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Covid-19 hasn't made other challenges vanish

Ann Watt



The Stormont Executive faces having to make tough choices

The Stormont Executive faces having to make tough choices

The Stormont Executive faces having to make tough choices

Having focused on tackling Covid-19 in recent months, the Northern Ireland Executive now needs to address the long-standing problems facing our economy and public services.

Covid-19 has not made Northern Ireland's other challenges disappear. Many of these problems have persisted over years or decades, like a low skills base, low-paid jobs and low productivity. They must be tackled urgently.

When the Assembly returned earlier this year, after a three-year shutdown, it faced a gathering storm of pressures on public services.

Local health waiting lists are off the scale, the schools system fails many children and is under huge financial strain, while the economy is lopsided and suffers from persistent weaknesses.

Yet, even if the scale of the tasks facing Stormont was enormous, the political atmosphere seemed positive.

But within a matter of weeks, the virus took hold and all political energy was - quite rightly - put into tackling the pandemic.

The Executive's response to Covid-19 has been positive overall. Our outcomes have been better than the UK in general.

Right now, cases are low. Executive ministers have, with some notable exceptions, worked together well towards the collective goal of protecting lives.

The virus has not gone away but efforts to keep it contained must now happen alongside addressing Northern Ireland's other needs.

Last week the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster released a report looking at implementing the commitments in New Decade, New Approach (NDNA), the deal that brought Stormont back to its feet in January.

The recommendations in the report are wide-ranging. The committee warned that Stormont could falter again without substantial changes, and said that the New Decade, New Approach deal should be treated "as a foundation on which to build and evolve… dynamic devolution in Northern Ireland."

The United Kingdom earmarked £2bn of spending to deliver NDNA but the inquiry found this might fall far short of the actual costs.

This problem will only be exacerbated by the pandemic.

The inquiry findings call for the UK Government to set out a long-term financial plan that, taking account of Covid-19, is sufficient to make the deal work.

Perhaps more important of all, it called for a new and "more productive" working culture at Stormont - a culture where the focus is on creating the best possible Northern Ireland for all the people here.

New Decade, New Approach sets out an ambitious programme of investment in and transformation of local public services.

These reforms are just as necessary as they were in January.

While the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee suggests the money set aside for New Decade, New Approach might not be enough, it would be wrong to frame what is needed simply in terms of finances.

More money could be very helpful. But if it is spent on more of the same it won't be.

The health system needs to be fundamentally restructured or it risks collapse. Northern Ireland's economy cannot be fixed by repetitious, short-term spending. The local response to climate change needs a clear vision at least as much as it needs a pot of money.

Right now, we still have no Programme for Government - let alone specifics on how New Decade, New Approach will be delivered.

The delays caused by Covid-19 are both reasonable and understandable. However, they cannot be indefinite.

The Executive needs to transform services, not just plug spending gaps. It must put together a detailed plan of how it will implement the New Decade, New Approach commitments, given limits on both funding and on capacity to craft and deliver what is needed.

This requires the long-term thinking that Stormont has generally lacked. It requires cross-party collaboration, the end of departments working in silos, and an Executive that is committed to working together. Tough choices will need to be made.

And it all needs to start now.

Ann Watt is director of Pivotal, an independent public policy think tank. Pivotal gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee ahead of its report on New Decade, New Approach

Belfast Telegraph