A year without government but with plenty of politics

09 January 2018 - by Anna Mercer

Whilst government in Northern Ireland has been on hold for one year to the day, with the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness bringing down the Executive on 9 January 2017, the same cannot be said of politics.

Brexit, two elections and talks aimed at restoring the institutions have ensured that even if policy decisions and the strategic direction an Executive lends to the management of our public services are in cold storage, politics continued on regardless. 

Over the past year, our politicians have struggled, time and time again, to find a way of restoring the Executive. On the other hand, their response to, and influence on, Brexit has been, arguably, more impactful than any other voices at the negotiating table – a table from which they are absent.

Politically, it may seem strange to heap praise on local elected representatives, given their sabbatical from government. On the wider stage, however, they have shown how they can exercise influence outside of the institutions. While counterparts in Scotland and Wales struggle to be heard during the Brexit negotiations, Northern Ireland has been one of the key issues in Phase 1 of the process, in spite of there being no functioning government at Stormont.

The strength of this influence was most clear when we witnessed Theresa May rolling back on an earlier deal between UK and EU negotiators, due to an intervention by the DUP.

On the nationalist side, this voice has been missing from the benches at Westminster. Yet, the Dublin government – along with the EU - has played a key role in emphasising the preservation of all-island relations and the Good Friday Agreement.

Governance in Northern Ireland has fallen to the civil service, which must ensure that public services continue to function. This has been the area where an absence of political leadership is most notable – the recent crisis in demand for emergency services is the clearest example of this. Civil servants, left to deliver public services, without a budget for most of the last 12 months, are limited by their reluctance to take much-needed policy decisions – normally the preserve of ministers and legislators.

Lacking an elected Assembly to provide accountability, and with criticisms emanating from politicians themselves, many officials will feel frustrated by an inability to implement policies. Perhaps they are too afraid of the potential consequences of going ahead without direction from an Executive minister.

But this type of paralysis is not without its victims. We need only look at the impact of political stalemate on progress in delivering for victims and survivors of institutional abuse to see that doing nothing can have the worst outcome. Many of those promised some form of justice in the Hart Inquiry are elderly and in poor health, and do not have time to wait any longer for political resolution. 

The ultimate solution, of course, is to get the Executive back up and running, but, in the meantime, it may fall to our senior civil servants to make urgent decisions in the public interest. This was deemed to be the case in the Department for Infrastructure’s authorisation of an energy-from-waste plant last year.

In any event, leadership, whether from politicians or senior officials, is needed to trigger action on issues from health and social care reform to justice for victims and survivors of institutional abuse. Standing still may ultimately see us move backwards. Perhaps a new Secretary of State will provide the much-needed impetus to deliver fresh energy and perspective for a new round of talks?