The tricky path from peace to harmony
21 January 2008
The Northern Ireland Executive got off to such a smooth start that First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have become known as the Chuckle Brothers. But there are strains behind the smiles as ministers grapple with controversial education reforms and a row over health spending, Paul Gosling reports
No one said peace was easy. After eight months of surprising commonality within the Northern Ireland Executive, tensions are beginning to show. There is no consensus on school selection and the ministers responsible for health, housing and further and higher education are protesting loudly about their spending allocations.
Yet it is remarkable that Northern Ireland is here at all. After 30 years of conflict and the loss of more than 3,500 lives, the province has something like a stable government – devolution is working at least as well as in Scotland and Wales.
Just look at the pictures of First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. After years of animosity, the fire and brimstone Free Presbyterian minister and the former IRA commander have become widely known as the “Chuckle Brothers”.
True, there are difficulties between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, but they do not seem to be deal breaking. In his draft budget, announced in November, the finance minister, the DUP’s Peter Robinson, was noticeably generous to the Sinn Fein as well as DUP ministers.
Departments that did well were the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DUP minister), with a 7.3 per cent funds increase; regional development (Sinn Fein), which has a 52 per cent increase in its capital budget for roads and other infrastructure; and education (Sinn Fein), with 3 per cent cash growth, followed by 5.6 per cent and 4.4 per cent in later years, despite a radical school closure programme that should cut costs.
Other ministers feel hard done by – and unrestrained by any sense of collective responsibility. Health minister Michael McGimpsey says his 3.5 per cent increase is inadequate to cope with increasing demands, let alone catch up with the standard of improvement achieved in England. Launching a staff consultation exercise over the proposed resources allocation, McGimpsey said: “I don’t believe the draft budget as it currently stands will allow me to deliver on my promise to create a world-class health service.”
Sir Reg Empey, who has responsibility for further and higher education, complains that his mere 0.4 per cent rise in spending does nothing to address Northern Ireland’s chronic skill shortage compared with the rest of the UK. And Margaret Ritchie, minister for social development, argues that her rise of 1.6 per cent cannot provide the additional social housing for which there is a proven need.
Sceptics might see a pattern here. The ministers squealing are the only three who are not members of the DUP or Sinn Fein. McGimpsey and Empey are the ministers for the Ulster Unionists and Margaret Ritchie is the sole SDLP minister.
Despite the DUP and Sinn Fein generally working much better together than might have been expected, there is one major policy difference that seriously divides them and could prove difficult, perhaps impossible, to resolve – academic selection. In a previous spell of devolved government, in 2002, then education minister Martin McGuinness announced the abolition of the 11-plus exam – retained in Northern Ireland, despite it being dropped in most of the UK. This outraged unionists, for whom retention of grammar schools based on academic selection is a policy priority. Five years on, the 11-plus remains in place.
However, Sinn Fein’s current education minister, former professional tennis player Caitríona Ruane, has announced that next year will be the last for the exam. After that, selection to post-primary schools will be based on location and family connections (where siblings already attend a school). In addition, Ruane announced her intention that at the age of 14 children will select their final school for sitting their academic exams or vocational qualifications. The minister has not announced how the post-14 schooling would be structured.
The education minister’s announcement was not cleared by the Executive. And Ruane further angered unionists by reference to her intention to introduce “regulations” to abolish the 11-plus, thereby potentially avoiding the requirement for cross-community support in the Assembly and Executive to make a change in law.
Unionist reaction was harsh. DUP spokeswoman Michelle McIlveen referred to Ruane as the “minister of confusion and mess”, demanding that she bring forward proposals that have cross-community support. And Ulster Unionist education spokesman Basil McCrea called the announcement “a unilateral decision” that was “sneakily and deceptively contrived to avoid proper debate on the floor of the Assembly”. He added: “It is my understanding that even senior officials in the minister’s department were not consulted on this statement.”
There is a second serious hurdle for the Executive – implementation of the former direct rule ministers’ Review of Public Administration, which initiated reforms to slim the public sector infrastructure. McGimpsey has put some of the health service rationalisation on hold, while DUP environment minister Arlene Foster looks certain to reject key elements of the reform of local government. Where the RPA recommended reducing the number of district councils from 26 to seven, Foster is likely to opt for either 11 or 15 councils. And RPA plans to drastically increase councils’ powers at the expense of Northern Ireland departments look set to be rejected. The move angers Sinn Fein and most of local government.
Northern Ireland has peace – but it is far too early to talk of it having real harmony.