This Stormont is even worse than before thanks to no SDLP / UUP opposition

During Stormont’s three years of inactivity, the government at Westminster refused consistently to take responsibility for governing this part of the UK. For that reason, it would be churlish not to feel relief that Sinn Fein’s tantrum is over and the devolved institutions are running again.

UUP leader Steve Aiken (with party colleague Doug Beattie behind) meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith at Stormont House in mid-December
UUP leader Steve Aiken (with party colleague Doug Beattie behind) meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith at Stormont House in mid-December

For the time being, the NHS pay dispute is resolved and the threat of more cancelled operations and outpatients’ appointments is receding. An injection of cash could start to shorten waiting lists and maybe even ease a chronic shortage of staff. Headteachers hope they’ll receive similar funding to address long-neglected problems in schools.

Previously, civil servants and the Secretary of State were reluctant to intervene in these issues. But now, ministers are in place to patch up and mend the most glaring and immediate crises in public services.

Can we expect more than an improvement in this sort of day-to-day management? After all, there are underlying reasons that our services are in such a poor state. Successive sets of ministers failed to implement reforms they knew were necessary, preferring to make crowd-pleasing announcements instead.

The writer, commentator and public policy consultant Owen Polley

It would be great to be optimistic, but, regrettably, the deal that restored Stormont doesn’t inspire much hope.

As Ben Lowry explained in his column (Unionism has sent out a signal of defeatism and weakness, January 18), New Decade, New Approach was published in a way that flouted Strand 1 of the Belfast Agreement. It left key issues cloaked in ambiguity and it failed to address structural frailties that have caused our institutions to crash repeatedly. We’ve got the same parties, the same MLAs and many of the same ministers that struggled so abjectly in the past; and there’s every sign that they’ve fallen seamlessly back into the same habits.

The Assembly was not back a day before the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of ‘divvying up’ the speaker’s role to Alex Maskey, when he believed there was a prior agreement that Patsy McGlone would get the job. Then, both Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill shot down Edwin Poots’ tentative suggestion that water charges might be needed to fund improvements to crumbling water infrastructure.

These disagreements are important because they speak to two of the biggest criticisms of how the previous executive carried out its business.

Firstly, the assertion power-sharing was ‘carved up’ by the DUP and Sinn Fein in a way that excluded smaller parties and evaded scrutiny of decisions; Sir Reg Empey described it memorably as a ‘huckster’s shop’. And secondly, the claim that the executive refused to take the potentially unpopular but necessary decisions that are the responsibility of every effective government.

Difficult issues, like deciding which hospitals to close, reforming the welfare system or tackling the problem of empty school desks were either delayed endlessly or resolved through another set of crisis talks.

Water and sewerage is a classic example. The new finance minister, Conor Murphy, was in charge of regional development when the system was overwhelmed during a period of bad weather in December 2010. The ensuing scandal highlighted years of underinvestment and bad management that resulted in inadequate infrastructure and regular fines for pollution.

Ten years later, Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK without separate water-charges, we’ve still got the worst water infrastructure as a consequence and Northern Ireland Water has not been privatised or mutualised. Would anybody stake their life-savings on Stormont changing things substantially during the next 10 years, unless it’s simply handed the money to upgrade the system by Westminster?

Indeed, if the revived executive has any plan at all for delivering better government, it’s based on the principle that it should get vast quantities of extra cash from the Treasury. Murphy described the government’s offer of £2 billion of additional spending in Northern Ireland as “woefully inadequate”.

A sense of entitlement oozes out of an executive that, in its last incarnation, was accused of wasting up to £500 million of taxpayers’ cash through the RHI scandal. From Sam McBride’s book, Burned, we learned that some ministers and officials regarded direct funding from the Treasury as ‘free money’ injected into the Northern Ireland economy.

Worryingly, the latest devolved government will be subject to even less scrutiny than its predecessor, domestically at least, because the former ‘opposition’ parties of the SDLP and the UUP have decided to take their seats in the executive.

This decision is particularly baffling from the Ulster Unionists whose high-profile MLA Doug Beattie accused the secretary of state of back-tracking on commitments that legacy would not form part of the deal and whose leader, Steve Aiken, said Stormont was already “sinking back into New Decade, Same Approach”.

To be fair, that’s what most of us expected, but the UUP is in a position to do something about it.