Belfast Telegraph

The clock is ticking on our politicians to sort out this mess

Editor's Viewpoint

On the face of it, the continued fall in unemployment in Northern Ireland to the lowest rate in 10 years is encouraging news, but it does not take much drilling down into the labour force statistics to show that the economy is not as robust as it might appear.

The fall in the employment rate and the rise in the economically inactive rate shows an underlying weakness that economists say demands a joined-up government strategy.

And there is the rub. Today Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for 283 days and the prospects of one returning are receding if the comments coming out of Dublin and London are true.

That is an appalling state of affairs. The whole structure of government is still in place, but no local politicians are there to fill the seats in either the Assembly or Executive at Stormont.

Only last week we saw an impending crisis in the local economy with Bombardier, the province's largest manufacturing firm, staring down the barrel of large scale job losses until a last minute reprieve.

That owed nothing to our political parties, but to the intervention of a foreign plane-maker, Airbus.

But then the politicians have been reduced to complaining from the sidelines about any number of crises in daily life here. A BBC report into the performance of the health service in the province is deeply worrying with targets on the treatment of A&E patients and cancer patients never being met.

Admittedly, those targets were never met when the devolved administration was in office, so it is hardly a surprise that things have not improved in its absence.

There is barely a facet of daily life here which does not need urgent attention. Devolution was welcomed because voters believed that local politicians would be more sensitive to their needs than direct rule ministers with no stake in the province.

The electorate could be forgiven for thinking that was a mistaken belief.

How else can we explain how the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, can seemingly turn a blind eye to the pressing problems facing Northern Ireland and fail to resolve their differences over issues such as an Irish Language Act, which, frankly, most right-thinking people believe pales into insignificance by comparison.

Without being a fly on the wall, it is impossible to determine how the talks have progressed and how high are the obstacles that remain, even if the mood music is not encouraging.

However DUP leader Arlene Foster, as evidenced by her speech last night, does not rule out an eleventh hour breakthrough.

She lays the blame for the Stormont stasis at the door of Sinn Fein, but has shown a willingness to take a pragmatic approach of returning to government and continuing time-limited talks in tandem with the work of the Executive.

She concedes that no culture should seek dominance over the other in this divided society and echoes the thoughts of many that a return to devolution only makes sense if it is sustainable.

Both the parties can rightly claim huge mandates for their approach to the talks, although few believed they would rumble on for so long without resolution.

But in political talks, experience has taught us that it is indeed often darkest before a new dawn.

Yet it is clear the endgame is nigh.

The clock is ticking, a budget has to be set, and that will either be by local politicians or direct rule ministers. The choice cannot be put off.

Belfast Telegraph

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