Northern Ireland reached new levels of farce following our very own ‘Watergate’ and the need to be seen to be doing something replaced the need to be doing something meaningful. The embarrassed management of Northern Ireland Water or its remnants meekly crept into to Stormont to face the three ringed circus of the Department of Regional Development Committee. This was a pointless exercise exploited by media wind bags from all parties. The Chairman said it was not a witch hunt but to his members the only thing missing was the ducking chair. Members threw their opinions about with the accuracy of participants in the Spanish madness known as ‘la tomatina’; whereby once the horn starts you just hit anything near you with a tomato. The spectacle was an underwhelming performance by both the inquisitors and the accused. The Star Chamber was missing it star witness. Two in fact; the beleaguered Mr Mc Kenzie and would be ‘Teflon’ Minister for Regional Development. It was clear that members had not though out any structure to their questioning. This was supposed to be forensic interrogation but Instead of keyhole surgery we were treated to open cast mining.
But are we surprised? Northern Ireland politicians would be Olympians at the relay race such is their competence at passing the baton at speed. Yet slowly and surely we are moving closer to accountability. The consociational notion of government we are lumbered within practically insulates our governors from any form of penalty for their non performance. Or it would if we let them away with it.
Minister Murphy and his party political PR machine want us to believe he has no responsibility for the debacle which practically affected every household in Northern Ireland. He wants us to believe that an ‘arms length’ agency which is 100% owned by Government is longer than the barge pole measurement once used by John Taylor. Of course, Minister Murphy’s misery is an opportunity for his political opponents but unlike the agony of his colleague Ms Ruane; their opportunity is not based on ideology or policy but on his perceived non performance. They would be naive in the extreme not to take advantage of his predicament. The ever impressive Sinn Fein PR machine senses the smell of threat to their Minister and has gone into over drive to share the pain by drawing Social Development Minister, Alex Attwood into their sights. Mr Attwood is the bête noir of most republicans and if Sinn Fein succeeds in luring him into a PR battle over whether Murphy or he is the most effective Minister; it’s a battle the SDLP man will surely lose.
The Assembly to date has proven itself to be a toothless tiger. It can roar but it can’t bite. In most places in the world the legislature is the supreme body. It tends to be more representative of society and it is the expression of the will of the people. Conor Murphy, Peter Robinson and Alex Attwood hold office at the discretion of their parties and their parties only represent the strength of the votes cast for them respectively. The minimum our Assembly can do is censure a Minister. Ours can if it has the will. Sinn Fein cannot create a Petition of Concern to trigger a ‘cross-community’ vote unless another party backs them. The Ministerial code binds Ministers to ‘support and act in accordance with the all the decisions of the entire Executive and of the Assembly’. If Ministers fail to perform then why should n’t they be censured by the Assembly? If political parties decide to retain damaged Ministers then that is their prerogative. But political parties should not use convoluted voting rules designed to protect against discrimination to provide cover for their failures.
This is not as Sinn Fein would like to portray it as a vendetta against Minister Murphy; its about preventing Ministers in an involuntary coalition from taking an a la carte approach to their portfolios and interventions. If the Assembly is to be toothless abandon and let’s save £50m a year. We can still be governed under D’Hondt appointed Ministers. Of course this won’t happen but there is an opportunity for the minority parties to say enough is enough. They could restore the balance between the power of the Executive and the Assembly. This is in the interests of all Assembly members as backbenchers are no more than cannon fodder and cheerleaders for their respective parties. As we have no Opposition surely we are entitled to at least some independence of conscience.