The third sector and 2017: uncertainty and necessity
Northern Ireland faces a difficult, turbulent and moreover unpredictable time.
Voluntary and community organisations will be feeling these pressures as much as anyone or anything else.
The breakdown of stability in Stormont permeates several other crises, each of which would be a major problem on its own but happening, as they are, concurrently makes this our most concerning period for almost 20 years.
Scope spoke this week with NICVA Chief Executive Seamus McAleavey, who gave his thoughts on the collapse of the Executive, the lack of a budget for the coming year, Brexit, and the parlous state of the local health service.
Problems at the Assembly are themselves an agent of instability, but they go further than that; it is also the reason behind the absence of a new budget; it means planned health reforms have, again, stalled; and as things stand we do not have a government to make submissions to Westminster in order for Northern Irish concerns to be part of Brexit negotiations.
Non-partisanship and Brexit
The Renewable Heating Incentive scandal has been the catalyst for crumbling trust in the House on the Hill. It has also been an inherently party-political matter – whatever the truth behind allegations of incompetence and impropriety – and this will only become more apparent now the snap-election date has been set.
Mr McAleavey said that is not something NICVA can get involved in, both through their own choice – whereby they want to lobby on policies and not politics – and also due to charity law.
“We do campaign in support of our own objectives; so we can and we will support or oppose individual government policies or ministers as issues arise. Sometimes that even gets misconstrued by political parties as partisan support when it is not. So deciding where blame lies with regard to the collapse of the Executive and Assembly is a matter for the electorate.”
What is vital is that local interests are represented when the Prime Minister and her allies are preparing to negotiate the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union.
Northern Ireland is in a unique situation when compared with the rest of the UK, whether taken as a whole or looking at its constituent parts, with matters such as the border needing special attention.
“We need an Executive in place quickly to deal with Brexit. We need a clear Northern Ireland negotiating position, a “set of asks”, so to speak. Theresa May is planning a Hard Brexit and will take the UK out of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Northern Ireland’s position and free movement of people on the island of Ireland, indeed the wider Common Travel Area in the UK and Ireland all need to be negotiated.
“All those involved at UK, Irish and EU level realise that this requires special or bespoke arrangements to be developed and delivered. This cannot be left to chance or the good will of others, NI needs political representation at this crucial time.”
Third-sector organisations get a huge amount of their funding from the state. The fact that, in just a few months, there will be no allocated statutory budget is a problem that is as enormous as it is obvious, with Mr McAleavey saying there are “no positives”.
No group can plan properly in the midst of that level of uncertainty and it is impossible to imagine that the services community and voluntary organisations provide will not be affected.
“Without a budget at some point in July then devolution is likely to fall and there will be a return to direct rule. In the first instance the Permanent Secretary at Finance, David Sterling, takes control and has access to 75% of the budget so he can keep public services ‘on the road’. In July he gets access to 95% but that’s it. The other 5% comes to around £600m and that quite simply can’t be done without as other new budgetary pressures force cuts on the budget anyway.
“We have also had two annual budget from 2015 and that is not way to plan public expenditure. In 2015/16 Departments faced 10% cuts and some of them slashed their spend on services delivered by voluntary and community organisations. Voluntary and community organisations delivering services and support to government cannot take any more of this callous budgetary behaviour. It’s not responsible.
“In terms of mitigating the problem, immediately, on the collapse of the NI Executive, I spoke with David Sterling on this very issue and my concerns for the government’s funding relationship with our sector. He is mindful of the problem and sees it as an issue that needs to be dealt with, which is good given the size and scale of all the competing budgetary problems.
“This will be a key issue for NICVA over the next few months. I have also met with senior officials in the Department for Communities, in their role as lead government department for voluntary and community sector relations this week and asked them to raise this issue at the Permanent Secretaries group so that all departments are equally aware of our concerns.”
Growing pressures on the health service are the biggest issue in local public services.
Mr McAleavey identified this as possibly the biggest regret about The Executive implosion, saying that the vision for reform has not changed since 2011’s Transforming Your Care but that there finally seemed the political will to start making changes.
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein appeared to be in agreement over the difficult transformation that was required – but this is now in doubt once more.
“The Department of Health has almost half the Northern Ireland budget. The Minister, Michelle O’Neill, has set out her vision for transformation over a 10-year period and it had the full support of the Executive. It can only be delivered by a united Executive committed to the transformation. Professor Rafael Bengoa made it clear that if we do nothing we will deliver the worst option for health and the public of Northern Ireland. The system will collapse under the pressure.
“A key element of the transformation vision is to shift more resources from acute services to primary care or local GP practices. It is not alarmist to say that failure to act now could lead to the collapse of the NHS in Northern Ireland. Currently there is a crisis in the delivery of GP services in a Portadown practice over 5000 people.
“Across NI GPs are set to resign according to the chairman of the NI GP Practitioner’s Committee Dr Tom Black. This could lead to charging to attend GP surgeries and will also increase pressure on those who can afford it to opt for private health care. For those who value the NHS and its philosophy this is a huge threat and inaction is not the right response.”
We live in interesting times. Northern Ireland faces many forks in the road over vital issues in the coming months. The election cannot come quickly enough – but even that does not guarantee stability.
Unless we can get an Executive up and running, however the votes fall, we face a period of silent running – including the real risk of direct rule – when what is required are tough decisions to be made.
And, despite the uncertainty, the services provided by the third sector are set to become more important than ever before.
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.