Agreeing the details in the draft Programme for Government
- 4 October 2011
- From the section Northern Ireland
Many years ago a friend of mine, recently graduated in economics, went on a year's secondment to the finance ministry in the tiny Southern African mountain state of Lesotho.
He hadn't settled in long when his colleagues came to him with an interesting bit of work experience - the finance minister had to deliver his budget speech within the next week or so, they explained.
Would my friend mind writing it?
Initially he was overawed by the responsibility, then two things sunk in.
One, he had more formal economics training than anyone else in the building, so it was natural he should be asked.
Two, most of the policies of the government of the day were honoured more in the breach than the observance, so the budget speech could promise the earth without anyone worrying too much about the consequences.
My friend duly set the Lesotho national minimum wage at a generous level, certain that out on the streets, the traders and farmers would not pay it any attention.
I wouldn't suggest that the executive's programme for government is quite so meaningless.
However, glancing at the draft obtained this week by my colleague Martina Purdy, you do get a sense of departments throwing in targets and statistics to some extent for the optics.
Some figures are relatively firm (literacy and numeracy levels to be raised from 59% in 2009/10 to 66% in 2014/15), whereas others need more work (our draft, for example, talks about reducing offending rates by X%).
The headline in the budget - supporting the promotion of 21,000 jobs - looks fairly impressive.
But how have we done so far?
The draft mentions that during the executive's previous term, Invest NI promoted 15,565 new jobs, safeguarded 5,329 existing jobs and supported 8,267 new local business starts.
It doesn't mention that in the spring the unemployment rate jumped to 8% - its highest level since the Good Friday Agreement.
Although unemployment has fallen slightly, it remains at 7.4%, with much higher levels amongst our young people.
So we get one half of the equation, but not the other.
If the executive firms up its Programme for Government in time for this Thursday's meeting of ministers at Stormont castle, it will be interesting to see how specific it is on the long delayed shake-up of our 26 local councils.
The draft obtained by the BBC was fairly vague.
Late last month, after John O'Dowd's first executive meeting as acting deputy first minister, Mr O'Dowd and Peter Robinson outlined a number of areas on which they were making progress.
One was council reform - the ministers said their two parties had got a deal on 11 councils "over the line".
This revisited their previous compromise, which ran into the sand when Edwin Poots was environment minister.
The telling detail, however, was that the ministers talked about their "two parties" reaching a deal.
Since the election, the department responsible for councils has been headed not by the DUP or Sinn Fein, but by the SDLP's Alex Attwood.
Surely he would have to be consulted? Not necessarily.
When Peter Robinson gave an interview to the BBC Politics Show's Tara Mills he told her the environment minister had been "informed".
He said the minister could bring a paper, but if he didn't the first and deputy first ministers might bring one of their own.
On Tuesday, when answering questions in the chamber, Alex Attwood confirmed that he has yet to see any written understanding between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the councils issue.
Afterwards I asked him if he'd been consulted before the first and acting deputy first ministers announced their deal.
His reply was negative.
It's not just a question of not following the diplomatic niceties.
There still seems to be a policy gap between Stormont Castle and the environment department.
Minister Attwood argues that progress made by the existing councils on sharing services and the recent report of the Westminster boundary review should be taken into account.
He believes that a 15 council model may provide the best outcome for efficient bureaucracy.
However the first and acting deputy first ministers appear to have decided, a bit like the car maker Henry Ford, that Alex can pick any number as long as it's 11.
They may have judged that with the minister's future in doubt, pending the outcome of the SDLP leadership contest, that he is not going to die in the ditch over the council shake-up.
Given the economic climate, preserving four more councils is not going to prove much of a rallying cry so far as the public is concerned.
Peter Robinson insists that cutting the council numbers will provide savings in the long term, even though Edwin Poots, when he was at the environment department, worried about the short term costs.
With all that in mind, the first and acting deputy first ministers may have concluded that they don't need to talk about or to Alex, before strong-arming him into accepting their approach.
There's an echo here of the treatment meted out to the Alliance's Stephen Farry, who was told he could have any tuition fee as long as it was frozen.
Mr Farry's employment and learning department then had to take more of a hit than he would have liked.
However he does seem to have been a bit more involved in the Stormont Castle discussions around fees than Mr Attwood has been in relation to the councils.
With a few years to go before any more elections the ideal was that all the Stormont parties would buy into a Programme For Government and pioneer a more consensual form of government.
But if the smaller parties conclude that the bigger parties are going to bulldoze through their departmental responsibilities they might conclude that little has changed since the internal wrangles of the previous executive.