtail the worst excesses of ministers who will use this bill to promote their own agendas for specific ideological aims.

The wider aims of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill, beyond that of infrastructure, may well be something the Assembly needs to address. But that must be for another time and another bill where MLAs can properly scrutinise a piece of legislation that fundamentally changes how we govern Northern Ireland.

• Doug Beattie is MLA for Upper Bann

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