Michael Gove was this week seemingly ‘demoted’ from his four-year tenure as Education Secretary to government Chief Whip, yet despite being locked in a toilet on his first day in his new job he is unlikely to go away; in fact, he will be on television and radio more often than before. Articulate and always with something interesting to say whether you agreed with him or not, he approached his role with an idea: to take on ‘the blob’, or establishment (academics, unions, bureaucrats and so on), and to take down the Berlin Wall between public and private education standards. Apparently the UK’s most unpopular politician, he paid the price for seeking and implementing radical change and was replaced by a Prime Minister obsessed with the need to occupy the political centre ground. At Stormont we could do with a Michael Gove-type figure in government; someone unafraid to take on our own established ways of doing things, to take a risk for greater efficiency and accountability in the public sector.
Taking on the post of Northern Ireland Finance Minister last year, Simon Hamilton told the Belfast Telegraph that he recognised the public sector here as an economic driver but admitted there had “probably” been a lack of political courage to take any radical steps to change the public sector. A year later, this is not likely to change any time soon. Probably the last Executive minister to show bold leadership was ex-Education Minister Caitríona Ruane who oversaw the abolition of the ‘Eleven Plus’ exam. Whether you agreed with her or not, similar to Michael Gove she endured the role of political punch bag throughout her own four-year tenure. Ever since, risk aversion and administration as opposed to real leadership has largely been the ways of things at Stormont. Despite David Cameron’s own lack of convictions, Michael Gove was not afraid to make enemies; it has been argued that he made too many enemies too quickly. In Northern Ireland our politicians join public sector workers and others at picket lines despite their own party colleagues being a part of, and remaining a part of, the government responsible for the same cuts and closures. Where is the integrity or collective responsibility in that?
This writer remembers attending a discussion last year in which a well-known Councillor half-jokingly described Northern Ireland as “a semi-communist state” due to the over-reliance upon the public sector here. Stormont and Northern Ireland politics more generally could benefit from representatives like Michael Gove who hold a coherent vision for governance as well as the courage to challenge the status quo, even lose a few friends in pursuit of the greater good. On many occasions delivering ready-made press releases, statements or speeches compiled by political advisors, we have largely lacked colourful political types who entered politics with a vision for government other than to keep ‘the other side’ out, and a determination to initiate tangible long-term public sector reform. The potential lowering of corporation tax in Northern Ireland could be a significant game-changer in the province’s relations with the rest of the UK, in its outlook and attractiveness to private business and enterprise, but until then risk aversion will by and large rule the day at Stormont with imagined Berlin Walls separating Executive ministers, departments and political parties.