Northern Ireland on verge of new world record – for no government

‘We can see decay and stagnation in many of our public services. It can’t go on like this.’

Arlene Foster: The DUP leader has said Northern Ireland can’t continue in a “decision-making limbo” but there seems to be no  immediate prospect of a political breakthrough, Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Arlene Foster: The DUP leader has said Northern Ireland can’t continue in a “decision-making limbo” but there seems to be no immediate prospect of a political breakthrough, Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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“It can’t go on like this,” a Stormont civil servant moaned to The Irish Times. The public just don’t seem to have got the fact that Northern Ireland is close to governmental paralysis, he lamented.

Very soon Northern Ireland should achieve a new world record. Since the Assembly election of March 2nd last year there have been no ministers running departments at Stormont – and even then their powers were limited due to the political crash of January 2017.

That’s well over 500 days and about 30 days shy of the 541 days Belgium was without an elected government from 2010 – an accomplishment (if that’s the word?) that got it into the Guinness World Records book.

Beating Belgium’s record would offer no consolation given the current economic and political inertia, the civil servant was sure, but it might help to make a point to a fairly apathetic Northern public.

The lack of a Northern Executive wasn’t just some minor lacuna in democratic politics, he added, it was affecting every area of society and holding up many hundreds of millions of pounds in investment and the creation of thousands of jobs.

He bemoaned the fact that economic growth had virtually flat-lined at around one per cent in Northern Ireland, which had “probably the lowest growth of all UK regions”, while growth south of the Border was expected to be about 4.5 per cent.

And all because the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t work out a deal on the Irish language. There are other matters too but that is the main one.

The civil servant pouring out his heart was reflecting comments that the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, already has stated: “I don’t think this situation would have been tolerated anywhere else in these islands.”

To escape from that forbidding place would require British government direct-rule ministers running Northern Ireland in the continuing absence of an executive.

But that is anathema to nationalists. Moreover, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and, perhaps less enthusiastically, the British government believe there is still some chance that come the late autumn that the DUP and Sinn Féin might be able to get politics moving again.

It must be said that judging by the DUP and Sinn Féin lukewarm reaction to Varadkar’s hope of October talks that there is little expectation that such negotiations would lead to a speedy return of Stormont – particularly with a Southern presidential election, Brexit, the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry and a possible North Antrim by-election getting in the way.

Unequivocal decree

The gloomy civil servant obviously is correct: key executive decisions are not being made and without ministers in place and without a return to direct rule then the stasis must continue. Matters were made worse last week when it was confirmed that the Northern Ireland Civil Service does not plan to appeal to the Court of Appeal ruling banning the creation of a £240 million incinerator at Mallusk in Co Antrim.

The most emotionally charged issue is how the survivors of historical institutional abuse haven’t received a penny in compensation

The key part of the judgment stated: “Any decision which as a matter of convention or otherwise would normally go before the minister for approval lies beyond the competence of a senior civil servant in the absence of a minister.”

As far as civil servants were concerned this was a stark and unequivocal decree that meant any officials thinking and acting for themselves on a huge range of departmental issues could end up facing legal challenges if they acted in an executive capacity.

Outlining all of the stalled works would take thousands of words but it’s useful to outline some major areas where government is gridlocked in Northern Ireland.

The most emotionally charged issue is how the survivors of historical institutional abuse haven’t received a penny in compensation. The survivors must have thought some sort of dark ironical force was at work when in January last year the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry led by retired High Court judge Sir Anthony Hart reported 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.

He called for an apology, a memorial, support services, and a redress system where an estimated 500 victims and survivors would receive compensation payments ranging from a minimum of £7,500 up to a maximum of £100,000 depending on the level of abuse. Unfortunately, that report coincided with the late Martin McGuinness walking himself and Sinn Féin out of the Executive and effectively collapsing Stormont.

Judge Hart has pleaded for action to be taken to assist the survivors while Margaret McGuckin and her colleagues in Savia – Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse – have fought and lobbied in vain to that end. Without ministers there has been no movement.

McGuckin says that at least 12 of the victims died since January last year.

“Our people are in a raw and emotional state,” she said. “They have lost their trust. All they get are words but no action.”

There also are cross-Border implications over the deadlock. In January the North’s Department of Infrastructure granted full planning permission for the £200 million 138 kilometre North-South electricity interconnector running from Meath to Tyrone.

But again, with some landowners objecting to the connector, official sources in Northern Ireland were clear that no Northern Ireland civil servant could push forward significantly with the project.

Other major infrastructural works also are on hold. They include the £77.5 million refurbishment of Casement Park GAA ground in west Belfast. In the absence of any development it’s a site that looks very sad and neglected at the moment.

Preventing progress

Another project offering hundreds of jobs and major investment is the planned new office block, cruiser terminal and small power station at Belfast Harbour. That was estimated to involve about £500,000 worth of investment but is tied up because the harbour commissioners can’t get planning permission.

The also are proposals for a £160 million transport hub in the Glengall Street area of central Belfast but again the want of ministers is preventing progress on the project.

The Institute of Directors in the North has estimated that more than £1 billion of infrastructural projects are threatened due to the political impasse.

On a recent visit to the North the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond sensed a frustration that if the logjam were not broken that it “would exact a toll on inward investment and confidence by foreign firms who are investing here”.

It was recently announced that Westminster was ending the 1 per cent pay rise limit for public servants in Britain with increases on offer of up to 3 per cent. No Northern Executive again means that senior civil servants hardly will be in a position to offer such rises to nurses, teachers and police officers in Northern Ireland which apart from the inequity of the position is sure to anger public sector unions and their members.

Civil servants also are unlikely to tackle big health and education issues that have been pending on the missing ministers’ desks. For instance there are long-standing proposals to rationalise the schools systems through closures and mergers. But again what civil servant would move on such volatile plans?

There also were plans to reshape stroke services in Northern Ireland, to “reconfigure” hospital emergency departments and to reform adult social care policy. But, said one official source, “these are highly emotive and politically charged and civil servants can’t make those decisions”.

The sclerotic nature of government crosses all departments. In agriculture for instance there has been a public consultation on eradicating bovine TB but there is no minister to sign off on a new strategy.

There are scores of public appointments to numerous boards to be made, but again with no ministers there can be no appointments. The North’s Policing Board which holds the PSNI to account has no legal authority because there is no minister of justice.

This has practical implications because, for instance, it is the job of the board to replace former deputy PSNI chief constable Drew Harris who is taking over as Garda Commissioner.

The Northern Secretary Karen Bradley has instructed her officials to prepare legislation that would allow Westminster direct rule ministers reconstitute the Policing Board and permit “crucial appointments” to leading public bodies such as the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland.

But she is highly reluctant to go beyond such measures in terms of direct rule, still hoping that somehow – and despite all the negative indicators – that the DUP and Sinn Féin will strike a deal to restore the Northern Executive and bring back real government to Northern Ireland.

If however the paralysis runs into next year – and there is no real sense of political energy or public outcry against the stalemate – then it may be very difficult for Bradley and the British government to avoid some form of return to British ministers taking decisions that should be taken by Northern Ireland ministers.

Certainly that seemed to be the view of the doleful civil servant mentioned earlier. He concluded:, “We are incredibly frustrated as a civil service because we care about this place, we are part of it, our families are here and it is very frustrating for all of us. We can see decay and stagnation in many of our public services. It can’t go on like this.”

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