Belfast Telegraph

Paul Gosling: Some sort of direct rule now seems inevitable ... but could it be a game-changer for our public services?

London ministers could do worse than start by completing - and then accelerating - the Bengoa plan for reform of our crisis-hit health service, argues Paul Gosling

Northern Ireland's waiting times and waiting lists are a scandal
Northern Ireland's waiting times and waiting lists are a scandal

By Paul Gosling

Direct rule looks as unavoidable as it is unfortunate as we stare transfixed at the implications of Brexit. Except it is not a matter of good or bad fortune, but rather good or bad intent.

If Northern Ireland's largest parties were committed to good government, partnership and progress, then we would have a working Executive and Assembly.

Instead, in the context of Brexit, we are without ministers who can make the necessary decisions.

The pressing issue for those incoming direct rule ministers is what type of administration they should operate.

Will it again be "steady as it goes", "no big decisions", "keep things ticking along until the local boys and girls take over again"?

Or will there be a determination to sort out our deep-seated problems, while feeding the hungry desires of English nationalists to cut back the financial support mechanism that allows Northern Ireland to have more public spending per head compared to the other UK nations? (A sense of revenge on the DUP for its past success in negotiations with Theresa May could play a role, as well.)

It is worth considering just why it is that devolution has been a success in Scotland and Wales, yet a dismal failure by most measures in Northern Ireland.

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True, we have avoided slipping back into Troubles-scale violence. But is that sufficient as a way to measure progress?

In both Scotland and Wales, local systems of governance that were effective and efficient were handed over to locally elected politicians to run.

Their role was to provide stronger accountability in the running of services such as health and education, making comparatively slight changes to those working systems in line with the wishes of local populations.

By contrast, Northern Ireland has an essentially dysfunctional society and inefficient and costly public sector. And we expect locally elected politicians, who literally in many cases hate each other, and have little or no mutual respect - to work together in partnership to undertake fundamental and far-reaching reform. You have to be delusional if you expected that to work.

The challenges Northern Ireland faces are substantial. The Alliance Party says it believes the cost of segregated (and, therefore, duplicated) public services is between £750m and £1.5bn every year. (Dealing with this involves lots of school mergers and some hospital mergers.)

Just think how that money could be used to invest in our roads and other weak infrastructure and to reform and improve our public services, if used productively.

We could start with completing - and accelerating - the Bengoa reforms of the NHS, moving towards a focus on health service delivery, instead of spending so much money on the maintenance of out-of-date building stock. Our waiting times and waiting lists are a scandal that Northern Ireland's population should not tolerate.

And then we have our education system.

While we have high-performing grammar schools, we have unacceptably large numbers of children - in particular, working-class boys - who leave school without basic skills. That feeds into our problems with shortages of the right vocational skills, social alienation, lack of career ambition, support for paramilitaries and low employment rates.

Parallel to that challenge, we have a university sector that is far too small.

We lose the equivalent of a complete university-sized intake of students every year to higher education institutions in Britain and elsewhere, most of whom never return.

That would not matter if they were replaced by other students from other places. But they aren't. Consequently, we have just too few graduates in our labour market for the needs of many of the employers looking for high-value skills.

Holding tuition fees down is part of the reason for the under-funding of higher education here.

It is an understandable policy preference - I don't want my kids to pay a fortune for going to university, either - but the cost of that policy should not be small universities. With small intakes at our two main universities, places will typically go to those students who perform best in exams. That is most likely to be grammar school kids - and those are, typically, from higher-income families.

So, the impact of small universities here is that children from lower-income families are more likely to face the choice of not being able to afford to go to university, or else having to pay higher tuition fees and higher living costs by studying further away.

It is a policy of negative and unintended consequences that disadvantages those who are already disadvantaged.

These problems represent a range of difficult policy challenges which our local politicians have been unable to work together to resolve.

Other challenges of same sex-marriage and women's reproductive rights have been solved by Westminster and so taken out of Northern Ireland's policy stasis.

Perhaps now is the time for us to have actively engaged direct rule ministers, who resolve those points of contention that block progress. Direct rule should certainly be time-limited. Perhaps a one-year period in the sin bin for Stormont, during which Westminster takes the difficult decisions and then asks the local parties if they want to take over again?

In the meantime, direct rule ministers will know they have created the foundations for a more successful society and economy - ready for whatever constitutional future Northern Ireland has.

Direct rule is not an ideal outcome, but permanent stalemate is no good for anyone. At the root of this is the reality that the two main parties are playing a zero sum game - anything "they" get means less for "us".

Yet, both unionists and republicans need to engage in a different contest: how to make this place work. If unionists want to persuade people in England (and here) that we are better together, it is in their interests for Northern Ireland to be an efficient and harmonious society.

And if republicans want to persuade people in the Republic to support Irish unity they have to show them that we can be an economically and socially advanced place, that would not cost the south a fortune following unity.

But, then again, if unionists and republicans recognised what should be obvious - that efficient government potentially benefits everyone - then we wouldn't be in this mess anyway.

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