Stormont: is this goodbye?

30 Mar 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 30 Mar 2022

Image: Pixabay

Many commentators are predicting that this Stormont Executive and Assembly will be the last.

They argue that the DUP will not accept a First Minister from Sinn Fein and that whether that or the Northern Ireland protocol is given as the reason there will be no return to government now that the Assembly has completed its business.

There are good reasons for believing they may be correct and, if so, there will be no groundswell of outrage over the loss of our political institutions. Many don’t seem to care. Indeed those who argue that the institutions are important are often mocked as eccentric and deluded.

After all, it is argued, what has Stormont ever done for us?

And what difference would it possibly make if it were to cease to exist, apart from the savings to salaries and expenses?

And we seemed to muddle through long period without government at all – and people scarcely noticed.

This issue, of the consequence of no government, is every bit as important as any other as we enter the Election period. The electorate need to weigh it very carefully because if it does happen again there will be no point in blaming anyone else for it, we’ll all have to bear the consequences and they will be very significant indeed.

The think tank Pivotal has just published its latest report.  Post-election policy priorities for Northern Ireland might not be the sort of title to make the juices flow but it is essential reading. It spells out our key challenges, many of which are urgent and explains why they need to be fixed by local representatives and cannot be left to the UK government which can only be relied on to intervene when it is unavoidable.

The central point is that if we are forced into a prolonged period without government we’d not be able to come up with the policies required to address the many area where we need immediate action combined with longer-term plans to tackle underlying issues.

Examples include health waiting lists, the cost of living crisis, economic recovery from Covid, boosting skills, improving infrastructure and addressing climate change.

The problem is that for as long as there is no First and deputy First Minister the Executive cannot function. That means that although Ministers will retain their titles they are unable to make any decisions that require agreement from the Executive as a whole. Examples of this include the failure to agree the anticipated three-year Budget and the inability to allocate £300 million of additional funding for 2022-23.

That’s a huge constraint, ruling out, for example the sort of cross cutting, inter departmental decision-making required in so many areas to bring about meaningful change. Ministers would, in effect, be caretakers only able to make decisions that were in line with previously agreed policies.  Single-year budgets for departments would be rolled forward flat, preventing any additions or re-allocations between different spending priorities. The newly elected Assembly would meet, but its legislative work would be hugely restricted given the inability of Ministers to enact any significant new policies.

That alone means that the prospects for necessary reform of the health service are practically zero. It will require proper planning and that will need long term work over a longer budgetary cycle.

Yet before we even get to the challenges that await we’re left with having to face the fact we have no Programme for Government agreed. So our caretaker ministers and civil servants will have no direction set, no strategic direction to follow.

 One particular concern is that there is no PfG in place at present, meaning that if no new Executive is formed after the May election, there is not even an agreed previous PfG in place for ‘caretaker’ Ministers and civil servants to follow. That, added to the inability to develop multi-year budgets will necessitate “muddling through” at a time of serious challenges which require strategic, joined-up thinking and an ability to tackle difficult issues.

Speaking of which 355,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for a first consultant-led appointment and nearly 187,000 (52.6%) of them have been waiting for more than one year. Funding for dealing with this has not been agreed because it was to have been part of the three year budget that fell by the wayside when we lost a functioning Executive.

Broader health reforms are also required. These have proved difficult enough to enact with normal governance in place, without it they won’t happen and the health service will drift further into crisis.

The same goes for addressing the causes of poor health outcomes. A greater focus on prevention and early intervention could reduce the need for later treatments and improve quality of life. But once we start talking in terms of poverty, housing quality, diet and exercise we require joined-up governance of the type not possible without a functioning executive.

The economy and infrastructure are other areas requiring multi year budgets, they also need targeted investment and a strategic approach.

We’re going to need to increase our skills base so we can benefit from current and future job opportunities.

We also need major investment in transport, water and the sewage infrastructure. At present housing and commercial developments are being prevented for the lack of it.

Lack of adequate water infrastructure is preventing much-needed housing and commercial development in some areas.

Then there’s the Climate Change where Northern Ireland has been slipping behind for some time. Our greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by only 18% since 1990, compared to a 44% fall in the UK as a whole. We now have climate legislation but we’ll need clear focus to avoid falling further behind.

The independent Review of Education has recently submitted a report. But it will gather dust without an Executive to support the changes needed to improve educational outcomes for so many of our young people.

Everywhere you look there are vitally important policy areas that will not be acted upon without a functional Executive with a clear Programme for Government.

People need to think about that before casting their vote. It has become fashionable to moan about politicians and say that is their fault when things go wrong or do not happen. It is time people grew out of this delusional fantasy. If we want to know who is really to blame all that we need is a mirror.

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