Are our new ministers fit for purpose?

10 Jun 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 Jun 2016

The second part of our series on the challenges ahead for our new Ministers. 

We’re using the influential Institute of Government’s template The Challenge of Being a Minister as we summarise the challenges ahead for the new team, and how the post holders measure up to the requirements of the job. The report concerns Westminster but the findings are applicable here as well.

One of the key findings in the report is the lack both of training and appraisal systems for ministers in office. At Westminster many senior politician baulk at the suggestion that they need either. They would see themselves at the pinnacle of their careers and that to undergo either would be humiliating.

Whenever new ministerial offices are announced it’s a case of moving into your new office and ploughing straight into the in-tray. As ministerial appointments are often the result of reflecting a politicians’ status within a party rather than either competence or specialist knowledge the results can be mixed and of course there are no appraisals.

It’s even more acute in opposition. When Alan Johnson was made Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2010, he admits that his sole preparation was reading an economics primer. Given the lack of resources for Opposition Parties at Stormont, we can expect steep learning curves for opposition spokespeople here as well. Don’t expect opposition to be effective form the off.


We can expect the DUP’s Peter Weir to be thoroughly prepared for his new post. He is a barrister, a role which requires sifting through mountains of paperwork to determine key issues for cases. This is a useful attribute for a Minister.

He is also extremely strong on policy. When he and Alliance’s Stephen Farry left North Down Council for Stormont council insiders said they were badly missed. Strategic thinking is a great asset for government and Weir has a sharp mind.

The brief will be tough. There are too many schools in Northern Ireland: cuts are inevitable and when that happens we can expect the opposition to make hay.

There will also be a challenge in brokering some kind of arrangement with Sinn Fein. The DUP and Sinn Fein have opposing policies on academic selection and the current ad hoc system is not satisfactory whichever way you look at it. Development of effective strategies to address educational under achievement will be key. How that can be achieved without abolishing selection will be key if he is to make a success of the job. Both government parties are in agreement on growing shared education. This will inevitably be at the expense of the integrated education movement.



In the Westminster report it is argued that three classes of people tend to do well as Ministers SpAds (don’t tell Jim Allister) because of the insight they gain into how Ministers work and engage with the civil service; councillors, because they have been involved in government albeit at a lower level, and entrepreneurs, they tend to bring clearer focus and not get into unnecessary detail which can undermine and alienate civil servants.

Another key skill is presentation.

 Máirtín Ó Muilleoir  has one of the toughest roles. Some commentators are predicting that he will be portrayed as the Minister for cuts, an extremely damaging position for both him and his party to find themselves in.

On the other hand he is an entrepreneur and presumably will not be as economically illiterate as Alan Johnson. He has also not just talked about inward investment but gone on to do something about it which is more than most politicians can say.

He is also a serial networker and an extremely effective communicator. It will be interesting to see how well he works with Simon Hamilton. Good working relations will be key.

He may also be relatively new to Stormont but he has many years of experience as a councillor dating back to the crazy days of Belfast City Council when it was dubbed The Dome of Delight. He was widely praised as Lord Mayor of Belfast.

An especially interesting challenge for him will be the implementation of Corporation Tax cuts: a boost to business at a time when the working poor will be under even greater pressure. People Before Profit will have much to say about this.


There’s a wonderful irony in the fact that Paul Givan, so prominent in speaking out in support of Asher’s Bakery in the “gay cake” row, should now find himself responsible for gender and sexual orientation policy.

However the main challenge he will face will be overseeing a department which has so many elements grafted on to it that it has been dubbed “The Ministry for Everything Else”.

Structural change is one of the biggest challenges any organisation can ever face. It creates fear and instability amongst those affected who will be moving from different departments with different priorities and cultures into a new environment.

This will take some time to bed down.

There will be specific challenges ahead: implementation of changes to disability payments is just one. But the main priority should be to steady the ship until change beds down. He’ll need to display pragmatism and strong leadership within.


Chris Hazzard can claim to be one of the smartest members of the government. He is currently completing a Phd. It will be interesting to see how much his knowledge of International Studies and Political Philosophy will help him resolve the question of who clears the pavements when it snows: his own department or the local authority.

That aside this, like the Economy Department, has the potential to be a ministry of good news if Hazzard can secure the funding for the A5 road scheme and further development at Magee.

This is a big step up for Hazzard. There’s no question that investment is required to improve our infrastructure. He’ll need to be effective at Executive Meetings and assiduously court his party colleague Máirtín Ó Muilleoir.


Michelle McIlveen should be very well prepared for the role. She has served as a junior minister, learning the ropes and also had a spell as Minister for Regional Development when the UUP walked out of government last Autumn. She’s from a rural constituency, Strangford and has experience as a councillor in the former Ards Borough Council.

What could be interesting, however, is how things might turn out for her where the referendum to lead to Brexit, especially given that her party is in the Leave camp.

Northern Ireland’s agricultural sector is a net beneficiary of European money. If we leave she may find her position uncomfortable unless she is able to negotiate additional funds to make up the shortfall.


Claire Sugden has received the most publicity of all the new ministers to date, being the independent who has rescued the government by taking the post.

She is 29. Although her father was a prison officer she has no direct experience of the law or policing and has the most sensitive brief of all. The prison regime is still in crisis so it is going to be a very steep learning curve.

Sugden is hard working and dedicated to becoming a career politician. She has used Stormont’s in-house training project PoliticsPlus extensively but she will need more help.

There is no party machine behind her and so therefore lacks the resources of her partners in government. She will have to maintain a high profile in her constituency, which she has achieved very well to date. More than anything she needs a SpAD, not just any old SpAD but one with the specialist knowledge and experience that she lacks to help her through the transition.

It would be wise for her to take as much time as she can afford not just being briefed by civil servants but also by external experts on the many challenges her department faces.

An engaging and popular person she has attributes that should not be overlooked. But as opposition beds down she can expect to come under fire and have her resilience tested. 

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