With the DUP / Sinn Féin coalition entrenched for another four years, stability in Northern Ireland has come at the price of an unedifying carve-up. We have a ‘power-sharing’ executive, but it presides over chaos in education, logjam on the Maze, a stalled Review of Public Administration, a disintegrating water service and stalemate on a host of other issues. Our ministers make populist decisions, but they avoid the difficult compromises of government.
Some aspects of the current set-up at Stormont are welcome. It’s good to see our constitutional future within the United Kingdom secured and it’s good to see Sinn Féin ministers working within the institutions, rather than attempting to destroy them.
But the flip side is that our executive is often paralysed and ineffective. Meanwhile Northern Ireland is pushed ever further towards the margins of UK politics.
In the armed forces, the arts, science and industry, Northern Ireland punches above its weight nationally. Yet our two biggest parties at Westminster are Sinn Féin, whose MPs refuse to participate at all, and the DUP, which remains marginalised, without any input into a coalition government representing more than 50% of UK voters.
When the Prime Minister paid us a visit last week he showed an impressive understanding of the problems which Northern Ireland’s executive is not getting to grips with. He highlighted the annual cost of segregation, estimated at £1.5 billion, which cripples our finances and which taxpayers can no longer afford to subsidise.
He drew attention to the proliferation of peace walls (since the St Andrews Agreement was implemented 37 have increased to 48). And he argued that politicians must deliver a ‘shared future’, rather than the ‘shared out future’ represented by the executive’s flawed CSI strategy document.
Cameron also emphasised the need to kick-start our economy, a theme which his Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, has taken up with vigour. We urgently need to grow our private sector.
An overreliance on public sector jobs has crowded out initiative and entrepreneurship. One hundred years ago Belfast was a powerhouse of British industry and Northern Ireland remained a net contributor to the exchequer until 1947. The spirit and potential is still there - we simply need to unlock it.
We have a proud tradition of contributing to the United Kingdom. We knuckle down and help out alongside our fellow countrymen when times are hard. The executive does a disservice to that tradition when it resists putting its shoulder to the wheel to reduce the national deficit. The DUP does a disservice to pro-UK politics when it lines up beside separatists like Alex Salmond to form a ‘nationalist front’ against the British government. It is that lack of foresight which has taken us to the edges of the Union.
We badly need to redress the balance, bring real politics to Northern Ireland and get involved in government at Westminster. We can play a positive role in the leadership of our great nation, whether it is winning in Libya, fighting for democracy in Afghanistan or driving the fourth biggest economy in the world.
The Conservatives and Unionists project was flawed and it is now dead, but David Cameron acknowledged during his visit that although the vehicle was not right, the aims behind it were commendable. Indeed, as a passionate believer in the United Kingdom, he remains determined to give the electorate in Northern Ireland genuine participation in national government.
Cameron’s commitment to offer voters here the opportunity to vote for a truly centre-right, pro-Union party still stands. The aspiration is to give Northern Ireland a voice at national level on issues like tax, spending, defence and foreign affairs.
By the same token, the Conservative party here is building from the grassroots, addressing local issues and giving centre-right politics a local accent. It’s that vision of Northern Ireland politics, with a distinctive local identity combined with a strong national framework, which will provide a genuine alternative to the carve-up at Stormont.