‘Fake budget’. If you want two words to summarise why the public hold the devolved institutions in disdain, it is hard to think of a better two words.
Agreeing and passing a budget is the ‘bread and butter’ of what a government does. In fact, it is why a government exists.
Without a budget, there is no government. In a multi-party coalition, without agreement on a budget, the coalition ceases to exist.
This doesn’t mean that everything is rosy in a coalition. Coalition budget negotiations tend to be fairly robust. In fact, even if only one party makes up the government, budget conversations between Ministers and Finance Minister can often be the political equivalent of the bar room brawl. But, and this is the key point, agreement is reached without government grinding to a halt. Compromise happens, realities are faced, and collective responsibility kicks in, allowing government to function as it should.
Not, of course, in Northern Ireland. Some Executive parties - the SDLP and Sinn Fein - believe that realities do not have to be faced and that Westminster will cough up more money at the behest of two parties who want the UK to break up.
Then again, a sense of collective responsibility isn’t helped when the major party in the Executive - the DUP - leads a no-confidence motion in the UUP Minister of Regional Development. That said, considering that the UUP and SDLP have both voted against the previous budget - a budget which is the creation of the Executive of which they are members - we can see that our political discourse should probably include ‘fake Executive’ alongside ‘fake budget’.
The harsh reality is that our political system looks like a shambles because it is a shambles.
Some basic principles need to be enshrined. First, collective responsibility. If the Executive agrees a policy, all Ministers should be bound to support. If a Minister doesn’t like it, the answer is simple - resign. Second, if a party doesn’t agree with a budget agreed by the majority of the Executive, do the honourable thing, leave the coalition and go into opposition. Third, if this results in the remaining parties making up the Executive being unable to get a weighted majority in the Assembly supporting the budget, the whole Executive resigns and an election is called - the decision is handed over to the people.
These basic principles allow voters to have confidence in the political system. The current situation in Stormont - a ‘fake Executive’ disagreeing over a ‘fake budget’ - leaves voters with little option but to consider the whole thing a charade. It is this which is bleeding support for devolution.
Have you noticed neighbours or colleagues stop and share their worries about the possible collapse of Stormont? No, me neither. Those of us who can remember back to the first years after the Agreement will recall active public concern about how things were proceeding, or not, in Stormont. No- the overwhelming emotion is apathy. Voters are fed-up with the charade and have given up caring what happens to Stormont.
This is why it will not be enough for the political class to cobble together a deal for getting through the budget and welfare reform debacle. We have to go back to first principles. We have to change how government works, how politics works in Northern Ireland.
Government must start doing what it says on the tin - taking decisions, passing budgets, sharing responsibility rather than bickering in public. If we want citizens to participate in the political process, they need to know that the Executive meaningfully functions as one body rather than a dozen fiefdoms.
There is now less than one year to go until the next Assembly elections. That is long enough to put in place a new set of rules, changing how the Executive functions and how it relates to the Assembly, demonstrating a serious commitment to real politics that can win back the confidence of a fed-up public.
• John McCallister is an MLA for South Down