Happy birthday to the NI Assembly?

11 January 2021 - by Anna Mercer

Three years without a government, set against the backdrop of Brexit drawing ever closer, there was a palpable sense of cautious optimism when a deal was announced this time last year by the then Secretary of State, Julian Smith, and his counterpart in the Republic, Simon Coveney, heralding a “New Decade, New Approach”.

Little did we know then that this New Decade and New Approach would be shaped by forces beyond the control of our politicians, as a new virus was emerging from the other side of the world.

However, in spite of the unprecedented challenges to our politicians and institutions, 1 year on, and a year and a bit out from the next election, what are the features that have defined our politics over the past 12 months?

  1.        Old problems persist within the Executive

Whilst NDNA promised a step change in how we are governed, there have been grumblings from within the Executive from the smaller parties frustrated by the dominance of the big two parties. There was also the issue of the use of a cross-community veto invoked by the DUP in relation to proposed COVID restrictions back in November – in spite of the fact that the issue on which they were voting on was proposed by fellow unionist, Health Minister Robin Swann.

Set against the commitment to deliver “sustainable institutions that are more resilient”, on the basis of “good faith, trust and mutual respect”, without anything concrete to support and provide accountability for their good intentions, it is not surprising that old habits and ways of working continue to characterise the Executive dynamic.

Any new ways of working need to be reinforced in legislation, policy and structures – indeed speaking on Sunday Politics yesterday, former Secretary of State Julian Smith made this very point.  Whilst culture change is well intentioned, set against the hard edge and rough and tumble of coalition politics, it has the odds stacked against it from the get go.

  1.        The honeymoon is over

The first few months of the new Executive presented a fairly united government, collectively committed to rising to the challenge of responding to COVID. There was a real sense of a united front across the Executive, with First and deputy First Minister regularly delivering press conferences together. However, the issue over the attendance of several Sinn Féin politicians at Bobby Storey’s funeral in the summer, including the deputy First Minister, saw huge fallout as a result of the challenge this presented to the public health message, and relations fell to a very low ebb.

Whilst the increasing severity of increasing COVID numbers forced a reunion of the two principles, the relationship has been further challenged in disagreements around subsequent regulations, and most recently, academic selection – part COVID related, part ideological clash.

Looking ahead, the promise of a vaccine and the need to rebuild our society, outside of the intense pressure of what is currently a very bleak picture on current COVID figures and pressure on the health service, brings us to trickier territory. And perhaps more importantly, with an Assembly election on the horizon for 2022, this alone may see a recalibration within parties as they prepare for their first test since 2017; however this has traditionally set parties against each other rather than bringing them closer together.

  1.        Communication is key

In a world of 24 hour communications, social media and leaks, set against a five party government and a public hungry for information, the need for clear communications has never been greater. The fast pace of decision-making, evolving situation, strong representations from the medical world as well as the impact of our status as a devolved region on an island that hosts two jurisdictions has led to several headaches for our Executive and their comms teams.

The most recent fallout over the transfer test has been particularly acute, with the implications of failure to manage and control the message impacting 10 and 11 year olds, and drawing something which started as a COVID related challenge becoming an opportunity to revisit a long standing political division.

  1.        The stage is set for a new approach to policy making

COVID has prompted a clear out of the decks that no-one asked for nor anticipated, one of the unintended consequences is how it has forced a rethink on how society functions. From how we shape and support our economy, to ensuring children have access to a good meal every day, so many aspects of life that we have taken for granted have been challenged and this has paved the way for thinking about how we do things differently.

Looking to the community and voluntary sector emergency response, working with local and central government, it was those charities and organisations working on the ground who were best placed to support some of our most vulnerable, whether that be in identifying who needed the emergency food parcels, laptops for school children, or providing mental health support.

Therefore the post-COVID rebuild needs to take this learning and go beyond paying lip service to our policy experts, informed by lived experience of service delivery.  Systems and structures need put in place to elevate and support those delivering key services, such as through enhancing Community Planning powers, delivering a statutory duty to cooperate across the public sector and engaging in genuine citizen engagement.

  1.        At the end of the day it’s ourselves alone

In a year that saw the final acts of Brexit take place, with the judas accusations from the DUP waged at Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, unionist politicians have found themselves let down by their one-time friends in government by the introduction of a border in the Irish Sea.

This has been further frustrated by the so-called “power-grab” from Westminster on some areas of devolved policy which local politicians and Ministers have challenged alongside their colleagues in the Scottish and Welsh administrations.

Meanwhile in the Republic, there have been tensions emerging in relation to a perception that the NI COVID response has been too slow and too lax, the implications of which have penetrated the border counties and seen increases in rates in the south.

What is clear is that at the end of the day, it is our Executive and Assembly who have responsibility for delivering on the interests of people in this region, and whilst there are many questions and criticisms that this assertion may draw, at the end of the day, it’s ourselves alone.