Belfast Telegraph

Our schools and hospitals are on the brink, but voters are still settling old scores

As public services in Northern Ireland show increasing signs of financial strain, Malachi O'Doherty asks where our priorities lie

One of the slogans that drove the early peace process was John Hume's father's practical advice, re-quoted until we were all sick of hearing it: "You can't eat a flag son."

And I don't recall that anyone ever stepped forward to refute the essence of that message, to insist identity concerns are more important than welfare, material comfort, education and food on the table.

Then I recall that actually, that point has been made many times.

Remember the old jibe aimed at some loyalists, that they were more loyal to the half crown than to the Crown, the point being that they valued their own material wellbeing above their reverence for the Queen, as if there was something wrong with that.

Nationalists are accused of preferring to live in the North rather than enjoy freedom of identity in the Republic because they want the benefits of the welfare state, as if it is perverse to value material wellbeing over the indulgence of patriotic sentiment.

And if you drive around Northern Ireland you will find many suggestions that people are content to suffer material disadvantage for the sake of asserting their national identity.

You will see houses that are hard to sell because the flags and graffiti around them announce to half the population that they would not feel at home there. What is that, if not putting a higher value on the inedible flag than on your personal welfare, the chances of selling a home and moving on to live in better conditions?

And doesn't the history of the Troubles illustrate the same thing, that for decades many people here supported political parties which endorsed the ruination of the economy and the infrastructure to advance identity politics, even putting themselves and their children in danger too?

Hume's adage that you can't eat a flag was the simple common sense that this place needed to be confronted with, and yet all progress is still stalled by concerns that have more symbolic than practical value and the things that matter more, if you are limping with arthritis or trying to get children out to school, are of lesser immediate concern to the political parties.

This week we learned the scale of the disparity between the hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We are seeing the run down of the health service here.

When someone you know develops arthritis and needs a hip operation a strange thing happens to your perspective on the world. You start seeing limping women everywhere you look.

The NHS locally manages 1,200 hip operations a year and has a waiting list of 3,000. That is a list that simply can not be cleared.

So the independent clinics are expanding and people are breaking into pension pots or remortgaging their homes because they don't have private health insurance, never having believed they would need it within the welfare state.

This comes a little more than a year after the then Health Minister Michelle O'Neill committed herself to wide-ranging reform to make the service work better and to reduce waiting lists.

Nothing has been done and nothing will be done until issues of prior concern to Ms O'Neill are resolved first, the chief of these being a stand-alone Irish Language Act.

And why do we need an Irish Language Act? Well, most of us don't. In practical terms none of us need one because we all speak English - aside from some of our migrants and lack of Irish isn't their problem, but lack of English.

The Irish Language Act is important for the symbolic importance of paying respect to the Irishness of half the population here, most of whom don't actually speak the language or want to. Things don't get much more symbolic and immaterial than that.

And there are other equality issues like same-sex marriage, legacy issues and whatever you're having yourself.

But for the sake of an inability to agree on these things, we have no devolved assembly, no executive power in local hands and no movement on reform of a depleted health service and no rescue plan for an education system that is starved of resources.

Of course, we could be cynical and suppose that the deadlock at Stormont is not really about identity issues like respect for the Irish language. We might suppose that a bigger game is in play around Brexit or that Sinn Fein is advancing a secret plan for creating a united Ireland. Maybe some of them think that if you run down the health service until it is no better than that in the Republic, people will be more inclined to vote for a united Ireland.

Maybe the DUP is hard-balling to distract us all from the shocking disclosures in the RHI Inquiry.

But however much or little integrity there is in the cases that the parties make for their inability to reach agreement and get back to work, they are appealing to the electorate on identity issues and this has been delivering votes for them.

And that allows them to say that it is not just them that would rather have or not have an Irish Language Act than hospitals or schools but that the mass of the people here agree with them that identity is more important.

It seems we accept that you might starve if you try to eat a flag but believe that at least you'll die happy.

The presumption driving our politics this past year is that we are all that stupid.

And there is further cynicism in play which says that the Government is deliberately squeezing us to drive us into demanding that the parties resolve their differences and get back to work.

Breda Primary School now closes half day on Wednesdays to save money. This is state education which is supposed to be free and available.

Public sector workers don't get their pay rises because there is no minister to sign out the money.

And when the Spotlight programme wants somebody to be accountable for the calamitous state of the health service, there is no one, not the civil servants, not the NIO, not the parties themselves who can come forward and take a direct question.

We have a democratic deficit, and how!

The logic of this is that public services will get worse and worse in the coming months and years and that we will all suffer. We will end up with a health service that deals with emergencies only, and with schools that fail our children.

But our big political parties will assure us that they stood firm in defence of the flag you can't eat.

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