Owen Polley: Even my critics do not claim Stormont is delivering good results in policy areas such as health and education

In a recent column (August 16, see link below), I wrote that devolution has never worked well for unionism and that, recently, it has done particular damage to Northern Ireland.

By Owen Polley
Monday, 30th August 2021, 4:27 pm
Updated Monday, 30th August 2021, 5:11 pm
MLAs could point out the true cost of freebies but such responsible politics is discouraged by devolution and power-sharing makes it even less likely. Meanwhile, almost half the Stormont executive think this state is illegitimate
MLAs could point out the true cost of freebies but such responsible politics is discouraged by devolution and power-sharing makes it even less likely. Meanwhile, almost half the Stormont executive think this state is illegitimate

There were lots of responses on social media and in the letters pages of this paper (see links below). Broadly, they argued that the local institutions could in fact provide good governance if only they got their act together.

Some correspondents, like the former unionist MLA, David McNarry, advocated structural reform as a means of improving Stormont’s performance.

I’m not sure anybody tried to claim that devolution is working properly or delivering good results in policy areas like health, education, the economy and infrastructure.

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We’re told constantly that voters care much more about these issues than the constitution, so why isn’t that reflected in our politics?

In fact, it’s not an accident that the executive keeps making bad decisions or no decisions at all when it comes to some of Northern Ireland’s most persistent problems.

Our system of power-sharing is particularly likely to discourage responsible government and breed populism. But even in Scotland and Wales, where the elected assemblies are better equipped to hold ministers to account, devolution leads to short-term thinking and stirs up a culture of grievance against the UK authorities.

The nationalist government in Edinburgh has spent 14 years focussing on gimmicks and advocating separatism. At the same time, standards in the country’s once respected education system plummeted and the SNP recently broke Scotland’s record for drug deaths for the seventh year in a row.

Meanwhile, two thirds of Wales’ national income is made up of public spending. The region’s economic productivity, which already lagged behind even Northern Ireland, fell yet further during the decades since devolution.

In both jurisdictions, there is a tendency to shirk dealing with the most difficult issues and blame these failures on Westminster.

Goodness me, aren’t we familiar with that habit in Ulster?

During 23 years of on-off power-sharing at Stormont, our executive commissioned at least three major reviews into problems with the health service. They all recommended centralising services in fewer acute hospitals and pushing more resources into community care, but the necessary changes were never made.

We have far too many small, unsustainable schools and thousands of empty desks. Closing and amalgamating institutions is difficult and contentious, even though the result would be better education for our young people.

It’s exactly the type of fundamental issue our ministers either ignore, or fail to change due to politicking within the executive.

For similar reasons, we have a bloated, malfunctioning public sector and an unproductive private sector that performs poorly in comparison with rest of UK. If you don’t believe me, the Northern Ireland Audit Office has published countless reports into waste and inefficiency with taxpayers’ money.

NI’s problems with devolution are particularly severe for two glaring reasons.

Firstly, almost half the executive is committed to the idea that this state is illegitimate and unviable. Sinn Fein actively wants the province to fail and does all it can to bring about that outcome, while the SDLP vacillates between sullen acceptance that the status quo will persist for the foreseeable future and out-and-out separatism. Lately we’ve seen rather more of the less constructive attitude.

Secondly, our huge public sector and, in particular, its powerful trade unions, are opposed to many of the reforms we need to modernise the civil service and provide space for private enterprise.

Remember that for years after it was standard practice in the rest of the UK, Northern Irish drivers could not complete their car tax online because a faster, more convenient service meant some public servants based in Coleraine would have nothing to do.

Lately, even more important aspects of our lives, including government services like the new vaccination passports, have moved online.

In Northern Ireland, these utilities are often plagued with problems around data verification and replication.

The issues could be resolved easily with computer software, but unions worry that robust and reliable ways of dealing with our information may eventually mean job losses.

We see similar complications with modernising the public sector repeatedly.

Nobody would argue that the national government gets everything right, but when unpalatable or unpopular decisions have to be made, it is ultimately responsible and that helps sharpen its thinking. It’s more difficult to blame somebody else or keep spending money you don’t have, when you are the ultimate decision-maker.

Of course, none of the difficulties with Stormont are completely inevitable. It’s possible to imagine a party in Northern Ireland that was honest with the public and responsible with public money. Politicians could point out the true cost of freebies and gimmicks, explaining that they mean less to spend on the important things that people are supposed to value.

They might even argue, for example, that painful reforms in the short-term are worthwhile to secure a prosperous future with better services in the long run.

Responsible politics of this type is discouraged by devolution and our system of power-sharing makes it even more unlikely.

You can argue logically that it’s worth having institutions that don’t work in order to preserve peace, though that case gets flimsier with each passing year.

It’s simply wrong to pretend Stormont is well-equipped to tackle long-standing issues with health, education and the economy.

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