Sam McBride: Another surreal week at Stormont as lockdown law farce goes on (and four other things we learned at the NI Assembly this week)

Political editor Sam McBride examines five developments at the Northern Ireland Assembly this week.

Thursday, 28th January 2021, 7:03 am
The Executive has taken more than a year to even publish a consultation on a programme for government

Programme for what?

More than a year after devolution was restored, the Executive has finally taken the first step to decide on how it plans to govern – but don’t expect an actual decision any time soon.

A programme for government consultation, which was published late on Sunday night, sets out uncontroversial proposals such as that “we all enjoy long, healthy, active, lives” and “everybody feels safe”.  There is a child-friendly version of the document. There is an ‘easy-read version’. There is an Irish version. There is an Ulster Scots version.

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But there is no reason to believe that despite the abundance of work behind these documents means that a programme for government will soon be agreed. The consultation will run until March 22, followed by a lengthy analysis of responses, changes to the plan, then further consultation – and then the need for political agreement.

Although the pandemic accounts for some of the delay in getting to this point, there is also a long history of Executive arguments in agreeing policy. The timetable for this now means that a programme for government is unlikely to appear until next year’s election is around the corner – making it impossible to measure how this Executive has performed against its own targets

The document does not appear to explicitly address some of the unpopular decisions facing ministers. For instance, there are too many empty desks, meaning that many small schools may be closed. The closest that issue is referred to is as “taking a strategic approach to area planning”.

Likewise in health, services are likely to be removed from some smaller hospitals to centralise treatment in centres of excellence. This is referred to elliptically as “taking forward health and social care reform” – which could mean anything.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill’s joint foreword to the document begins with the words “The Executive is united...”, words rarely used about this disputatious Executive.

The jargon-heavy foreword goes on to say that “we are developing an ambitious and comprehensive programme of work that will harness the full power of joined-up action across departments”.

Ironically, the document which proclaims the Executive’s unity and desire to take tough decisions gives away that little appears to have changed.

Who needs elections?

There is a longstanding democratic principle that no government can bind its successor – the public might after all vote out the current set of ministers and vote in a government which has a mandate to do the opposite of its predecessor.

However, the programme for government consultation alludes to the near-impossibility of changing government in Northern Ireland. Although elections are scheduled for next year, the document says that “the Executive has agreed that work to develop a long term, multi-year strategic PfG should now commence”.

In other words, that means that the current Executive is so confident that it will remain in place after next year’s election that it is planning for what will happen after the election before a vote has been cast.

The farce goes on

With the sort of absurdity which Stormont does best, MLAs spent several hours on Monday discussing whether pandemic restrictions should be eased over Christmas. Christmas 2020, that is.

In the latest of many farcical Assembly ‘debates’ on pandemic restrictions long after they have expired and new restrictions have been imposed, MLAs debated and voted on seven pieces of pandemic legislation at the one time.

That meant that MLAs were debating whether to allow hospitality businesses to reopen, whether to close all retail and hospitality, whether to relax the restrictions to let families mix at Christmas, whether to restrict the time families could mix at Christmas, and whether to then reintroduce a full lockdown after Christmas because the virus was out of control. 

Of course, all this law had already been made by Executive order, with no democratic vote.
With the practice having gone on for months, most MLAs have grown weary of vociferously objecting. But People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll denounced “the nonsensical charade whereby we are expected retrospectively to give approval to or discuss regulations that have long been implemented and, in some cases, are out of date. There is no real semblance of oversight, transparency or accountability.”

He said it now seemed lockdown would last until at least March and asked: “But when will we debate those decisions? In April or May, when the regulations have already been implemented?”

Suspicious MPs

MPs are unhappy at the Executive’s failure to implement the Fiscal Council agreed last year to oversee its finances. NI Affairs Committee chairman Simon Hoare last week said that “its absence can now only raise suspicious questions”.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said that people “will draw their own conclusions”.

Mr Hoare suggested stopping sending cheques to NI, something Mr Lewis ruled out because that would punish the people of Northern Ireland. 

Costly Brexit

Brexiteer Diane Dodds has admitted that leaving the EU is pushing up electricity prices – but that the NI Protocol she hates helped mitigate that.

She told MLAs that the NI Protocol “in this instance, has provided the level playing field necessary” but that “one inevitable consequence of EU exit is...the loss of efficiency is placing an upward pressure on prices.”

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