Striking in the public interest

04 December 2019 - by Anna Mercer

Sometimes, in politics, things have to get really bad before they get better. But in Northern Ireland, as we approach the third year without a government, one would be forgiven for thinking that moment might never arrive.

As the GP interviewed on this week’s Spotlight programme said, few people have taken to the streets to protest about waiting lists or to demand that our politicians get back to work.

With the UK Government resistance to a move to direct rule, complemented by the local parties’ resistance to a return to Stormont, combined with an election, Brexit and the current health and university strikes, could we be nearing a tipping point?

The Northern Ireland Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Act states that civil servants have the power to act in the public interest when appropriate and on the basis of existing policy decisions, which remain the remit of a Minister.

Critically, this legislation makes provision for the need to maintain public services and acknowledges that there may be “exceptional circumstances” whereby deferring a decision could have adverse consequences.

Will the current strikes by health workers test the limits to which our civil servants are prepared to go in the absence of political leadership?

It is hard to think of a more clear manifestation of public interest than the delivery of our health service. There is a very clear and urgent need for an intervention that will meet the needs of an overstretched, overworked and underpaid workforce; but in the absence of a government, who is it that is accountable and responsible for resolving this issue?

While the Department of Health has been the focus of the campaign, over in the NIO, the Secretary of State has resisted calls for any engagement on this issue, but committed to restarting talks on Monday 16th December. Meanwhile, on the picket line, strikers have been joined by MLAs and election candidates of all hues, where they all get to play the part of the opposition.

Without wishing to draw out the health service analogy too much, is it time for a Westminster cash injection that would take us off life-support, discharging us back to at least the high dependency unit?