NHS in meltdown, halt to new social housing, school budget chaos - what will happen if Stormont shatters
As the future of devolution hangs in the balance, we speak to insiders across a range of sectors to learn what is at stake if the parties can’t do a deal.
Health professionals have warned politicians that failing to come to a quick agreement at Stormont will have huge consequences for desperately ill people across Northern Ireland.
With waiting lists growing by 1,000 every single month and GP services collapsing in every county, things are getting critical.
Former Health Minister Michelle O’Neill announced £31m had been earmarked in a proposed plan to help people waiting more than 52 weeks, but with the future of the Executive hanging in the balance, her plan could come to nothing.
Northern Ireland is also falling far short of standards across the UK with cancer referral targets, which state patients should begin treatment within 62 days. Northern Ireland meets this standard in just 70% of cases. In Scotland, the success rate is 90%, in Wales 85% and in England 82%. Experts say this is because Northern Ireland does not have a cancer strategy.
The Bengoa Report, which recommended a complete transformation of the health service, has come up against a brick wall with the collapse of the Executive.
Dr Tom Black, chair of the BMA Northern Ireland GP Committee, said: “The worry is if we go back to direct rule, ministers will want to steady the ship when what we need is the implementation of the Bengoa report. It would have a huge impact on the worst of our problems.”
Paul Givan at the Department for Communities pledged in November that 9,600 new social homes would be built by 2021 to tackle the huge 40,000-strong waiting list. Around 22,000 of those people are in “housing stress”, meaning they need to be rehomed urgently. Of those, 1,600 homes are under way, which leaves 8,000 uncertain.
According to Jennie Donald, deputy chief executive at the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA), next year’s plans are already in peril.
“We were expecting to build 2,000 homes, but it’s up in the air,” she said, “By this time we would normally have a development programme signed off, we would know where we were building and by April we would start the process.
“The initial nod from government would usually be January, but that still hasn’t come and we have no idea when it will. In addition, we would know before March what our government grant was so we could find the rest privately. We still don’t know and our members are getting worried.
“This, of course, has a huge knock-on effect on all those people waiting for homes, especially the 22,000 in housing stress, whether that’s because they’re homeless, living in hostels, their houses are unsuitable because of health or disability issues.”
Thousands of young people at interface areas of Belfast could be out on the streets if an agreement isn’t reached by the end of March.
Youth groups right across the city which currently get funding from the Education Authority, have been told up to 130 staff will be cut, as well as essential services that keep children and young people off the streets in some of the most problematic areas of Northern Ireland.
Ledley Hall in east Belfast is one at-risk group. Youth worker in charge Michelle Fullerton said: “We work at nights, weekends, during holidays, the times young people are traditionally most vulnerable,” she said. “Groups like ours have made a big difference in areas like east Belfast, Ardoyne, Divis, Ballymurphy. There are 14 groups, and we alone have 333 young people, so thousands will be affected.”
The group at Ledley Hall, like the others, has received a letter from the Education Authority telling them to put seven of 12 staff on protective notice because they don’t know where funding will come from after March 31.
Ms Fullerton explained a number of the groups had spoken both to the Education Authority and Department of Education, and still had no clear idea of what might happen. “The one thing we do know is we don’t have enough money to cope with a delay. We rely on the funding to cover wages and if we lose people, we lose services and the young people lose out.
“We’ll have to cut our number of nights so they’ll be out on the streets in the top 25% problem areas in Northern Ireland, vulnerable to dangerous activities and to the people who might exert a negative influence on them. With us, they’re safe.”
An Education Authority spokesperson said: “We are very aware that the contracts of the staff involved end on March 31, 2017. We are working with the Department of Education to determine a way forward.”
The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry recommended in January that victims and survivors should receive compensation of up to £100,000, that a permanent memorial should be erected in Parliament Buildings in Belfast or in the grounds of Stormont estate and that a Commissioner for Survivors of Institutional Childhood Abuse should be appointed to offer victims support and assistance.
It also said extra state funding should be provided for specialist care, including counselling at centres set up across the country.
However, without Stormont up and running, all these recommendations remain in limbo.
Jon McCourt was abused at Termonbacca children’s home in Derry in the 1950s and 60s. He said: “The last time I was at Stormont, people from all the parties said they were committed to getting the recommendations moving on. I really hope they remember what they said. But if they’re not sitting at the Assembly they won’t get to act on their promises.
“The victims and survivors who finally had their voices heard by the HIA inquiry waited long enough without these extra delays in getting the recommendations followed through. There is a sense of urgency here. There are very elderly people who were affected, and sick people too. We don’t want to go to direct rule. Our own politicians know what it took to get to this point with the inquiry, so they are the ones who will make it work. This uncertainty is adding to the burden of fear that people have lived with for decades.”
With the triggering of Article 50 expected to be just weeks away, the Northern Ireland agriculture industry is facing huge pressures. Patsy McGlone, the SDLP’s spokesman on Agriculture and Rural Affairs said Brexit was an urgent issue.
“We have more than 24,000 farmers here and they need support and proper representation in negotiations,” he said. “We have a unique situation here and we need our own dedicated people in a position to fight the corner for our farmers and agrifood industry,” he said.
The many issues yet to be addressed before Brexit talks kick-in include peace funds and rural funds from Europe, and how they will be compensated, as well as the movement of goods and people across the border.
“Particularly in our dairy industry we have huge numbers of agrifood companies owned by southern conglomerates,” said Mr McGlone.
“We have milk, beef and pork up and down over the border every day. How is this going to be impacted? We have got to have our own people there fighting the corner because we are in a very serious and precarious situation that is unique to Northern Ireland when it comes to Brexit.
“These are real people’s lives, their businesses and their families. It’s not something to mess about with.”
Without a budget in place, and with uncertainty about who will be making decisions after this month, the education sector is mired in uncertainty. School bosses don’t know what their budgets will be for next year which means they don’t know what they have to spend on equipment and facilities — and crucially, staffing levels are unsure.
“Budget confusion doesn’t only affect schools’ equipment and facilities,” said deputy general secretary at the Ulster Teachers’ Union Jacquie White. “It’s when they know their budgets they can decide if redundancies are necessary. That means people’s careers are uncertain and plans for who is teaching what in schools is up in the air.”
The teachers’ pay dispute, which has raged for months, also remains unresolved.
“We’re still working on it,” Ms White said. “But we’re very aware if Stormont doesn’t start up again, whatever we manage to negotiate might not mean very much.”
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong highlighted the risk to progress in integrated education after a report was released last week. “Unless there is a new Executive formed in the near future and an Education Minister in place who decides to show more commitment to integrated education in general and also the recommendations of this report, then it risks being lost,” she said.
SDLP education spokesman Colin McGrath added: “Other issues that have fallen by the wayside include the provision of nursery places for children with special educational needs, and academic underachievement.
“Progress was being made on these issues and we need an Executive up and running quickly to make sure that they don’t get forgotten.”