Without Stormont, response to the pandemic may have been worse... irony is, without the pandemic, Stormont may have collapsed anyway
On a cold January night two years ago, Julian Smith and Simon Coveney stood in near-darkness beneath Carson’s Statue on the Stormont Estate and announced that a deal existed to restore devolution.
Unknown to the parties arguing over an Irish Language Act, the virus which would come to dominate our lives was already spreading out from Wuhan, 5,500 miles away. Just 39 days later Northern Ireland’s first case would be confirmed.
After three years without devolution, Northern Ireland came close to entering a pandemic without a government.
Stormont is inherently unstable but the coming months will involve the potential for acute instability — first over the Government’s attempted renegotiation of the NI Protocol, and then over whether the DUP will agree to re-enter Stormont if Sinn Féin secure the First Minister’s post.
It is therefore worth considering what would have happened if the New Decade, New Approach deal had not coaxed the DUP and Sinn Féin back into power-sharing two years ago, because it is possible that we will be back there within months.
The absence of a Health Minister would have made no impact on how medics worked to save lives, or how scientists charted the spread of the virus.
The UK apparatus for dealing with major national emergencies would have been largely copied by officials in Stormont’s Department of Health, who would have been able to empty hospital wards, increase intensive care capacity, procure personal protective equipment, and even take controversial decisions around delaying operations to focus limited health resources on the coming surge in cases.
Practical coordination with officials in the Irish Government would also have been relatively straightforward, with the Department of Health’s permanent secretary operating as a de facto minister in such contacts and the chief medical officer dealing directly with his counterpart in Dublin, as happens now.
However, that is where the similarities with what happened would end.
Without Government ministers, civil servants could not have implemented lockdown or any of the other radical measures taken at short notice to curb the spread of the virus and to keep businesses afloat.
The Government would probably have seen the approach of the virus to these shores as a final opportunity to push the DUP and Sinn Féin to compromise, or at least to temporarily park their dispute over an Irish Language Act, and to form an Executive.
But if that failed, the situation would almost certainly have necessitated formal direct rule from London, with the Secretary of State taking over responsibility for running Stormont.
The Government had been desperate to avoid direct rule — so desperate that it had allowed Northern Ireland to exist for three years as an experiment in how a country can cope without democratic control over most public services.
It is possible the desire to avoid full direct rule would have either meant a host of individual acts of direct rule passed as legislation at Westminster — an unlikely scenario because of how much precious parliamentary time it would waste — or a decision to only give the Secretary of State powers in relation to health.
But neither of those positions would have been sustainable. De facto direct rule has all the downsides of what it seeks to avoid but lacks direct rule’s clear system of ministerial control, and it quickly became apparent the pandemic response involves almost every aspect of government, so only taking control of health would not be sufficient.
One reason London appeared so reluctant to implement direct rule was the opposition of the Irish Government. Dublin’s stance would almost certainly have altered in the face of a pandemic.
Even Sinn Féin would likely have been muted about the prospect of London assuming full control of Stormont ministries in such circumstances.
When facing mass death, arguments about orange and green tribalism would seem esoteric to all but the most committed ideologues.
But a new problem with such a form of government would have emerged. Any society entering restrictions which can only be compared to wartime measures could only do so when endorsed by the democratically-elected representatives of the Northern Ireland people.
And while politicians complicate decision-making and often frustrate officials, they bring an important sense of what the public think to the rooms where decisions are being taken.
A civil servant’s job does not depend on how the public receive a particular decision, but a politician knows that their career hinges on retaining a certain popularity with voters.
Under direct rule, the local parties would probably have backed the initial lockdown out of fear and a lack of alternative proposals as the virus swept across Europe with terrifying speed, but increasingly questioned it as the months went on.
That has happened to an extent within the DUP, but even in that party critics are restrained by the fact they are generally opposing party colleagues’ decisions. Under direct rule there would be no such constraint.
That would invite grandstanding, an art in which Northern Ireland’s parties are supremely skilled. Having had decades of experience of denouncing unpopular decisions under direct rule, with none of the responsibility for taking impossible decisions during those years, Stormont’s parties are schooled in oppositional politics; it is where most of them are most comfortable.
Even when sharing the responsibility for governing together, there were glimpses of the sort of attacks which would have been more pronounced in other circumstances.
Less than a month after the first case of Covid was confirmed here, Sinn Féin chief whip John O’Dowd tweeted to denounce the actions of Boris Johnson’s Government’s actions, saying that “this shire of b******s are using everyone [sic] of us in some form of twisted medical experiment… we are on the brink of disaster!”
A few weeks later Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill used a prime time TV interview to attack Health Minister Robin Swann, accusing him of “slavishly following” what was being decided in London.
Several months ago a senior civil servant heavily involved in the pandemic response told me: “I probably shouldn’t be, but I’ve been shocked at the party politicking on this.”
As bad as that politicking has been at several points over the last two years, it would have been much worse if none of the local parties had responsibility for choosing between a range of options, each of which would damage someone.
Civil servants and public health officials such as the chief medical officer could have become direct political targets for those in the DUP who oppose many of the measures which have been taken — something which is not possible with much credibility when that party’s own ministers are largely following his advice.
The damage done to the public health message by Sinn Féin’s flouting at Bobby Storey’s funeral of what it was telling others to do demonstrates that merely having ministers in place does not necessarily mean that there will be greater public support for the measures being implemented by those ministers.
However, there is another way of looking at the last two years. Without the pandemic, would devolution have survived? There is good reason to believe that it would not.
At the multiple moments of crisis within the Executive since January 2020, the most potent argument against collapse was that it would undermine the pandemic response. Not only would that argument not have existed without Covid, but other points of crisis which have been delayed by the pandemic would have materialised.
The Irish Language Act would either have been implemented, dividing DUP supporters, or not implemented, pushing Sinn Féin to decide whether to remain in the Executive. The Irish Sea border would have been met with far more physical protests, some of which would likely have turned violent, in the absence of restrictions on public gatherings. The DUP would have faced uncomfortable pressure from a swathe of its support to walk out of Stormont over the issue.
In the absence of Covid, arguments about the centenary of Northern Ireland would have had far more prominence.
There would have been far less excuse for the delay in implementing radical health reforms which the parties endorsed in the New Decade, New Approach deal. Those reforms will involve major downgrades of some hospitals and would have been unpopular. History suggests some politicians would have broken ranks to oppose the changes, adding to the Executive’s incoherence.
There would also have been a greater chance of the smaller parties quitting the Executive to enter opposition — something which would improve accountability, but make the DUP and Sinn Féin more nervous about continuing to govern alone.
On the night that the deal to restore devolution was announced, the Northern Ireland Office promised “it will transform public services and restore public confidence in devolved government”.
It has done neither.
There was much worthy content in the New Decade, New Approach deal. Some of those commitments have even been implemented. The Fiscal Council, set up under the respected London economist Sir Robert Chote, is starting to bring long-overdue independent scrutiny to how public money is spent in Northern Ireland — the sort of detail most people will understandably find boring, but which is an important check on an administration operating without opposition scrutiny.
But much of New Decade, New Approach — including the name — always seemed to be more about spin than substance. It took great faith to believe that largely the same people running largely the same system would produce a very different result.
The new decade has seen a return to more tribalism, even in the face of mass death, and the same sort of disjointed Executive system which lurches from crisis to crisis and expects the public to be grateful for the mere fact of its continued existence.
All of this leads to a somewhat depressing conclusion: without Stormont, the pandemic response may have been less effective; but without the pandemic, Stormont may not have survived. It is deeply imperfect, unloved and perhaps irreformable. But without it, things might be even worse.