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Stormont leaders need to take the lead

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

You wonder about how the executive is going to work as an executive and not just as the chuckle brothers as front men and a dozen free-lancers.

At the top, despite the chuckles and glad-handing, there seems to be complete paralysis, no leadership and no coherence.

As for the others, so far there doesn't appear to have been a single executive decision agreed on anything that matters.

Worse, individual ministers have responded to proposals with knee-jerk reactions, without consulting anyone else never mind the whole executive.

Take the carefully considered discussion on an all-Ireland economy by Alan Gillespie in last week's Irish Times.

Dr Gillespie is a leading financial figure, chair of the Ulster Bank group and a former chair of the IDB, the north's predecessor of Invest NI.

His proposal, which got the headlines, was to merge the IDA, the south's inward investment body, with Invest NI. In fact he presented a five-point charter 'on how to deliver the future of the Northern Ireland economy'.

His paper immediately provoked constructive responses from Micheal Martin, the Republic's minister for enterprise, trade and employment, then from Padraic White, chair of the Enterprise Council of West Belfast and Greater Shankill and that area's Employment Services Board, then from Michael Smyth, senior lecturer in economics at UU. Mr White was also at one time managing director of IDA Ireland.

None of them agreed with everything Dr Gillespie said, but they all saw merit in the general drift of his proposals.

Contrast their thoughtful responses with the instant dismissal of Dr Gillespie's suggestions by Nigel Dodds, that renowned expert on economics and finance.

Faced with a range of experienced financiers and economists the said Mr Dodds drew on his own vast expertise as a unionist nay-sayer and said, you've guessed it, "No". Northern Ireland's "interests would not be best served by a merger of INI and IDA. The reality is that we are competitors. The priority is to make the most of our assets and advantages".

Could he make a list of them? Is this the same Nigel Dodds who was up in the north-west last month with Micheal Martin agreeing a joint INI-IDA cross-border project for technology in Derry and Letterkenny funded by the EU Interreg programme?

One of the many sad aspects of Mr Dodds's predictably narrow-minded summary dismissal of Dr Gillespie's suggestions is that no-one else on the executive got a chance to say a word. It's too much to expect the executive to discuss the issue.

It is no good Padraic White referring to "impressive advances in shared thinking on an all-island economy" or Michael Smyth talking about "the debate about economic relations between the two parts of this island" being under way. It's not. Not as far as the ostrich-like minister for enterprise, trade and development is concerned anyway.

Not much chance of his department discussing the Republic's Comprehensive Study on the All-Ireland Economy published last year, which is trying to draw from EU Framework Programme 7 with its €50.5 billion budget.

You wonder has Mr Dodds any plans to share in that? You wonder will he even discuss it with any other minister before throwing it out as a threat to unionism?

Now here's another question. Suppose another party gets his ministry after the next election, will the new minister forge the links Mr Dodds is spurning? Work double quick to make up lost time on the all-Ireland economy?

Will it be all change in that department just as the sepulchral McGimpsey is undoing everything Bairbre de Brun did?

If Conor Murphy succeeds in having bilingual road signs erected, will a future unionist minister have them all taken down? Will it always be one step forward, one step back?

Is everything a stalemate?

Is it just going to be four years where each minister rushes through actions to the maximum benefit of his or her own community and hopes to get enough done to prevent the successor pulling it all to bits again?

What's lacking is any overall authority from Paisley or Martin McGuinness. Then of course neither of them can agree on anything of significance.

October 11, 2007

This article appeared first in the October 10, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

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