One chance only

18 Jun 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Jun 2020

Quintin Oliver on how to build a better world post pandemic. 


We have one chance only to make the changes we want after Covid-19.

Our health systems, economy, social norms and behaviours have been shattered. Utterly.

Let’s diagnose the new givens, so we can rebuild better:

  • We now know there is ‘England’ separate from the UK; for four decades of my adult life, here and in Scotland, I have battled against and yet been frustrated by ignorance of the existence of difference and diversity across the state, even as the devolution debate flourished and succeeded! Now we must exploit that growing realisation – and consequential opportunity - that we live in asymmetrical geometry, enabling differentiation and bottom-up choices – how do we reconfigure the jigsaw creatively?
  • The NHS is inviolable – no more wild talk of privatisation or market forces; let’s defend and underpin, but still transform, it; funding should never again be a problem;
  • Integrated Health and Social Care (we even call it that, here, rather than NHS – just look at their didn’t work for us; our care homes are still bottom of the heap, deprioritised, under-funded and shamefully neglected; that must change, but how (beyond the rhetoric)?
  • Education remains in a mess. Seemingly unresponsive, silo-ed, reactive, ponderous, riddled with impermeable vested interests – everyone agrees that children are the losers, but no coalition of interest has emerged for radical change (with a few honourable exceptions) so little will happen?
  • UK-exit looms…

A short while ago, as lockdown began to ease, a proposal to pedestrianise part of the Ormeau Road emerged; it was imaginative and mould-breaking; the proponents came up with a vision, operational solutions and problem-solving devices. They deployed social media to promote the idea and engaged in vigorous debate; it trended on Twitter.

Now the challenge is for the public sector – which appropriately wields the legislative, regulatory and financial powers – to respond. This could be a flagship for the many more modest and easier-to-implement changes that have been banked already, like rights of way, cycle lanes and relaxed licencing law.

But, it will require a massive shift in our governance. Because we have atomised government, both as a conflict resolution power-sharing tool, and with historical impediments like hollowed out local councils and a heavyweight quangocracy, this will be all the more difficult. At first sight, it will require cooperation amongst Belfast City Council, DfC, DAERA, DfI, DfEducation, DoF, DoEconomy, NIHE, Translink, PSNI, Belfast HSC Trust, PBNI, EA to mention only a few! Are we up for that? Or will we remain mired in the minutiae of minute-taking, email storage, FoI, dog mess and pot-hole repair?

We will only have one chance for this – waste it at our peril.

The challenges presented by the post-Covid context are both complex and paradoxical; here are five brief examples:

  1. Our arts and cultural infrastructure and its indivisible human capital, on which many of us in lockdown have cherished, is thoroughly shattered, with limited short-term hope of relief from a clumsy one-size-fits-all furlough / self-employed scheme. The talent may be lost for a generation. Physical distancing renders financial viability null and void
  2. Last year the three N. Ireland Airports flew 40 planes a day to six London airports; it’s now down to three. As so many of us have now learned to work remotely online at last (we’ve had these teleconferencing facilities for three decades already!) when will we fly again, after perhaps a mini-spike this summer for a delayed wedding or commemoration, or to see granny? We all recall ‘that’ crowded Aer Lingus plane; who will want to wait 60 minutes to board and deboard?
  3. Charity shops face a quadruple whammy – older volunteers won’t be able to come, there is limited space for the mountains of clear-out clothing and furniture we all want to offload, which will need disinfected and quarantined too, and will customers want ‘other people’s possibly infected gear’?
  4. As we return to workplaces, will there be a boom in office rentals to spread us all out, or a contraction and a rota scheme alongside that ‘WFH’ sign, that used to mean ‘skiving’ and now means safe and productive? I back the latter, but don’t underestimate the downsides;
  5. Over a decade Translink (still publicly owned) has pushed up daily usage to 19%. But now, will there be a surge in single person car usage, with attendant air quality and city parking problems, that threatens to dwarf the modest growth in cycling and better post-Covid infrastructure?

These each bring social, economic, cohesion and diversity questions for our already and still divided and impoverished society. It will need more than a hand-picked Committee of employers to solve.

So now, what is to be done:

  1. Re-invent democracy – there is a new hunger for engagement and participation, recently fuelled and refocussed by the unanticipated Black Lives Matter movement, and latterly the triumphant Marcus Rashford FSM campaign; the (as yet unagreed) Ireland Programme for Government includes three Citizens’ Assemblies and many other deliberative mechanisms to enhance participation; a Scottish MSP had been about to retire because of burdensome travel from Caithness to Holyrood each week, but has now reconsidered, as she can vote and contribute remotely. Easy!
  2. Maximise NI’s special case – almost everyone acknowledges our unique and special position, emerging from conflict, with deep ties and social and commercial patterns to our East and to our South; Stormont has often shown commendable unity during the crisis; bank it;
  3. Use our institutions - who knew we still had the British-Irish Council, North-South Council, Joint Ministerial Group on Devolution, Inter-parliamentary Forums, Alliances and Assemblies and so on; let’s kick them into shape;
  4. Lever our social partnership model – we have a vibrant and responsive third sector, energetic social enterprises, thoughtful trade unions, farmers, academics, professional bodies in a manageable political entity of 1.8 million. Why do we squander those attributes and best practice models and frameworks; all strive for wellbeing for citizens as an outcome;
  5. Treasure innovation – there is a small town in Ukraine which has deployed multi-generational lockdown households as ready-made mixed Focus Groups on urban regeneration, supported by their teenage members on their smart phones; more here, please!
  6. Remember our Values – we are many of us tired, worn down emotionally and physically; those on the front line in the voluntary, private and public sectors have behaved heroically; let’s not cast them aside, as power structures revert to type. How can we elevate the principles of collectivity, anti-sectarianism, reconciliation, equality, human rights, candour, openness and the simple value of kindness to the forefront, to help build that better society?

The challenge is for all of us, not just the politicians. Can we rise to it, please!

Quintin Oliver was Director of NICVA (1985-1998) and founder of Stratagem (1998-2019). @QuintinOliver.


Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.