Northern Ireland in 2017
2016 was a year of major political upheaval across the world.
We wrote last week about why the realignment in the west has not finished and why the final destination remains unclear.
Locally, things are rather different. The most recent reminder that Northern Irish politics operates to different rules from most democratic countries is the fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.
Failures on such a scale would normally place any politicians responsible under serious pressure from the off. When it became clear that senior DUP figures including Mrs Foster’s former SpAd benefitted from the scheme that would have been a huge blow had it happened in most other jurisdictions.
But even when the UUP leader Mike Nesbitt claimed there was “smoking gun” evidence that ties Mrs Foster to the failures inescapably this looked like a problem the DUP would be able to wait out.
The norms of Northern Irish politics dictate it will take an astounding effort to force her from office.
Former DUP minister Jonathan Bell’s intervention is an extraordinary and exceptional one and it is only this that has truly cranked up the heat on some of his senior party colleagues. The outworkings of this will be fascinating but there could be a long way to go and the First Minister has been forthright in defence of her own actions in office.
What seems clear is that local politics is not nearly as ripe for change as a lot of the rest of the world. But if Northern Ireland does not see changes with broad strokes over the next 12 months there could still be significant developments based on the fine details.
Health reform is on a knife edge.
While clinicians have an overwhelming consensus on what is required to keep our health system functional a political mixture of ignorance and opportunism still risks holding back change, or torpedoing it completely.
However, there is a feeling that these matters are coming to a head. Both previous health minister, Simon Hamilton of the DUP, and the current incumbent Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Fein, have been much more forthright than predecessors about the need for urgent reform.
Combined with the fact that necessity provides impetus and it is genuinely possible that change can finally begin.
Cracks in the current model have been showing for years and are now becoming more frequent and more obvious. The closure of the Maynard Sinclair Ward at the Ulster Hospital is just the latest example.
Across Health and Social Care there are huge pockets of understaffing. These areas are at once ill-equipped to deal with workforce shortages due to low numbers, and also more susceptible to staff sickness due to stress because of the increased pressure on individual staff members.
As more and more crises occur the need to accept change will become more pressing. This is far from an ideal driver of policy but some good may come from it.
Another cause for optimism in health, but also policy generally, is the new Programme for Government. The outcomes-based approach adopted by the Executive has seen significant improvements in other jurisdictions, provides less scope for hiding failures of policy (in theory, at least), and hopefully will do the same here.
The consultation on the draft PfG closes the day before Christmas Eve and so the new year really is a potential new dawn for Northern Ireland.
One thing that won’t get any better, won’t see anything other than pretend progress, won’t even inch towards a resolution, is dealing with the past.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire has kicked everything into the long grass, stating that there will be no public consultation on how to deal with legacy issues until there is “broad political consensus”.
The problem is that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not suffer electorally by not finding a solution to these issues – and, in fact, it provides them with a way to shore up some votes in the run up to an election by attacking each other for their intransigence.
If there was a solution that suited both parties then perhaps it would be found. But there is not. Any deal would either be extremely problematic for one of the parties, or for both - therefore it will not happen. The best we can achieve is heads of agreement, such as with Stormont House, but as soon as it gets to specifics the common ground evaporates.
So next year in Northern Ireland will, in many ways, look like this year and last year and the year before that.
However, there are also areas for optimism. If the wheels start moving on health reform and if the Programme for Government really does provide impetus for effective policy, the benefits will be significant.
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