After “lengthy discussions and negotiations” between our political parties, the First Minister and deputy First Minister last night put forward their proposals for the future of the Department of Justice and the Department for Employment and Learning. Of course, both departments are headed by Alliance Party Ministers.
The decision to extend the present cross-community vote provision to elect the Justice Minister beyond May 2012 comes as no real surprise; indeed, given the relatively farcical nature of nominating for the Justice ministry back in May 2011 (and of course the tense discussions of the previous year), placing such a politically sensitive department in the d’Hondt process was probably never considered as an option.
Appointing the Justice Minister in a process outside of d’Hondt has consistently drawn sharp criticism from the Ulster Unionists and SDLP – as things stand, both parties hold one Executive department, and must have casted envious glances at the smaller Alliance Party and its two seats at the table.
So, in a move that can be seen as an attempt to reduce the size of an apparently bloated Stormont (not, you understand, to placate the UUP and SDLP), the First and deputy First Ministers also announced that DEL will be wound up. This will take place as soon as the necessary legislative and administrative processes have been completed, which is expected to take three to four months.
The ramifications of this are particularly wide-ranging – aside from the fact that Dr Stephen Farry will be losing his ministerial Skoda Superb, the functions of DEL will be divided principally between Department of Education and Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and, once the process is finalised, the d’Hondt process will then be re-run. Exciting stuff, or maybe not depending on your viewpoint.
OFMDFM want each of the parties to consider the proposals, and submit alternatives, by 5pm on Monday 16 January which, as Mick Fealty points out, must be a record for the shortest consultation period.
The move itself raises interesting questions about the legacy of DEL – for instance, which department will continue the work on young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs), and how effective will they be in progressing the skills agenda and higher education? Skills have both an economic and educational imperative, and it will be interesting to see how DEL’s portfolio is ‘carved up’ (to borrow a phrase from Alliance leader David Ford).
With the Financial Times last week reporting that Northern Ireland had shed the lowest percentage of public sector jobs in the UK, it is doubtful there will be large amounts of job losses as a result of the merger (sorry, ‘efficiency savings’ in politics double speak). One would hope that the merger results in a more co-ordinated approach to skills, job creation and education. With youth unemployment in Northern Ireland soaring, let’s keep our crossed for a smooth amalgamation.