Sam McBride: Most politicians never get this rare chance to radically reshape society

If the founders of Northern Ireland were alive to see its centenary next year, they would find a society so radically altered as to be almost unrecognisable to that which they ruled in 1921.

But so too will it look fundamentally different to that which existed just three months ago.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, where the pandemic largely dies out over the summer or there is a transformative medical breakthrough, life for most of us will not return to what at the start of this year was normality.

Basic human longings – for freedom, prosperity, health and hope – will not change. But socially, economically, environmentally, and in innumerable other areas, we have entered a new age in which even the world’s most powerful figures unable to know what that new era will resemble.

There is optimism about many of the possibilities – cleaner air, a better balance between work and home, overdue recognition that many of the socially lowliest roles are more essential than those with grand titles who they serve, and a curtailment of the rampant excesses of consumerism.

But others are darker. Writing in the FT this week about the possibility of a severe recession becoming a depression, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick recalled the warning of the 1930s: “The Depression caused more than economic pain. It metastasised to a loss of faith in democracies, the triumph of ideologies of hate, a turn to demagogues, a breakdown of international trade and finance and, ultimately, the second world war.”

With much of the world seething with anger, stoked dangerously by our increasing reliance on mass communication technology the implications of which we still do not fully comprehend, with a rise of nationalistic populism, and a widespread sense on both left and right that for years the old economic order has been breaking down, that is a sobering historic reminder.

With Northern Ireland’s long and bloody history of tribal division, and with heightened constitutional dispute in recent years ahead of the looming centenary commemorations, there are obvious dangers if the upheaval now upon us cannot be managed in a way which both unionists and nationalists believe to be fair.

Northern Ireland’s large public sector will only partially cushion the inevitable mass unemployment when the government’s furlough scheme stops paying 80% of the salaries for jobs which in many cases will no longer exist.

The UK economy could shrink by between a quarter and a third over the second quarter of this year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but in a way which exacerbates existing inequality, hitting the poorest most viciously, as well as disproportionately hurting women and the young.

That economic emergency will only be one of multiple crises which the Executive will face over the coming months.

Having been chaotically divided in the early weeks of the pandemic, the Executive has – at least outwardly – come together in the last month.

But that unity has been bought at the expense of delaying crucial difficult decisions over how and when lockdown will end.

That most pressing question is just the start of a period in which scores of major decisions will have to be taken about how to reshape Northern Ireland’s economy and multiple areas of society.

In that is opportunity as well as threat – but also the potential for Stormont’s sluggish decision-making and mutual vetoes to delay the decisions which could help bring some good out of this period of death and disruption.

Through the increased public expenditure in England to respond to the crisis, the Executive has already seen significant new income. Much of that has just been doled out in broadly similar ways to GB, attempting to prop up as much of the economy as possible until lockdown ends.

But as time goes on there will be increased scope for local decision-making as to how that money should be spent.

If, for instance, it becomes clear that tourist numbers are going to be significantly depressed for years, does Stormont prop up such a sector, or use that money elsewhere?

Queen’s University academic John Barry has suggested a massive retrofit of the worst insulated homes, something which could improve the lives of those in the most difficult circumstances, improve air quality and provide jobs.
Others have suggested following some European cities which have pedestrianised city centre roads, allowing cafes and cyclists to fill the streets in an attempt to revitalise city precincts which otherwise could shrivel if eateries are unable to survive by serving only a tiny percentage of their normal customers due to social distancing.

With technology having allowed a large percentage of the population to work productively from home, many of those people are either unlikely to ever return to the office, or to only do so intermittently.

That has implications for the historically higher house prices in cities – if we don’t need to be in a city centre office, why not buy a larger home further away?

Those without gardens, and especially those living in expensive shoebox apartments, may after lockdown prioritise securing a more spacious property with a garden or some other outdoor space.

If we are trying to stay apart, using public transport is less practical than driving, walking or cycling. But if passenger numbers collapse, does Stormont then bail out Translink so that it can maintain sparsely-populated bus and train services, or does it ask it to cut services, thus forcing the same number of people on to fewer buses and trains where social distancing will be impossible?

If a company has been able to effectively maintain its operations with staff working remotely, it decide to stop renting expensive city centre offices, especially if it is struggling to break even as a result of the recession.

Those decisions and a thousand others will then have implications for planning and infrastructure policy, with increased potential for urban sprawl and city centre decay.

Politicians will have to decide whether to continuing deepening our relationship with China despite its reckless lies over coronavirus, whether local manufacturing should be prioritised as a part of a move to deglobalisation, the role of the public sector, and relations with unions as relationships between workers and employers are transformed.

While very few young people are likely to die from the virus, they will suffer in a decimated job market, with the potential to trigger inter-generational anger.

Yet there is now a rare moment of opportunity for visionary politicians to use their power to reshape how we live and work. This is a moment which for many politicians never arrives even in a long political career: The chance to dramatically reshape society and fix some of what they knew to be broken.

Behind many of these questions, the prudent retort of “how are you going to pay for that” will not retain the potency which it had – at least until there are massive tax hikes – because we have seen how when government felt something was of sufficient importance it was able to borrow money more than at any time since the Second World War.

Though largely not a matter for Stormont, the debate will therefore shift from whether borrowing for policy X is possible, to whether it is of sufficient importance to add to the gargantuan national debt – and whether that is fair to future generations.

There are also areas where Northern Ireland is well positioned to profit from the post-pandemic world. In recent years Belfast has become a centre of cyber-security expertise. With technology now more dominant in our lives, and the online security commercially paramount as we handle company secrets on laptops in our kitchens or bedrooms, that area has potential for sustained growth.

Our large agricultural sector may also benefit as the severing of global supply lines demonstrates the criticality of maintaining food security.

Stormont will face an ideological argument on top of its traditional constitutional argument in the midst of what will be at least a recession and possibly a depression – and possibly still a public health crisis.

That would challenge any government, let alone our constitutionally and ideologically divided Executive. But it is also an opportunity for it to do something truly momentously meaningful.

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Alistair Bushe