Belfast Telegraph

Dr Robin Wilson: As we reach 1,000 days without a devolved government in sight, what would it take to get the institutions back up and running? Cancel Brexit for a start

The Northern Ireland Act would also have to be rewritten to remove the sectarian system of mutual communal designation and mutual veto, argues Dr Robin Wilson

Wrightbus staff protest job losses
Wrightbus staff protest job losses

By Dr Robin Wilson

Northern Ireland holds the world record for the longest delay between holding elections and forming a government. Previously, this ignominious accolade was held by Belgium, with its complicated system of autonomy for mainly Flemish and (French-speaking) Walloon regions and an overarching power-sharing coalition - in 2010-11, it took 589 days for that executive to be formed.

Next in line is Bosnia-Herzegovina, a successor state of former Yugoslavia, where a rickety power-sharing-cum-partition arrangement was cobbled together with the Dayton accords of 1995.

Bosnia has just passed the anniversary of its most recent elections, without a government of Serbs, Croats and (mainly Muslim) "Bosniaks" being established, nor on the horizon.

This vacuum has had serious consequences for Northern Ireland. The latest Peace Monitoring Report from the Community Relations Council, written by respected local academics, warns that the absence of a functioning regional administration has led to "legislative and political paralysis", adding: "Decisions requiring ministerial accountability have ground to a halt in the absence of willingness on the part of central government to impose direct rule, despite the persistent failure of talks to revive the devolved government."

For example, while Northern Ireland has elected to follow Westminster step-by-step on social-security arrangements historically, a functioning devolved government could have further stalled the impact of Conservative "welfare reforms", which have been subject to temporary mitigation to sustain beneficiaries' incomes following work by the social policy expert Eileen Evason.

The mitigation package expires in March 2020 and Advice NI, Housing Rights and Law Centre NI - organisations which know intimately the reality of life surviving on the UK's below-subsistence benefit levels, way below those prevailing elsewhere in northern Europe, including the Republic of Ireland - have warned this will represent a "cliff edge" for beneficiaries, many facing destitution.

An effective government at Stormont could also have supported the trade unions in their otherwise lonely efforts to save Northern Ireland's engineering sector - hub of its manufacturing - from near wipe-out. In recent months, only an occupation of the historic shipyard by its workers has brought about a new acquisition preventing closure - the Scottish devolved government, meanwhile, stepped in to save a yard there - while Wrightbus in Ballymena is now in administration and Bombardier's Belfast subsidiary is up for sale. A regional administration with an effective industrial policy could have worked to establish a new engineering industrial district - aiming to turn old skills to new products in markets such as renewable-energy generation.

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Decisive action could also have been taken to stem the growing crisis in the region's two biggest spending components of its budget: health and education.

On Wednesday, the permanent secretary of the Department of Health warned of the system "heading over the cliff edge into a full-blown crisis", with waiting lists and staff frustration rising, if decisions continued to be ducked.

Nearly half of Northern Ireland's 1,000 or so schools, meanwhile, were in the red in 2018-19 - the vast bulk of their expenditure unavoidably on teachers' pay - and the number is rising. In both cases, the big decisions so far ducked have been preserving too many hospitals and segregated schools.

And then there is, of course, the shadow of a chaotic Brexit and the associated (re-)erection of a hard border - albeit in the absence of a deal a three-month stay of execution must now legally be sought by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, from the EU 27.

One-third of milk from Northern Ireland farms is processed in the Republic. A goods vehicle crosses the border from Newry to Dundalk every 25 seconds.

Ulster Bank's chief economist in Northern Ireland says that the disproportionate impact of "Brexit uncertainty" explains why orders and output having been falling faster than in any other UK region.

So, why have there not been thousands in the streets demanding the restoration of the Assembly and Executive?

A recent assessment of devolution across the UK after two decades by the authoritative Institute of Government in London concluded: "Hamstrung by political disputes, the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland struggled to take radical policy decisions. Devolution has not solved the underlying causes of the long conflict, as reflected in the continued division of much of the population in separate schools and neighbourhoods for the two communities." In reality, the most significant piece of homegrown legislation during the 1999-2002 and 2007-17 periods of devolution was... a charge on plastic bags.

The former Democratic Unionist Party First Minister, Peter Robinson, once upheld devolution as the mechanism to block liberal reforms from Westminster - a stop-the-world-we-want-to-get-off argument so bizarre for any self-styled unionist to make that eventually a majority at Westminster legislated for equal marriage and abortion reform anyway.

Except in the hugely implausible eventuality of a prior deal between the parties restoring devolution first, the reforms will be effected on October 21.

To allow of an effective administration at Stormont, however, not riven by sectarian arguments, two things must happen.

The first, simply, is that Brexit be stopped, so that the potential for reconciliation and win-win integration in Ireland is preserved.

Northern Ireland was always strongly pro-Remain and, as YouGov has demonstrated in its poll of polls, there is no longer a Leave majority across the UK, as the sheer infeasibility of putting a globalised - including Europeanised - world back into sealed national containers has become evident.

A caretaker government will have to replace the chaotic Johnson administration, with the single goal of obtaining a further extension of membership to have time for a well-ordered second referendum.

The second is that the Northern Ireland Act be rewritten, with the assent of Dublin, to demine the sectarian explosives embedded in the Belfast Agreement, in particular the system of mutual communal designation and mutual veto.

Ostensibly to offer security, as in Bosnia, such arrangements have only fostered polarisation and failure.

The last Assembly election showed neither of the communal blocs would win a majority again, due to the strength of the "others", as is already the case in Belfast City Council.

Fear of domination can thus give way to deliberation for the common good.

Dr Robin Wilson is an expert advisor to the Council of Europe on intercultural integration and author of The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? (Manchester University Press)

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