DUP and Sinn Féin leave civil servants to run Northern Ireland

A year after Northern Executive collapse voters paralysed with anti-politics ennui

Leaders of Sinn Féin Michelle O’Neill and the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster: work is glacial because of the absence of ministers to take key executive decisions. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

It’s a year exactly since the late Martin McGuinness stood down as deputy first minister and it’s consequently 12 months too since Northern Ireland had a fully functioning Northern Executive.

The North is now run by civil servants. No harm there, you will hear from some quarters – better bureaucrats than a bunch of politicians who can’t or won’t work together.

Margaret McGuckin begs to differ. She remembers last January very vividly. Just as Northern Ireland was gripped by political crisis, the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry reported that it had found evidence of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, neglect and unacceptable practices across the 22 Catholic, Protestant and state-run homes and institutions that it investigated.

It was a big day for the survivors but there was a sting in the tail. The inquiry chairman, retired High Court judge Sir Anthony Hart, called for an apology, a memorial, support services, and a redress system where victims and survivors would receive compensation payments ranging from a minimum of £7,500 (€8,498) up to a maximum of £100,000 depending on the level of abuse. It is estimated that more than 500 people are entitled to compensation.


Trouble was there was no Northern Executive to instigate the judge’s proposals. Over the past year, McGuckin and her colleagues in Savia – Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse – have campaigned and lobbied in Belfast, Dublin and London to get the proposals implemented. They don’t give up but at times it has been heartbreaking to see how they have had to act almost abjectly to get what they deserve.

Sovereign power

The victims are still waiting and must continue to wait. The head of the North's civil service, David Sterling, told party leaders last year that Stormont wanted to press ahead with the Hart proposals as "soon as practicably possible" but that in the "continued absence of a functioning executive and without the necessary political authority, it will not be possible to implement the report's recommendations".

The British government could exercise sovereign power and introduce the recommendation from Westminster but that would be interpreted as direct rule action. In any case, McGuckin suspects that London is using the survivors of abuse as a bargaining chip to try to get the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree a deal.

She describes how a number of her members have died in the past year. Politicians could and should have done more, she feels. “We are terribly let down. They could have tried harder. If they really cared, they would put their own squabbling behind them and not to be scoring goals off each other.”

Consider another area: healthcare. Northern Ireland’s hospitals have been so stretched in recent weeks that, on New Year’s Eve, managers at Antrim Area Hospital called in St John’s Ambulance volunteers to assist. Those at the emergency coal face said the situation “was never worse” in Northern Ireland.

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, says the Christmas and new year crisis is reflective of a wider malaise in the North's health service. Nursing provision is 10 per cent down on what's required, with a need to recruit 1,500 additional nurses.

Political pressure

Were a Northern Executive and Assembly still operating, she believes any self-respecting minister for health would have been too embarrassed – or at least facing too much public and opposition political pressure – to tolerate the idea of St John’s Ambulance having to ride to the rescue “as a least-worst option”.

“There is no political leadership in the health system,” says Smyth.

In October 2016, Sinn Féin’s northern leader and then minister for health Michelle O’Neill introduced the Bengoa report, a radical plan to transform the health system in Northern Ireland.

Smyth says while some of that work is continuing, it is happening at a glacial pace because of the absence of relevant ministers to take key executive decisions and to keep pushing the reforms along.

Without an executive, the picture is equally bleak right across the various departments that keep Northern Ireland functioning.

Just before Christmas, the Department of Finance in a briefing paper set out how there could be “significant staff reduction” across the wider justice system including in the PSNI and the prison service – this at a time when the dissident threat remains alive.

PSNI recruitment

Mark Lindsay, head of the North’s Police Federation which represents PSNI officers, says the PSNI stands to “lose £14 million in funding on top of the £180 million already lopped off the budget in the past four years”. The proposed cut to the PSNI budget could equate to annual funding for 280 officers, he notes.

Currently there are about 7,200 officers in the PSNI but, according to Lindsay, with insufficient recruitment and with hundreds of officers entitled to retire in the first half of 2018, combined with “this headlong rush to balance the books”, police numbers could fall below 6,000 for the first time.

Says Lindsay, “I cannot believe senior civil servants would actually countenance such a reckless and irresponsible move. We’re already cut to the bone – there’s nothing else to give – yet once again policing appears to be the financial scapegoat.”

The department of finance permanent secretary Hugh Widdis "with reluctance" took what he said was the "unusual step" of issuing that briefing paper and outlining to the public how, in the coming years, there will be severe cuts right across the board.

As well as the funding threat to big areas such as policing, the Bengoa health reform plans and providing compensation for victims of institutional abuse, the briefing document points to serious cuts in finance for jobs, roads, NI Water, numerous infrastructure projects, agriculture, tourism promotion, communications, the arts and a whole slew of other schemes.

Projects in limbo

Stalled projects include the proposed graduate medical school in Derry, the Narrow Water Bridge between Warrenpoint in Co Down and Omeath in Co Louth, a cross-party scheme to tackle homelessness, and a proposed relief road to ease congestion between Warrenpoint and Newry. The Mac (Metropolitan Arts Centre) in Belfast also faces closure because of a funding crisis. And that’s a general theme across Northern Ireland 12 months on from the collapse of Stormont.

The department of finance paper sets out three possible scenarios about how cuts would be implemented. It sought to ring-fence funding for health and education and protect a proportion of the PSNI budget, although not all of it, while all other departments would experience funding reductions. In the first scenario, the majority of Stormont departments would suffer hits of 4 per cent in 2018-2019 and 8 per cent in 2019-2021.

The second scenario proposed offsetting some of these cuts by raising additional revenue through measures such as increased rates and/or tuition fees, ending free prescriptions and raising the age, currently 60, for free public transport in Northern Ireland.

In the third scenario, there would be fewer cash-raising measures but cuts to departments, apart from health and education, would increase respectively in the coming two years by 7 per cent and 12 per cent.

Funding decisions

Such cutbacks would have a severe impact on services. A functioning Executive and Assembly would still have hard decisions to make about funding, whether they be small or large schemes, but it could be more imaginative and less risk-averse than civil servants in deciding how the overall pot of about £10 billion in current spending would be allocated. Northern Ireland politicians should be in a position to make the austerity less swingeing.

This week Dublin and London are expected to try to make yet another push to persuade the DUP and Sinn Féin to settle their differences, although that could be put on hold with James Brokenshire standing down as northern secretary for health reasons. A year on from the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness and facing into a new year and the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement on April 10th, it must be said there is precious little expectation that they will succeed.

Yet, it does seem an exercise in political self-indulgence that a deal can’t be done on issues such as an Irish language act, same-sex marriage and bringing some sustainability to a powersharing administration, considering the far greater challenges that were overcome on a cold Good Friday 20 years ago.

There was energy and optimism in 1998, but these are scare commodities now. The Bishop of Down and Connor Dr Noel Treanor in a homily in Belfast on Sunday reflected the current torpor.

“A contemplative gaze on our current situation,” he said, “will highlight stagnation in politics and a lethargic acceptance and tolerance by ourselves as citizens of this state of affairs.”

Lack of engagement

This, he said, was “in the face of a weak economy, of a private sector bereft of the dynamic support it needs from political institutions and of a lack of creative political engagement with determinative issues for the political future of our society”.

The bishop tried to issue a rallying cry. “We need prophetic, imaginative and courageous leadership,” he said. “To build a viable future for us all, we need urgently and creatively to put our hands together to the plough and to abandon the crippling and stagnating forces of fear and suspicion in the name of building a new future for all citizens, and especially for the weakest and the newly arrived in our society.”

Powerful words but, a year on from Martin McGuinness walking away from a dysfunctional and begrudging form of powersharing, the polarised DUP and Sinn Féin politicians appear incapable of hearing such truths while the people who elected them seem paralysed with some sort of despairing anti-politics ennui. The paradox, so familiar to Northern Ireland, is that the issues seem just too small for the politicians to solve.