Beauty queens take over Stormont, as programme for government is revealed

Sometimes at Stormont you just can't make it up. I was trying to record a TV broadcast in the Great Hall, analysing the content of the executive's draft programme for government, when I found myself distracted not by headline grabbing investment targets, but by a collection of would be beauty queens.

They turned out to be contestants in a "Miss Ulster" competition taking place in the assembly building.

The Great Hall staircase, usually home to nothing more eye-catching than a bust of Lord Craigavon, is doubling up as a catwalk.

Not everyone at Stormont is happy - politicians discovered anonymous letters in their pigeonholes protesting about the use of Parliament Buildings for such a pageant.

But some MLAs agreed to act as judges, so they obviously don't believe competitions like "Miss Ulster" are politically incorrect.

Whilst the MLAs may be ready to judge the beauty contestants, the public now has something to judge the politicians by - a glossy programme for government containing 76 promises.

Its headline pledge is to promote 25,000 new jobs over the next four years.

On the face of it that's a big leap forward on the last programme for government which talked about creating just 6,500 jobs. So is Northern Ireland bucking the trend as the rest of Europe faces economic meltdown?

It's not that simple.


Although the executive would say it exceeded its own targets, promoting 15,000 new jobs and defending 5,000 existing ones, unemployment rose during the last assembly term to 8%, its highest level since the Good Friday Agreement.

Joblessness has now fallen back to 7.3%, but a recent Westminster report confirmed that some of Northern Ireland's parliamentary constituencies remain amongst the most deprived in the UK.

Ministers may create employment in one sector, but jobs will go elsewhere (indeed some of the plans for streamlining councils and education bodies presumably wouldn't be worth proceeding with unless they did cut public sector wage bills).

Stormont politicians might do their best to attract foreign investment, but ultimately they are not entirely in control of our economic fortunes.

Instead they depend on the wider economic climate and the powers they can wield (and we still don't know when Stormont might get responsibility, for example, for setting a local rate of corporation tax and what the price tag will be).

That's why we don't see a target to bring down unemployment per se. Instead Stormont promises to give with one hand knowing employers may take away with the other.

Some initiatives - like double glazing Housing Executive homes - should provide the embattled building trade with a boost.

Some obstacles - like streamlining the bureaucracy in education - have been overcome.

Others, like achieving consensus on academic selection, remain.

The first and deputy first ministers have forced through a compromise on cutting the number of councils, but only by countermanding the SDLP environment minister.

Before the Stormont clock strikes midnight the audience in the Great Hall will know who the new "Miss Ulster" will be.

Whether this programme for government is a hit or a miss won't be clear until we near the end of this four year assembly term.