Problems will only get worse without a functioning Executive
The Northern Ireland Assembly election was just over a month ago. In almost any other country, we would now be in the early days of a new administration.
Discussions about a Programme for Government would be in full swing. Officials would be drafting a budget. The government would be setting out its vision for meeting the policy problems facing people, businesses and communities.
Instead, we find ourselves in yet another period without functioning government.
Clearly a great many people are strongly opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol. They want it removed, or significantly altered. Others make the case for how the protocol, although it has problems, presents opportunities for local businesses.
Will a deal be done that addresses everyone’s concerns? Even with rumours that protocol legislation could appear this week, the instability in Westminster makes outcomes hard to predict. And, if a bill does pass, it might just exchange one set of problems for another.
Right now, there is no clear prospect of an Executive being formed soon.
Pivotal in an independent think tank which promotes better policy making in Northern Ireland. We don’t get involved in politics. However, the current political stalemate has big implications for local people.
Having no Executive comes at great cost. Northern Ireland faces many issues, aside from the protocol, that are impacting people’s day-to-day lives. They should not be sidelined.
Around the world, governments are struggling with an unprecedented combination of challenges including Covid recovery, inflation, Brexit, climate change and war.
All of these affect Northern Ireland, one way or another — as do long-standing local problems like a collapsing health system, pressures on school budgets and legacy issues.
While Ministers from the previous Executive remain in post, it is only on a caretaker basis. No big, controversial or cross-cutting decisions can be made. Instead, they can only make minor adjustments in line with previously-agreed policies.
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen this week announced £12.6m spending on tackling holiday hunger. The families of almost 100,000 children will receive money for food over the summer. This is a welcome move, but it is only possible because it is effectively the continuation of a pre-existing policy.
As things stand, Stormont cannot even pass a budget for this year. Political agreement had been reached on a return to multi-year spending plans that would have created room to develop long-term solutions to the long — and growing — list of local challenges.
More than 350,000 people are on a health waiting list, with more than half waiting more than one year for a first appointment.
No budget means no extra funding to address this, to improve access to GPs, or to tackle growing workforce pressures in other clinical settings.
Most of the problems in health and social care stem from structural weaknesses that, ultimately, can only be addressed with Bengoa-style reforms. But there will be no ministerial decision-making or funding to take this forward either.
Health Minister Robin Swann’s announcement of £46m extra spend on tackling waiting lists over the coming months is welcome, but it is not the multi-year investment that is needed.
Households face fuel and food inflation that is putting huge pressures on their budgets. However, no Executive and no budget means no new help for people and families.
Schools in the controlled and maintained sectors are almost £90m in debt, despite the fact that spending per pupil here is now lower than anywhere else in the UK.
A new three-year budget could have placed schools on firmer ground, and provided some ring-fenced funding to address educational underachievement. It could also have helped the desperate situation in Special Educational Needs provision, where children and parents are being failed by a lack of proper assessment and support.
Northern Ireland needs urgent infrastructure investment. The water and sewage system alone needs billions to modernise and build capacity. A Climate Change Act has been passed but work is required on delivery. And never mind current global issues, the local economy has deep-rooted problems, with a low skills base, low-paying jobs and regional imbalances.
In most of these examples, the most vulnerable people will suffer most from political inaction. Policy moves to address all these issues are currently off the table.
Northern Ireland has, of course, been here before. Since devolution in 1999, there has been a total of nine years without an Executive and Assembly in place. The most recent period of collapse ran from January 2017 until 2020.
The big problem is that this time is different. The scale of the challenges we face is enormous.
In the run up to the Assembly election, Pivotal spoke with experts from different sectors about the implications of no proper Executive being in place. Anyone can listen to these discussions, which we published as a series of podcasts. Despite the breadth of topics under discussion, one theme emerged as clear as day: not having an Executive makes every problem much tougher to take on.
Many people hold strong views about the protocol. However, a confluence of problems — both local and global — are affecting people’s day-to-day lives.
The pressure on households and businesses is set to grow and grow.
To give ourselves the best chance of taking on these immense challenges, Northern Ireland needs properly functioning government.
Ann Watt is director of Pivotal, the independent think tank for Northern Ireland