The Draft programme was announced in the chamber with much fanfare and trumpet blowing. In fact, the First and Deputy First Ministers speech at 25 pages exceeded the length of the actual document which they were talking about by eight pages.
We were told that the fact that the Executive could produce this programme and agree on its contents only 5 months into the new administration was “no mean achievement”.
Well let’s just remind ourselves of the reality.
The Draft Programme for Government for the next three years, which the entire executive signed off, is a flimsy 17 pages of double spaced text, complete with diagrams – I only half-jokingly asked on the day if some of the document had been left at the printers.
And whilst Devolution may have happened on May 8th, only 5 months ago – the 4 parties who make up the current executive were funded by the NIO at tax payers expense immediately following the St Andrews Agreement last November, given special advisors and full details of the Direct Rule Ministers plans to develop a Programme for Government so that post-devolution they could “hit the ground running”.
That’s not how it has worked out. Running would imply a degree of energetic activity, speed and direction which have been woefully lacking from the Executive since devolution.
So, that’s 17 pages by 12 ministers, 2 junior ministers and a cabal of special advisors, with the back up of their departments. That averages just over a page per Minister in 11 months? And this from an Executive which is lecturing the public sector about efficiency.
However, it is lacking not just in quantity but in quality.
Frankly the Programme for Government looks like the kind of thing which a reasonable student could knock out in a long evening and it may have been more imaginative and coherent if they had.
The document sets out general policy areas, but there is no serious attempt to prioritise them. In the Public Service Agreements which run alongside the Programme, there is not a concrete action in sight. The Executive will ‘implement measures’, ‘conduct reviews’ and ‘take steps’, but not once are these measures, reviews or steps detailed.
The targets, which should tell us in 3 years time whether all of the measures implemented, reviews conducted and steps taken have actually achieved the desired outcomes, where they exist at all, appear to be of the “cut and paste” variety from the Direct Rule administration.
This should not surprise us, because the executive has been equally unimaginative on the legislative front. The balance of time in most legislatures would be around 70% of business coming from the Executive and 30% from private members; however, the vast majority of business in the Assembly has been in the form of Private Members Motions and what little legislation has been generated or is anticipated for this year is also mainly of the cut and paste variety, simply bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK rather than legislation generated by the Executive to provide home grown solutions to local problems.
And it is around the issue of one of our most pressing, most pervasive local problems – that of sectarianism – that the failures of this document are most apparent.
Despite the increasingly desperate attempts of the DUP and Sinn Fein to bury the Costs of Division report, which estimates that at least £1.5 billion is wasted on segregation each year, Alliance, as good opposition should, has refused to allow it to be buried. The release of the report into the public domain came about only as the result of a Freedom of Information request from this Party and we have continued to question Ministers on it.
Despite the reluctance of his colleagues to publish the report, Finance Minister, Peter Robinson, actually highlighted the Costs of Division in his Budget speech. Whilst he claimed that there were limited opportunities for major savings that would affect this three year financial cycle he went on to say “that does not mean we should not start the journey”.
Yet the Programme for Government produced by the Executive of which he is a member has not only entirely failed to start that journey, it has failed even to identify the destination.
Under the Trimble-Durkan administration, Alliance opposed the Programme for Government as we believed that it was not strong enough on community relations; however, it at least contained a commitment that we should be aiming towards A Shared Future, however circuitous and torturous the route they mapped out to get there and however little travel there was in that direction under their guidance.
Under this current four party administration, there is not one single reference to either a Shared Future or Good Relations in the Programme for Government or a single Public Service Agreement out of the 23, designed to promote them either.
If the four parties in the executive are serious about “starting that journey”, then I have a few simple suggestions.
They can start by committing to A Shared Future and the Triennial Action Plan.
They can start by ensuring that those departments which continue to dismiss the Deloitte “Costs of Division Report” as a “private report” (including incidentally the Office of First and Deputy First Minister – the Department which commissioned and funded it and has responsibility for coordination and promotion of Good Relations) to instead embrace it and the principle on which it is based, that sharing over separation in good not just for society but for the economy.
They can start by placing more emphasis on Community Relations and building a shared future in this Programme for Government and backing this up with tangible objectives, actions and targets.
Only by doing will we build the conditions in the community where that billion pounds can begin to be released to pay for things like free personal care, improved social housing, an independent environmental protection agency, tackling child poverty, providing a decent education and improving health care.
Such an approach is in line with building a stronger economy and a fairer, more just and equal society. Stability will aid inward investment, support tourism, create a more mobile and flexible workforce, tackle social exclusion and, most importantly, underpin the political structures – all of which is in everyone’s interests. By contrast, the current programme will ensure that we are no further down that road in 3 years time than we are today.
Instead, mention is made only of the rights and equality agenda, in the complete absence of any strategy for improving community relations.
It goes without saying that equality and human rights must underpin the building of a shared future. This party has championed both as critical tools in that process, but we recognise that on their own they cannot heal the divisions which exist in our community. To achieve cohesion, they must be implemented and exercised in the context of good relations and of a wider sense of community.
Those of us who dared to question the wisdom of the Programme for Government were denounced as “nay-sayers” by the Executive. Other parties may have built a political strategy for thirty years on simply saying “nay” but the Alliance Party isn’t one of them. We have been constructive and supportive where ministers are getting it right – considerably more supportive than some other Ministers on some occasions.
As Deputy Leader of the Opposition in Stormont, I want the Executive to be successful and I am fully committed to playing my part in making that happen. I do so not for the glory of the DUP, SF, SDLP and UUP, but because the future prosperity and stability of Northern Ireland depends on it’s success.
Nor am I negative about Northern Ireland’s future – in fact, I believe that this Programme is not ambitious enough. It assumes that because division and segregation are facts of life today, they must be perpetuated into the future. I accept no such defeatist attitude.
The Deputy First Minister challenged those of us who read the Programme for Government to “look for the positives” in it. So I have, and after hours of looking I have found one. Actually – it’s on the cover. It’s the word “DRAFT”.
That word at least holds out the hope that this document can be revised and those critical issues of community relations and a shared future, which were shamefully omitted from this draft by all four parties can still be included. It is not too late.
He also challenged people to “set aside narrow sectional interest and nay-saying, and to pursue the general good. To join us in this great enterprise of shaping our own future – in short to bend their energies to helping us to build the better future we all want to see.”
I now challenge him and the 4 parties in government to commit to making that future not just better but shared by the whole community, and to do so in a tangible way, where it really matters in this Programme for Government.
And I can assure the Executive that the building of that shared future is a task in which no member of the Alliance Party will be found wanting.