Why Stormont still gets it wrong over big issues
The long hospital waiting lists and falling living standards show when it comes to bread-and-butter problems, our politicians are all at sea, writes Robin Wilson
Next week, the Assembly comes back in plenary after its summer recess and later this month the Executive will have its first meeting in fully 12 weeks.
The 2011 Assembly election was widely perceived as being the first 'bread-and-butter issues' poll in Northern Ireland since Labour challenged the unionists in the optimistic 1960s, with devolution once more apparently stable.
But as the old Stormont regime all-too-clearly demonstrated, there is a fine line between devolution and involution, between stability and inertia.
In fact, the depressing evidence is that the civil servants – much maligned over the decades of direct rule by unionist politicians in self-imposed marginalisation over their hostility to power-sharing – have generally made a better fist of running Northern Ireland than devolved ministers.
During the four-and-a-half year interregnum between the first and second periods of devolution since the Belfast Agreement, performance was generally better than before, or since.
Take hospital waiting lists, for instance. Politics doesn't get much more relevant to the average Joe, or Josephine. The pattern in the quarterly series could not be clearer.
The number of individuals awaiting admission to hospital was 46,090 in December 1999, when power was devolved.
It rose inexorably to 60,190 under the then-Sinn Fein health minister, Bairbre de Brun, by September 2002, on the eve of the collapse of Stormont over IRA spying there.
Under renewed direct rule, with its largely absentee ministers, the queue was reduced dramatically, to 36,144 by June 2007, just after the second transfer of power.
But under the UUP health minister, Michael McGimpsey, there was a rebound to 56,689 by June 2011, after the Assembly election. There has been progress under DUP successor, Edwin Poots, with the latest figure (for June) out last week of 49,328. But that just brings us – nearly – back to in 1999.
It's the same story on the wider picture of living standards. New data from the Family Resources Survey, published in recent days, show that living standards in Northern Ireland fell consecutively in the three years to 2011-12 (the latest for which statistics are available).
Indeed, they fell to their lowest level since 2002-03 – the year direct rule was re-established, as well as the first in which the survey was extended to Northern Ireland.
Of course, the devolved Executive cannot be blamed entirely for presiding over the latter part of what has become a lost decade in living standards, when macroeconomic policy-making remains reserved at Westminster.
But it can be blamed for failing to replicate the lively debates in Scotland and Wales, where, in each case, commissions of inquiry have explored the potential for further devolution of decision-making.
And the Executive has to admit that, on what it had identified itself in its Programme for Government as its policy priority, the economy, it has not only made no progress, but things have rolled backwards.
Devolution must have practical benefits to bed down among those in Northern Ireland who don't have a strong political interest. One doesn't have to be a political scientist to understand why not many have.
The fundamental problem is that we have a party and governance system designed by the generals who fought the (murderous and unseemly) last war, not one fit for 21st-century democratic purpose. What, for instance, would a unionist policy on waiting lists be? Or a nationalist one on living standards?
We know what a Left-wing, or a Right-wing, one would be in each case: pursue a more inclusive and equal society versus leave it to 'the market'. And we can have a legitimate and meaningful debate between those alternatives.
But while, during their long break at the seaside, our ministers have said much on flags, parades and dealing with our troubled past, when it comes to the bread-and-butter issues they remain all at sea.