Reshuffle magnifies shortage of political talent

By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

Now that we’ve had a chance to look at Peter Robinson’s reshuffle of his ministers for all of a fortnight, what does it reveal? What are the implications?

The most obvious conclusion is the astonishing mediocrity of the personnel available in the DUP assembly party.

If nothing else the reshuffle displays the weakness in depth of the DUP.

The party’s chief critic on the unionist side, Jim Allister, described it all rather predictably as moving the deck-chairs on the Titanic.

His metaphor is wrong because the executive is in no danger of sinking but you can see what Allister means when previous ministers reappear like those little figures shot down in a fair ground shooting range only to pop up again as the conveyor belt brings them around.

They’re an unprepossessing lot. But then who else does Robinson have to choose?

At least the DUP does move ministers around - more than can be said for any other party.

The truth is that any other party leader carrying out the same exercise would reveal the same shortage of talent.

It’s a problem not confined to the north however.

Professor John Coakley, head of politics and international relations at UCD, addressed this issue at a conference in Trinity last month as did Dr Eoin O’Malley from DCU whose paper was entitled Are Our Institutions Fit for Purpose?.

Coakley’s central point was that institutions north and south are still subject to the pervasive influence of British models which are outdated and constricting.

One crucial principle inherited from Britain is that ministers must be parliamentarians. Nowhere else in Europe is this the case, nor does it apply in the US where secretaries of state for functions ranging from transport to foreign affairs are not elected.

In some mainland European countries like France and the Netherlands members of parliament have to resign if they are appointed ministers.

Yet in Britain if the prime minister wants to make someone a minister he has to make the person a member of the Lords, as happened when Brown called in Peter Mandelson to rescue his government last October.

In mainland Europe ministers still have to attend parliament to account for themselves (though they can’t vote) and can be booted out if they lose support but someone like Mandelson can’t report to the elected chamber, the Commons.

Eoin O’Malley makes the same point but also raises the fact that elected ministers, as well as being available only from a very small pool in the British system, are too wary of their own seats and of their party’s position in the next election to take the required decisions.

O’Malley mentions that one taoiseach said he thought only four or five of his colleagues were up to the job of a minister.

Even if they are not experts, ministers should understand their area of responsibility well enough to be able to question experts intelligently.

That is demonstrably not the case at Stormont and the British system as a whole guarantees the likelihood of that deficiency.

All these shortcomings are greatly magnified in the north by the party structures.

In the case of the DUP by the extraordinary fact that the majority of its elected members come from a sect, the Free Presbyterian Church, which accounts for one per cent of the Protestant community in the north. Therefore there is a strong chance that DUP ministers will not represent a majority view of life on either side of the community here.

In the case of Sinn Féin, members are also drawn from a small pool of activists who have been committed to the republican movement in various forms for all their adult lives. Many of these members are reliant on highly competent special advisers but in no case could any of those advisers take on a role in Stormont.

Fundamentally this line of thinking derives from the 19th century British notion that the educated amateur is somehow more pure and altruistic than the professional.

That belief was always a fantasy but it is doubly wrong for Stormont.

First, you’d be hard put to find an educated amateur but secondly the fact is that they’re all professional politicians dedicated to keeping their seats. Not the best system.

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