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The massive Northern Ireland state needs an effective and resourced Opposition

Tim Montgomerie

Over the last few days Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, have been working overtime to solve the water shortage that has ruined many families' Christmases in Northern Ireland. 56,000 still face access restrictions tonight.

The publicly-owned water monopoly, Northern Ireland Water, seemed unaware of its right to tap mutual aid from other UK water boards to help it cope with the crisis. That aid includes the possibility of emergency engineers and extra call centre facilities to advise desperate customers about emergency help. Because of the intervention of Paterson and Spelman that help is belatedly flowing.

A cynic might conclude that NIW - subject to close political supervision - was actually unwilling to seek help from the "English". Sinn Fein have certainly played a big role in the appointments to the Water board in recent times.

Screen shot 2011-01-01 at 18.47.32
I cannot believe that action would have been so slow if Northern Ireland had an effective opposition, calling for action and probing performance. Unfortunately the nature of the Belfast Agreement requires compulsory coalition between the main parties and all the individuals pictured above are implicated in the (mis)management of Northern Ireland Water. Owen Paterson addressed this issue in his Steinberg lecture, late last year:

"Over time we would like the institutions to evolve into a more normal system with a government and an opposition. As Bertie Ahern himself put it in an interview with Frank Millar in 2009, “there will come a time where people will say “you need an opposition, you need us and them” But I also made absolutely clear that any changes are for the future and will only come about after full consultation and with the agreement of the parties in the Assembly.”.

Northern Ireland is almost 'Soviet-ised' with the state accounting for nearly three-quarters of the economy.  A more conventional Opposition would at least help to ensure that 75% was spent more accountably.


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