Sam McBride: Why what might be years of political drift really matters

Stormont now lies almost abandoned
Stormont now lies almost abandoned

How long can a country be governed without a government?

Longer than any of us first thought. After 18 months, what was once unthinkable is now dangerously close to being seen as routine.

Yesterday the BBC broadcast an interview with the mothers of two toddlers, one of whom was starting to be able to speak. Both children have spend their entire lives without a government.

On our current trajectory, unless either the DUP or Sinn Féin back down or the prime minister radically alters her approach, it is not inconceivable that by the time they go to school there might still be no government.

After Sinn Féin collapsed Stormont, and then could not agree terms with the DUP for resuming power-sharing after last March’s election, there was an expectation that direct rule was an inevitable consequence.

That view was shared by unionists and nationalists, with both the SDLP and the UUP campaigning on the basis that a vote for the DUP or Sinn Féin – given their hardline manifestos – really was a vote for direct rule.

But once the government decided not to move rapidly to direct rule, that ceased to be seen as inevitable and instead became a choice. Then when the DUP emerged as kingmakers at Westminster that choice became even more difficult to take, given nationalist sentiment in Northern Ireland.

It is clear that Theresa May is desperate to avoid taking charge, for reasons which she has never publicly articulated but which appears to involve a fear of upsetting the Irish Government during the Brexit negotiations and a concern as to how nationalists would react to being governed by a prime minister propped up by the DUP.

The fact that Stormont is a basket case of problems also means that taking responsibility would instantly mean difficult decisions.

Sources with knowledge of the situation say privately that the possibility of direct rule now seems to be receding rather than coming closer. Unless the DUP or Sinn Féin do U-turns, we seem destined for what could be years of drift.

Thus, whether by accident or design, the government is allowing Northern Ireland to develop as an experiment into whether any politician needs to be in charge of running public services.

This week Northern Ireland surpassed Belgium’s record for operating without a functioning cabinet.

In the most westerly part of the UK, almost two million people have gone about their lives for 593 days without the devolved Executive which is responsible for most public services.

Of course, Northern Ireland is a region of the UK rather than a sovereign state, and so there is still technically a functioning legislature and executive in Westminster which could intervene in an emergency.

But the remarkable aspect of the last 18 months has been the acceptance by Theresa May that not having a government is not an emergency.

And in some ways, Northern Ireland’s predicament is worse than that of Belgium, which at least retained a caretaker government during the negotiations over forming an administration.

What was once unthinkable - years of no ministers in charge of running Northern Ireland - is made more possible because the proverbial man in the street has seen little direct impact on his life from the absence of Stormont ministers.

Public servants are still being paid, potholes are being repaired, schools and hospitals continue to function – at least to the extent that each of those things were happening while ministers were in place.

Given how unpopular politicians now are in the western world, unsurprisingly that has led some to question whether we really need politicians at all.

For all politicians’ myriad faults, the answer is yes. Just beneath the surface calm, a governance crisis is escalating and it is the people of Northern Ireland who will ultimately suffer. Government works slowly and the consequences of much of what is happening now will not be felt for years.

Civil servants are overseeing a budget of more than £10 billion without any of the awkward questions politicians face. Without questioning the integrity of most civil servants – who have acted dutifully in this crisis – the temptation to corruption is obvious.

More pressingly, there is now a vast backlog of untaken decisions because the courts have made clear that civil servants have no authority to decide on issues which would normally be left to a minister.

Northern Ireland’s health system is in many areas in critical condition, with soaring waiting lists leaving more people in agony awaiting treatment than in England, Scotland or Wales.

There is widespread acceptance of the need for radical reforms, such as centralising services in centres of excellence, but that political decision cannot be taken by civil servants.

Hundreds of schools are now beneath the threshold of viability but cannot be closed. In a region with the population of Essex, the result was an education overspend of almost £20 million last year.

The extent of the stasis is sweeping: major planning decisions, road schemes, public sector pay increases, compensation payments for survivors of child abuse, safety improvements at football stadia, slashing the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals, and on and on and on.

Three months ago, the CBI and 11 other business organisations – who do feel the impact of the vacuum – asked the government to pass legislation to empower civil servants to take major decisions without democratic oversight.

That proposal – which would have given unelected and unaccountable civil servants the power to take huge political decisions – shows how lightly what we assume to be a society-wide commitment to democracy can be cast aside amidst a crisis.

Far from solving the problem, that idea would have made it worse by removing any urgency for the return of ministers.

If we get bad politicians it’s largely our fault, because we elect them. If they misbehave, it’s up to us as to whether they are removed. That is the essence of democracy: Real power rests with the public.

Even without politicians, any system short of anarchy will still involve powerful decision-makers, with the same flaws and temptations as politicians – but without the same fear of public opinion.

Many politicians do little to help themselves and some exhibit reprehensible conduct – which for some reason often goes unpunished at the ballot box.

Perhaps it will take several years of drift for many people to realise politicians’ key strength: It is through politicians that the public’s will is enacted.