Belfast Telegraph

Tycoon Wolsey puts brakes on Northern Ireland investment because of political impasse

Dinner for two or a stay at somewhere overnight like the Merchant Hotel will be high on Valentine’s Day wishlists
Dinner for two or a stay at somewhere overnight like the Merchant Hotel will be high on Valentine’s Day wishlists
A leading businessman says he won't spend another pound on new projects here while Northern Ireland remains in political limbo

By Suzanne Breen and Stewart Robson

A leading businessman says he won't spend another pound on new projects here while Northern Ireland remains in political limbo.

Hotelier and publican Bill Wolsey was speaking before we overtake Belgium at midnight as the country without a government for the longest period in peacetime.

It will be 589 days since Sinn Fein pulled out of power-sharing at Stormont.

Guinness World Records said that since laws can still be passed at Westminster, Northern Ireland isn't eligible for the record, but the date still represents a milestone of shame.

Mr Wolsley, whose Beannchor company owns Belfast's five-star Merchant Hotel, said: "The inertia that has come about through having no government affects us in all sorts of ways, from tourists to employees. We won't be starting anything new in Northern Ireland until we have got over the two difficulties of Brexit and not having a government. Both are hugely problematic and businesses don't like uncertainty."

Secretary of State Karen Bradley was last night criticised for not taking a proactive approach regarding the political paralysis.

Unionists called for some form of direct rule to be introduced.

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Bill Wolsey

A Government spokesman said Mrs Bradley was "acutely aware" of the "deep frustration and difficulties" facing people and the need to resolve the impasse.

"She shares the firm view that the current situation cannot be allowed to continue and is working on options to ensure the good governance of Northern Ireland," he continued.

"The UK Government's priority is to secure a basis for political talks and re-establish a locally elected, democratically accountable devolved government at the earliest opportunity.

"In the absence of an Executive, the Secretary of State continues to take the necessary decisions to protect the interests of Northern Ireland and ensure stable public finances, demonstrated by the recent Budget Act."

Sinn Fein and the DUP continued to blame each other for the stalemate. DUP MLA Simon Hamilton said: "Today, each and every one of us is deeply frustrated that we have reached 589 days without an Executive.

"It did not need to get to this stage. We do not need to be one more day without government.

"We can and must do better.

"The DUP is ready to re-establish the Executive today. Sinn Fein shamefully show no desire to do the same. Their selfish boycott of Stormont is hurting us all. It's harming our health service. It's hampering our schools. And it's hindering our economy. Sinn Fein's boycott of Stormont needs to stop."

But Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion said: "The DUP walked away from a deal with Sinn Fein in February to restore the Assembly and the Executive before collapsing the political talks.

"The Tory Government's response, with the full support of the DUP, has been to adopt a 'do nothing' approach to restoring power-sharing. The British Government continues to facilitate the DUP's disgraceful denial of rights enjoyed by citizens everywhere else on these islands, language rights, marriage rights, women's rights and the right to a coroner's inquest."

UUP leader Robin Swann said 589 days without government represented the "abject failure" of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

He said if devolution wasn't restored within a certain time-frame, London must appoint direct rule ministers.

"Regrettably, the Secretary of State has been a spectator to current events, on one hand being pulled in one direction by the demands of the Conservative-DUP partnership, and on the other, seemingly hesitant to act in case Sinn Fein sensitivities are offended. That has to end.

"Our hospitals, schools and the business sector cannot continue to be held to ransom over Sinn Fein intransigence or the fact that the DUP is distracted by the continuing inquiry into the RHI debacle."

TUV leader Jim Allister said: "As we surpass Belgium for lack of government, it's well past time for Westminster action. The first duty of government is to govern, yet HMG fiddles while administration logjams.

"If Stormont can't be reformed into a system of workable devolution, it's time to move on and give us government from the only other place it can come from, London. Enough is enough."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she hoped going 589 days without government would be a "wake-up call" to the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"Alliance is ready and willing to get back to work," she said.

"Despite us first calling for an independent talks facilitator to take charge and first calling for a cut in MLA salaries last year, the Secretary of State has taken no decisive action to bring this impasse to an end and does not seem to appreciate the severe impact the situation continues to have on local people."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that for people here to have been left for 589 days without a government was "a truly sorry indictment of our politics".

"The SDLP have consistent in calling on the two Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, to take the hard issues off the table.

"This can be done by legislating for marriage equality and languages protection at Westminster so we can get back to work," he added.

Health reform: No progress in health shake-up, 19 months on

The full implementation of the Bengoa Report on health reform is undoubtedly the most pressing issue in Northern Ireland.

Progress on the 10-year blueprint has been limited because many of the tough decisions needed can't just be taken by civil servants.

The major changes ahead will involve greater centralisation and streamlining services. This will surely mean closing hospitals that provide duplicate care, relocating jobs and forcing people to travel further for treatment.

Politicians are needed to sign off such moves which will at least initially prove deeply unpopular.

More than 19 months on from Bengoa's publication, hospital waiting lists have grown significantly longer. Around 30% of patients are waiting more than a year for a first consultant appointment about having surgery.

The number of people waiting over two years to be seen by a neurologist has trebled in the past year and now stands at more than 1,500.

The average waiting time for a first routine neurology appointment in the Belfast Trust is 23 months, and five months for an urgent appointment.

Meanwhile, GPs have warned that many practices are struggling to recruit and retain family doctors.

People have reported waiting up to six weeks to see their GP.

Infrastructure: Major road construction facing legal challenge

Northern Ireland's biggest ever roads project, the new A5 dual carriageway, has been put in jeopardy by the political stalemate at Stormont.

The 85km stretch of road between Newbuildings outside Derry and Aughnacloy in Tyrone is facing a High Court challenge.

In November last year, the Department for Infrastructure announced its decision to proceed with the planned route.

Construction on phase one had been due to get under way earlier this year, at a cost of £150m.

But that was put on hold after fresh proceedings were launched by campaigners in the Alternative A5 Alliance.

One of the grounds of the legal challenge relates to the fact that the decision to proceed was taken by the Department's Permanent Secretary in the absence of a Minister.

The Irish government has agreed to contribute £75m over a three-year period to the A5 project.

Following the Mallusk incinerator judgment earlier this summer, there have been growing concerns for other projects, including the North-South electricity inter-connector and the Belfast Harbour power plant, the proposed new Transport Hub for Belfast city centre, and the redevelopment of the GAA stadium at Casement Park in west Belfast.

Education: Teachers made redundant by budget underfunding

In an unprecedented move in June, more than 200 secondary school principals warned of a growing crisis in education. They said budget cuts were putting the quality of education at risk.

In correspondence to the Department of Education, they said: "Some of our school principals are being required to make excellent teachers redundant during a time of ongoing and increasing industrial action.

"Underfunding has been a sustained pressure in the post-primary sector for the past five years and is now affecting all post-primary schools.

"Parents should be aware that the quality of education provided by the post-primary sector will inevitably be impacted by the reduction in teacher numbers and the associated unacceptable levels of pressure on serving teachers and leadership teams in schools."

Earlier this month, Department of Education permanent secretary Derek Baker said the sector here was facing unprecedented financial pressures.

Accounts for 2017-18 showed the Education Authority overspent its budget by £18.9m.

Mr Baker said the absence of a minister has resulted in "significant and unique challenges" in relation to budgets, policy development and delivery, which wouldn't be fully addressed until there was major transformation of the sector.

Historical abuse: Compensation is held up while plans gather dust

One of the most emotive issues that has been delayed by the suspension of devolution is compensation for victims of historical abuse.

In its report last year, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry recommended that the Executive "create a publicly funded compensation scheme".

Victims have expressed their anger and frustration that - some 20 months later - those plans are just gathering dust.

"In that time, the health of many of us and our friends in the victim and survivor groups has deteriorated," campaigners have said.

"Some have sadly passed away, still denied justice to their death beds."

The victims have described themselves as "collateral damage of political failure".

They have said they were "betrayed by government when we were children and betrayed again in our final years".

The head of the NI Civil Service, David Sterling, indicated he was preparing legislation to deal with the issue, but then wrote to victims saying any payments would be open to legal challenge without ministerial approval.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley has said it would be constitutionally inappropriate for the Westminster government to make the payments.

Legal challenges of her decision are under way.

Agriculture: Fears of farmers grow as industry left rudderless

The Ulster Farmers Union has said that the political stalemate at Stormont means that decisions on many critical agri-related issues are not being taken.

With Brexit approaching, farmers are anxious to know how the industry will be protected from cheap food imports.

The absence of an Assembly at Stormont and a minister to "raise the voice of farmers" at a critical time has been described as extremely unhelpful.

The political stalemate has been blamed for hampering the response to tackling bovine TD in Northern Ireland.

A public consultation by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to inform a strategy ended in February.

However, a minister is needed to sign off any new policy.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann asked the department for an update. He said that while the chief veterinary officer's response was positive - 200 responses had been received - it was made clear here would be no movement until the Executive was restored or a direct rule minister was in place.

Mr Swann said the inability to move forward with new bovine TB eradication measures was a clear example of how political brinkmanship was affecting the day to day lives of local farmers.

He said the agriculture industry had been left rudderless.

Belfast Telegraph