Belfast Telegraph

Time rapidly running out on how long we can function without our elected decision-makers

By Dr Esmond Birnie

Since the Stormont Executive ceased to operate in January 2017 the sky has not fallen in. The lights are still on. That does not mean that the lack of a fully functioning government has had no bad effects. With no elected ministers, senior officials have acted as reluctant substitutes.

Yesterday's court judgment regarding the Department for Infrastructure's (DfI) decision on the incinerator has extremely serious implications for governance and good government in Northern Ireland.

DfI lost their appeal and so it has been confirmed that, in the absence of ministers, senior civil servants cannot lawfully make decisions relating to matters which are:

  • Controversial
  • Significant
  • Cross-cutting (involving more than one Stormont department).

Unfortunately, a very large proportion of all the major policy issues confronting Northern Ireland are controversial or significant or cross-cutting.

Here are some of the critical policy areas which either have been or could possibly be stalled:

  • Bovine TB strategy for farming
  • Lowering maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (England is lowering these from £100 to £2 as a response to problem gambling)
  • Raising university tuition fees in an attempt to plug a large funding gap relating to higher education
  • Introducing a minimum price for alcohol, like Scotland has
  • Full implementation of the Bengoa report on restructuring health services
  • Applying to Northern Ireland the read-across from the 6% pay increase for NHS staff (over three years) in England
  • Deciding what to do with the possible £760m of extra funding which Northern Ireland should get following the PM's increase in funding to NHS England over the next five years
  • Progressing the A5 road in the West
  • Building the North-South electricity inter-connector
  • Updating the draft Industrial Strategy and Programme for Government.

I wrote at the start that the lights were still on.

If we don't get the inter-connector and the right longer-term energy strategy, the security of power supply is not necessarily guaranteed.

That is just one example of the importance of getting decisions made - and decisions which are not likely to be subject to judicial challenge.

We have now had two Northern Ireland Budgets which were passed through Westminster. It is only for so long that we can credibly construct budgets based on the precedents set by a previous Executive.

In 2010-11 lengthy coalition negotiations meant that Belgium was without a federal government for 581 days.

Within about two months Northern Ireland may assume that dubious honour of the "longest period without a government".

The serious point is that inability to take necessary decisions has a cumulative cost in terms of well-being.

Dr Esmond Birnie is Senior Economist, Ulster University Economic Policy Centre

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