Belgium should be famous for many things, its football team, chocolate, waffles, Rubens and the saxophone.
Unfortunately, The Guinness Book of World Records identifies Belgium as the country which has had the longest peace-time period of no government. This happened for over 500 days in 2010-11. Northern Ireland, alas, is about to smash that record but should we be concerned?
Of course there is a case for being critical of the quality of government we had previously. That devolution during 2007-17 was sometimes government of the lowest common denominator, that it was not joined up and that the hard decisions were avoided. “No government” or minimal, care and maintenance government may turn out to be even worse.
Recent court cases confirmed that in the absence of Ministers senior civil servants cannot lawfully make decisions relating to matters which are:
Cross-cutting (involving more than one Stormont Department).
As might be expected, most of the major policy issues confronting Northern Ireland are either controversial or significant or cross-cutting.
Here are some or the critical policy areas which either have been or could possibly be stalled:
• Updating the draft Industrial Strategy and Programme for government
• Bovine TB strategy for farming
• Lowering maximum stake on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (England is lowering these from £100 to £2 as a response to problem gambling)
• Raising university tuition fees in an attempt to plug a large funding gap relating to higher education as compared to England
• Introducing a minimum legal price for alcohol as Scotland has done
• Full implementation of the Bengoa report on restructuring health services
• Applying to Northern Ireland the read-across from the 6% pay increase for NHS staff (over three years) in England
• Deciding what to do with the possible £760m of extra funding which Northern Ireland should get following the PM’s increase in funding to NHS England over next five years
• Progressing the A5 road in the West
• Building the North-South electricity inter-connector
Some readers may think the absence of a Stormont Executive has made little difference to their lives. The lights are still on, after all.
However, if we don’t get the Inter-connector and the right longer term energy strategy the security of power supply is not necessarily guaranteed.
We have now had two Northern Ireland budgets which were of necessity passed through Westminster.
It is only for so long that we can very mechanically construct budgets based on the precedents set by the Executive before January 2017.
Economic competition and development is something of a race. Whilst Northern Ireland is at a standstill, Scotland and Wales, the Republic of Ireland and the English cities are all moving ahead.
Northern Ireland is assuming the doubtful honour of the “longest period without a government”.
The serious point is that inability to take necessary decisions has a cumulative cost in terms of well-being.
It is hard to be precise but large amounts of public sector and private investment are being postponed.
We could already be looking at a cost of several hundred million pounds that sum will escalate the longer this hiatus continues.
• Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist, Ulster University Economic Policy Centre