Assess the Assembly record at holding the executive to account since 2007…
The Northern Ireland Assembly has a mixed record in holding the Executive to account since the St Andrew’s Agreement. It has a number of scrutiny instruments at its disposal such as committees, Question Time, Debates and the power to vote on measures in the Assembly. Nonetheless, the are a number of factors that seriously limit the powers of the Assembly in holding the Executive to account, such as Executive domination – primarily through the two largest parties – DUP & SF, among other things.
The main scrutiny instruments in the Assembly are the Statutory and Standing Committees. They hold the executive to account by….
The statutory committees specifically in their role of holding executive ministers to account do…. An example of this is when….
Standing Committees oversee and scrutinise a broad range of fixed or permanent issues and two important Standing Committees are the Public Accounts Committee and the Business Committee. The PAC….. The Business Committee…. An example of these holding the executive to account is….
Question Time in the Assembly holds executive ministers to account by…. An example of this is….
Written Questions are another method of holding executive ministers to account…. An example of this is….
Debates and voting in the Assembly are other scrutiny instruments. They… An example is….
On the other hand, there are a number of reasons why the Assembly often falls short of success in holding the Executive to account and it is criticised for being severely flawed in this regard.
First, the five main parties, comprising 102/108 MLA’s, all hold seats in the executive. Therefore there is no formal opposition and committees cannot be an adequate substitute for this. Indeed the 11 member committees have the places allocated via d’hondt and thus the two main parties dominate these as well as the executive! This is particularly important with the Business Committee because… This makes it difficult for small parties such as…
Secondly, NI Politicians are still very much “party animals” according to Prof Wilford and this affects how they hold the executive to account as… An example is…
Thirdly, committees don’t have the resources nor MLAs the time at their disposal. They have no financial budget allocation in the way that executive departments do and MLAs are greatly restricted… Even when they do criticise government departments it is very difficult to gauge if the executive is responding to committee pressure or media pressure e.g the Nolan Show, BBC Spotlight, The View, the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph all reach much wider audiences than Committee hearings or Question Time in the chamber.
Fourthly, the very term “success” is subjective.If we regard “opposing factions” working together as a symbol of success then our Assembly is working well to hold the executive to account. If we compare our scrutiny instruments to those under Direct Rule, then yes, our Assembly is performing at a level that is streets ahead. Furthermore, the current scrutiny functions are operating much more successfully than those after GFA from 1999-2002.
In conclusion, compared to fully functioning western liberal democracies such as the Uk, Ireland and the US, there are serious flaws in terms of scrutiny in a system that has no formal opposition and all five largest parties in government. Fifteen years after GFA, some feel that the Assembly should be carrying out better scrutiny. However, it’s much better than Direct Rule from Westminster and it’s much better than the 1999-2002 mandate in the immediate years following GFA. Lack of time, lack of resources, the strict nature of party politics and sectarian division in NI continue to “dog” all functions of the NIA, including scrutiny by committees and question time. No matter how hard they try to overcome it, our politicians can’t seem to leave the “party hat” at the door – and this will always limit their ability to hold the executive to account.