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Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Stormont MLAs say no to useless talking shop

One small story from the Teddy Bear’s Head that I almost missed – with the restoration of Stormont imminent, the British government is dead keen on restoring the Civic Forum. “What’s the Civic Forum?” I hear the broad masses cry. This is a 60-member consultative body, appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers, which makes the Free State Seanad look like a legislative powerhouse. Its job is to provide a space where peace process “stakeholders” can have a say on Executive policy.

So, who gets to be on the Forum? Well, in the first instance there are failed Assembly candidates, either influential old-timers who need appeasing or rising stars who are highly esteemed by their parties, but less so by the great unwashed. (In the latter category, one might want to look out for the SDLP’s Sharon “Lovely Girl” Haughey or the DUP’s Christopher “Milky Bar Kid” Stalford.) In addition, the community sector, alias the peace industry, is in there. The loyalist paramilitaries are in there, under the “community” rubric. The NIC-ICTU bureaucracy is in there. And there should be a few academics, to lend tone to the proceedings. In the Big Tent of the Peace Process, all are welcome.

(Parenthetically, the powers that be are missing a trick if they don’t appoint the left. Eamonn McCann and Peter Hadden would scarcely turn down an opportunity to speechify at public expense, and they have as good a claim to be in the Civic Forum as some of those who might be appointed.)

This has, believe it or not, come up against some resistance from Stormont MLAs, particularly the parsimonious DUP. Our representatives seem to have cottoned on that 108 MLAs, a dozen ministers and nearly 600 councillors are enough to be getting along with in a population of 1.7 million, and begrudge shelling out the £2m or so that would allow 60 of the Province’s great and good to be consulted on the Executive’s actions.

But isn’t this terribly stingy? Given that most of the North’s workforce is on the public payroll, what’s the real harm in bunging the great and good a few quid in expenses? And if the Civic Forum could find a way to keep Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney in the political sphere, it would be doing our entertainment industry – whoops, public life – a world of good.

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