Northern Ireland: Anarchy in the UK

31 Mar 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 31 Mar 2017

Is there a rabbit in his box?

This week also saw the collapse of talks aimed at forming a new Executive, without a budget being agreed. 

We now have David Sterling, permanent secretary in the Department of Finance holding the purse strings, initially 75% of last year’s money.

Across all departments accountants have now become key figures, there will be no plashing of cash. Prudence will be the order of the day.

Budgetary uncertainty has hit the voluntary sector. NICVA research demonstrates that already one third of charities have put staff on protective redundancy notice. Some organisations are due to close their doors altogether. The Funding Watch survey makes for chilling reading. Naturally there has been a focus on job loss as there should be. However when we consider what these services are for, the unfolding picture is even more troubling. The sector provides front line services to the most vulnerable people in society. It is they who will suffer the most.

The implosion of health service slowly gathers momentum. Health reforms have not been implemented and the inevitable is happening. Daisy Hill Hospital appears to be on the verge of closing its A&E Department, there are rumours that Causeway Hospital will be next. Northern Ireland is running out of nurses and radiologists. The patient is beyond critical and the required remedy is in the drawer of the desk of an unoccupied Health Minister’s office.

Politicians are at odds over an Irish Language Act, dealing with the past and cash for ash. All these are legitimate issues. It is not for us to point the finger and blame any party or the British government for the failure to progress and a talks process that all participants found shambolic.

However everybody is finally waking up to the fact that although we can and should vote for who should be in government and parties are entitled to debate who they will share power with, not having a government is not an option, unless, of course, you happen to be an anarchist and no party in the last election stood on that platform.

And here we do find some real hope at last. The Third Sector rarely, if ever features in political discourse. How often is it cited in political manifestos, for example? How often are charities mentioned in hustings, as compared to private enterprise, the interests of the public sector and farming, for example?

This week we have seen a significant and welcome shift. Media outlets have been contrasting the plight of Third Sector workers with MLAs who are shortly to receive a pay rise. There have been features and news articles about some of the projects under imminent threat, or who say they will have to close their doors.

It appears that talks that had collapsed last Sunday are either underway again, or never stopped, depending on who you believe. The language being used by politicians is more urgent in tone, more positive.

James Brokenshire has told the Commons that if agreement is not reached he will enable rates bills to go out, and may do more.  He could, for example set his own budget for Northern Ireland. Direct rule is back on the table if local politicians cannot agree.  

Letters of reassurance about funding are to go out to Third Sector organisations in an attempt to provide a little more certainty about the immediate future.

Finally policy issues which do not concern the national question are coming centre stage. It is becoming obvious that if politicians cannot find a way forward, everyone will pay a heavy price: the more vulnerable you are, the heavier that price will be. When charity workers went to the polls they were not voting to lose their own job. Service users were not voting to lose the services on which they rely. And none of us voted for the collapse of the health service.

Normal politics is beginning to reassert itself. There may well have been public anger about cash for ash. It does appear that nationalists came out in large numbers because they felt resentment towards the DUP. Nobody, however, voted for chaos. If that is allowed to happen politicians may well discover that it will be their turn to pay next time around.

This is a strange place, and there could be many more twists and turns, but the worst scenario of all whereby the British government deployed the imminent collapse of vital services as a bargaining chip to “concentrate minds” appears now to be receding.

Minds are concentrating. Over the next few weeks it will be incumbent on everyone in civil society to keep up the pressure. Political difference is respected, the difficult challenge faced by politicians is understood. It is neither necessary or helpful to take sides. But we are entitled to expect government and governance and to push hard to get it. 

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