Northern Ireland

Goodfellas: The five families of Stormont

The Sopranos
Image caption Ministers around the Executive table have the leadership style of Mafia bosses

It is good to have government, even if it is not good government. That is the rationale behind the Good Friday and St Andrew's Agreements which have produced our current form of devolution.

As the Assembly approaches the end of its first full term in office under powersharing, there is relief and no small amount of pleasure in many quarters that this peculiar concoction has lasted the distance. Never mind the quality, feel the width.

It would be unfair to criticise the parties for a lack of delivery, whenever all they were expected to deliver was "themselves" to the finishing line.

But as they head into an election seeking a mandate for a new term in office, it will be interesting to see what expectations are for the new term. And a question they will have to address is whether the current structures actually allow for good government.

A number of issues this week highlighted the dysfunctional nature of an Executive where power is distributed less by coalition, than by contested carve-up. The ministers around the Executive table have the leadership style of mafia bosses representing five different families, each with their own territory and each with their own power base.

'Trade offs'

They work together because they have accepted the basic ground rules, but getting agreement is a constant game of trade-offs. The smaller families feel they are not getting a fair slice of the action, but they remain at the table because they fear annihilation from the bigger families should they leave.

It is a structure which does not encourage strategic oversight, or shared common objectives. Each minister operates within their own domain, co-operating with other family members where necessary, but guarding their own patch jealously.

Take the student fees issue as an example. The minister for employment and learning has not stated what he plans to do on that important issue - follow England and raise fees dramatically; freeze them at current levels; or even abolish them altogether.

Instead he has produced a list of options. Why? Because with an election looming it is not in his interests to express an opinion that may upset powerful education groups whenever Executive colleagues would offer no collective support.

The social development minister launched another consultation exercise this week. This time, he is asking for views on building lots of housing on the Girdwood Barracks site in north Belfast.

This proposal is very pleasing to nationalist voters. The problem is any development plan for this site requires complete Executive approval and unionists are not keen on more houses for nationalists. This is the primary reason why nothing has been done with Girdwood and why nothing will be done along the lines suggested by Alex Attwood.

The regional development minister announced plans to charge for parking in 30 towns across Northern Ireland. The move is described as a means to encourage people onto public transport but the fact that it will net nearly £40m for the DRD over the budget period appears to be a more compelling factor.

The problem here is that this minister's proposal is at odds with the finance minister's plan to levy out-of-town centres because their free car parking and convenience is already killing small town centres. One minister says he wants to help town centres; the other appears to want to punish them. Both, it seems, simply want to raise money and neither are that focussed on the strategic objective overall.

So, when it comes to election time, expect our politicians to trumpet how good it has been to have had four years of government, but perhaps they could tell us how good a government the next one will be.