The ongoing perils of our year of non-governance

12 Jan 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 Jan 2018

Stormont collapsed 12 months ago leaving Northern Ireland in stasis while Brexit plans are shaped and the health service crumbles. Here we look at NICVA’s response to a Westminster consultation on the crisis.

Next week will mark 12 months, exactly, since the Northern Ireland Executive broke apart, triggering the collapse of the Assembly.

In November, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster launched an inquiry, Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland – dealing with the deficit, with a deadline for submissions at the end of last year.

NICVA this week published its own submission to the inquiry, outlining the effects on NI – up until now, and into the future – as well as calling for “creative solutions” to the impasse.

Its concerns come, broadly, under five categories: the hardening of local party-political positions at the same time as apathy increases amongst the public; worsening public services; lack of a coherent Brexit plan for NI; effects on the peace process; and threats to the third sector.

Karen Bradley is in her first week as Secretary of State and talked up the re-establishment of devolution as her central priority. She has some work to do.

Former Health Minister Edwin Poots has been openly talking about leaving his role as an MLA and moving into a different career – he is a sitting MLA and whether he is being extremely candid or just sending a message this does not appear to bode well for Stormont’s chances in the short term.

Doubtless, this committee inquiry will be of great interest to her as she gets to grips with our particular brand of intransigence – especially as it is not just looking at the negative effects of a stalled Stormont, but how it could be restarted. Its stated scope is:

“The inquiry will look at solutions for restoring devolved bodies and accountability as well as investigate the need for further intervention from the UK Government. It will also examine the impact of the lack of an Executive on communities, public services and businesses and what can be done in the absence of an Executive to ensure Northern Ireland’s voice is heard.”

Political drift

Politics, and politicians, in Northern Ireland are extremely unpopular. The public has little faith in our institutions, and the people who populate them, to solve the problems we face as a society.

NICVA is concerned that the lack of a deal is hardening the positions of our major parties, which makes an agreement – and cooperation, generally – more difficult to attain as time goes on.

Per NICVA’s paper: “The longer that locally elected democratic structures appear unable to deliver for the public in Northern Ireland on key issues of concern such as health and education, the greater the likelihood that the public here will become disillusioned with devolved government and lose faith in the viability of a Northern Ireland Assembly.

“The atmosphere of distrust in politicians here can be evidenced in the public perception survey undertaken by NICVA in 2017 which found that only 16% of respondents considered MLAs and MPs to be the most informed to speak about issues facing society. This was significantly lower than the figure for the voluntary and community sector where 45% of people considered the sector to be most informed to speak on these issues.”

This does not just have ramifications for achieving a deal but for the political practicalities that come afterwards. The relative period of stability enjoyed by Northern Ireland in the decade following 2007 relied on compromises and teamwork from those who were traditional opponents, particularly the DUP and Sinn Fein (and their leaders, for much of that time, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness).

The problem is that the public’s understandable frustration at the lack of pragmatism and positive vision from leaders does not change some difficult realities: firstly, that these politicians are the ones who that same public votes for in the greatest numbers; and secondly that Northern Ireland has myriad issues – nuts and bolts problems in health, education, infrastructure and more, and not just rows about symbolism – that require attention.

Public service travails, Brexit and the peace process

The health service is collapsing and this is not a future problem that needs to be planned for, it is happening now.

That is our greatest challenge but it is also just one of many. Our public services are under extreme pressure and it will require intelligence, imagination and dexterity of mind to do the best we can with what is available. The problem right now is not that we do not have those, it is that we have nothing at all.

“The democratic deficit poses a threat to public services here as no budget has been passed and there are no Ministers in place to make important decisions about how these services should best be funded in future. We need only look to the budgetary outlook for Northern Ireland 2018-20 to see that the continuation of spending in the way we currently are is unsustainable and the money available will decrease in real terms over the next two years.

“To remedy this requires Ministers in place taking strategic decisions about our economy, health, education and the many areas across government which are in need of leadership and transformation. We can already see the extreme pressures being felt within   our health system in terms of waiting lists, shortage in staffing, cuts to domiciliary care, lack of beds and A&E breaches.

“The much-needed health transformation agenda under the Bengoa reforms are unable to be taken forward without Ministerial leadership. Similarly, within the education system, schools are facing huge pressures due to underfunding which at current levels will result in 400 schools in Northern Ireland being in budget deficit here.  This will have negative impacts on school transport, maintenance and support for special needs education impacting children and young people in our society.”

Other problems include the lack of a common voice on Brexit – which would be bad enough if we were any region of the UK, but is exacerbated because of the border and the unique difficulties posed by that.

“NICVA has engaged extensively with the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector and others on the issue of Brexit and has identified five overarching issues of concern for Northern Ireland society as a whole; impacts on peace and political stability, impacts on economic well-being (related to trade, EU subsidies and programmes), impacts on social and economic rights, impacts on health and impacts on the environment.”

Not only do we lack a proper advocate for Northern Ireland during the Brexit talks, we lack the ultimate forum to have the debates to thrash out, as best we can, what NI does actually want from Brexit. This is a disaster of governance.

NICVA is also concerned about strains placed on the peace process because of our democratic failings – due to poorer relationships between political parties, and also uncertainty about future relationships both across the border with the Republic of Ireland, and also with other regions of the UK.

Solutions, not problems

The third sector – and, therefore, the people it serves – is suffering ongoing damage from our lack of a functioning Assembly.

“The voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland is set to be amongst the worst affected sectors in Northern Ireland because of the democratic deficit. Lack of certainty and late decisions around funding have become a given for most voluntary and community organisations who frequently lurch from year to year with no ability to plan long term, having to place staff on notice of potential redundancy again and again.

“Cuts to funding of the voluntary and community sector driven by short-term, year-on-year budgetary management by officials, rather than by long-term outcomes-based strategic budgetary decisions made by politicians, seem only likely to continue or increase as the democratic deficit continues and there is less money available in the Northern Ireland budget.

“The voluntary and community sector is hugely valued by the community in Northern Ireland with 90% of the population here having used a charitable or voluntary service in the past 12 months, any downturn in funding for this sector will greatly impact communities here and impact those people that rely on these services as pressure increases on statutory public services… There is also concern that if Direct Rule were to be implemented here, it would be more difficult for this sector to engage effectively with and help inform policy, political decision-making and public debate.”

NICVA is keen to see “creative solutions” to help revive Stormont and also make it sustainable, calling for more collaboration, and more direct involvement from the public, third sector and businesses.

“Consideration should also be given to formalizing the role of social partners and the role of a citizens’ assembly or civic forum mechanism. These options should be fully explored to afford Northern Ireland a public voice on different platforms and not limited to political voices…

“If Direct Rule were to be considered as an option, NICVA would advocate for mechanisms to allow scrutiny of emerging policies and decisions by all local NI parties. This scrutiny could be enhanced by input from Citizen’s Assemblies and/or Social Partners forums reflecting wider social interests here. Greater attention should also be given to areas in Northern Ireland where democracy is still operating. An example of the this would be throughout the local councils in Northern Ireland.”

A civic forum is one thing, but a formal citizens assembly – such as has been created in the Republic of Ireland and will submit a series of reports and recommendations to the Houses of the Oireachtas – would be a radical measure, although it is one that has growing support in NI, including from the Building Change Trust and the Green Party.

We all have a stake in this. The social and economic outlooks for Northern Ireland, as things stand, are not great.

As NICVA states: “Overall it is clear that the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland is having far-reaching and long-term implications for civic society, businesses and political stability here. This is made worse against the backdrop of Brexit negotiations at which Northern Ireland does not have a voice. NICVA is clear that the best outcome for Northern Ireland is to have an Executive up and running on the basis of a sustainable and long-term agreement but every option for re-establishment of the Executive and strengthening the potential for scrutiny and debate at various levels should be considered and explored.”

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