Northern Ireland

Is the Stormont system of government fit-for-purpose?

Stormont Castle
Too many cooks in the Stormont Castle kitchen?

Good government is supposed to deliver. But when it comes to the Stormont system of government, some people think it can be a bit like a merry-go-round.

Slow decision-making and too many government departments are two of the bugbears often cited.

"You can end up spending a long time getting absolutely nowhere," said Nick Garbutt, managing director of Asitis consulting.

The lobbyist cites the number of departments chasing a single issue as a particular problem.

Take for example the issue of "Neets" - that is Youths Not in Education, Employment or Training.

'Bounced'

Mr Garbutt listed the different departments he has to negotiate with.

"You would have OFMDFM. You have got the Department for Employment and Learning, the lead department involved in training programmes.

"You've got the Department of Education. You've got the Department of Health. There's the Department for Social Development, of course, which is hugely important. And sometimes you can get bounced between them."

Too many departments is a common criticism. And some parties have announced their proposals for cuts.

The DUP has called for eight departments, a figure echoed by Alliance. The SDLP is expected to suggest between eight and 10 during the election campaign.

The Ulster Unionists have shied away from giving a figure - simply suggesting fewer departments. Sinn Fein has merely committed itself to efficiencies under the terms of the St Andrew's Agreement.

Even if the parties could agree to streamline departments, there are other criticisms about the system.

Economist John Simpson claimed Stormont was too slow to make decisions.

He pinpointed the failure to tackle local government reform as an example of system deadlock.

Brian Feeney
Briann Feeney compared the system at Stormont to a see-saw

Others suggest Stormont is like a game of snakes and ladders: one step forward two steps back as ministers spend too much time battling each other.

Joanne Stuart, who chairs the Institute of Directors, acknowledgedsome good decisions have been taken, but added, "If you take the whole process around getting a budget and not having our economic strategy in place then we are stepping back."

Columnist and historian Dr Brian Feeney agreed there must be more give and take.

"It's a bit like a see-saw. One side gets what it wants and won't move and the other side is left sitting up in the air and they don't have the weight to move the see-saw back down again," he said.

However, some parties are getting impatient with the system. And during this election, expect more debate about how Stormont itself must change.

The challenge for those who want change is that it will not come about without agreement by a majority of nationalists as well as unionists.

That is likely to take some time.