Stormont: why quieter voices need to be heard

9 Mar 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 9 Mar 2017

James Brokenshire: that box is about to get much bigger

It is time that quieter voices were heard in the current political debate. 

Leaders of all parties would do well to reflect that regardless of their mandates, they are far out numbered by those who voted for other parties, or else did not vote at all. Yes voting was up on last time around but still 25% did not vote at all – more than Sinn Fein or the DUP who came in at around 16% of the total electorate apiece.

There is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that anyone who turned up at the polling stations last week voted for there to be no workable budget, intended to put people providing front line services on protective redundancy notices, wanted to halt health reform, endanger vulnerable people and ensure that the area which has most at stake over Brexit has no representation in the subsequent talks. 

Scope is not going to enter into the debate about any of the red lines that parties are imposing before they will enter government. We are concerned with policy rather than party politics. And what we see is that every citizen of Northern Ireland is going to pay a very heavy price for a prolonged political impasse. And given the general lack of confidence both in politicians and the institutions that they run, our very institutions, perhaps even the peace process is at risk.

Wherever people stand on the national question we all still need jobs, and housing, and good health care, education and social services.

That, after all, is what our Executive and Assembly is supposed to be for. Of course all parties and voters have different views on the Irish border but the purpose of the Election was to vote for who should be governing a devolved government. Failure to form a government after an election is a failure, nothing more and nothing less, and does not affect the status of Northern Ireland, except in so far as it plunges it into a void and increases disaffection with all politicians.

So we believe that the parties have a duty to all the citizens of Northern Ireland. And it is this: if they cannot agree to form an Executive before the end of this month they should at least agree, sign off and vote through the budget which has already been prepared.

We assume that even if it is not fully agreed it is close to being so and that if there are differences they might be resolved with some goodwill (if such does exist). After all on many “domestic” issues the parties are in general agreement.

This would at least allow the departments to allocate resources on the basis of the will of democratically elected representatives, rather than to pass the matter on to Civil Servants, who will initially at least only have 75% of last year’s budget to play with.

Similarly urgent action is required in relation to Health reform. This is beyond urgent. Transforming Your Care which initially characterised the system here as on the verge of collapse was published in 2011 and the necessary reforms have not been forthcoming. In the interim the Health Service has moved from being on the verge of collapse to the early stages of collapse. This is unacceptable, especially given that the former Health Minister Michele O’Neill has a paper either fully prepared or almost complete. That also needs to be voted through – the alternative is unthinkable.

If this proves impossible then the buck stops with the Secretary of State. James Brokenshire has expressed reluctance to implement Direct Rule. That’s understandable as nobody voted for that. He may have no choice.

In that scenario his inclination will be to put Northern Ireland into a holding pattern. Civil servants will govern Northern Ireland in “maintenance mode.” Existing policies will be implemented, up to 95% of last year’s budget will be spent.

Departments will continue to work on new policy, but there will be none implemented. Health reform will not happen and scores of other initiatives vital to the development of public policy will be put on ice.

It does not have to be, and should not be like that. A budget has been prepared. Mr Brokenshire could implement it. Far better to do so because it would be as close as he could get to doing something which has an electoral mandate here. The same applies to health reform. All parties agree on the necessity. What has held them back has been a reluctance to do anything that could be seen as adversely impacting individual constituencies that they represent. Ironically this could be one area where Brokenshire could make an important contribution to Northern Ireland. He’s not directly susceptible to such pressures and MLAs who can’t or won’t serve their constituents are hardly in a position to complain. After all they will have put their own narrow party political interests ahead of the health and well being of the people they were elected to serve.

More broadly there are many policy areas where the parties are pretty much aligned. We all know the toxic issues, but nothing should stop Brokenshire from progressing policy in all those areas where there is broad consensus. It’s the very least he can and should do.

There has been a lot of talk in recent days that removing MLAs’ salaries and party funding would concentrate minds and help ensure a speedy settlement. This is an understandable position, and would secure overwhelming support amongst voters. After all this is public money and if politicians are not doing what they are supposed to do why should they be paid?

We should be cautious about that. It might concentrate minds. But we also need to remember that removing funds and salaries would clearly favour the biggest, best funded factions and have much more serious implications for smaller parties.

The greater challenge is this. All parties have a responsibility to their support base to argue their case and to stand up for their principles. However they also have a broader responsibility to the entire society to protect the vulnerable, provide vital services and do what needs to be done to save the health service from collapse. Civic Society has a duty to quietly, insistently remind them of this simple truth. 

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