Northern Ireland: new faces, old problems
A year without a political executive has left the country’s public services in crisis
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness' resignation as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister - sparking the end of a decade of power-sharing in Stormont.
McGuinness, who died in March, stepped down in protest at the role of the DUP first minister, Arlene Foster, in a failed renewable energy scheme dubbed the “cash for ash” scandal.
A year on, “the power-sharing institutions remain mothballed”, says The Guardian. The lack of a political executive at Stormont has cast a shadow on the Good Friday Agreement, which will be 20 years old this April.
“The agreement is a rock for the province and a beacon to ethnically and nationally divided societies around the world,” says The Guardian. “Yet British politics is in danger of allowing the agreement to falter through neglect.”
This week, the Conservative government was forced to appoint a new Northern Ireland Secretary, after James Brokenshire resigned from the role, blaming ill health. His chosen successor, Karen Bradley, had never even been to Northern Ireland before her appointment, but is now tasked with perhaps the most difficult prospect Theresa May’s government faces, Brexit and all - returning a devolved government to Northern Ireland.
“We need prophetic, imaginative and courageous leadership,” the influential Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Noel Treanor, said last week.
“To build a viable future for us all, we need urgently and creatively to put our hands together to the plough and to abandon the crippling and stagnating forces of fear and suspicion in the name of building a new future for all citizens, and especially for the weakest and the newly arrived in our society.”
But how has the lack of a Northern Ireland executive affected life for the people who live there, and what does the future hold for them?
What are the effects of the power-sharing collapse?
Without a functioning executive, many decisions on spending and public projects have simply not been taken.
Northern Ireland’s hospitals have been so stretched in recent weeks that, on New Year’s Eve, managers at Antrim Area Hospital called in St John’s Ambulance volunteers to assist. “Those at the emergency coalface said the situation ‘was never worse’ in Northern Ireland,” says the The Irish Times.
Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, told the newspaper that the Christmas and New Year crisis is reflective of a wider malaise in the North’s health service. Nursing provision is 10% down on what is required, with 1,500 additional nurses needed.
Smyth believes that were a Northern Executive and Assembly still operating, any self-respecting minister for health would be too embarrassed – and face too much public and political pressure – to tolerate the idea of St John’s Ambulance having to ride to the rescue “as a least-worst option”.
“There is no political leadership in the health system,” she says.
The picture is equally bleak across other public services.
Just before Christmas, a briefing paper by the Department of Finance warned that there could be “significant staff reduction” across the wider justice system, including in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the prison service – “this at a time when the dissident threat remains alive”, says The Irish Times.
Mark Lindsay, head of the North’s Police Federation, which represents PSNI officers, says the PSNI stands to “lose £14m in funding on top of the £180m already lopped off the budget in the past four years”. The proposed budget cuts could equate to annual funding for 280 officers, he adds.
What can Karen Bradley do?
Bradley faces a tall order. “It is hard to imagine that a bright Tory fortysomething would look on Stormont as anything other than a Garden of Gethsemane posting - one to be endured more in hope rather than expectation,” says the Irish Examiner.
Dublin and London are expected to try to make yet another push to persuade the DUP and Sinn Fein to settle their differences this week. “A year on from the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness, and facing into a new year and the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, on 10 April, it must be said there is precious little expectation that they will succeed,” says The Irish Times.
Bradley “must show her mettle, get a grip, and ensure that power-sharing is back in business in time for April’s 20th anniversary of the peace agreement”, says The Guardian.