Looking ahead to the restoration of the NI Executive, former Minister and now MD of Confluence Consulting Simon Hamilton cautions against burdening incoming Ministers with the expectation of immediate success.
Jeffrey Donaldson will have no doubt breathed a deserved sigh of relief as he announced that his Party had endorsed a deal to restore the Executive. We have all watched and waited as the DUP engaged over and over again with the Government, nudging slowly, towards a return to Stormont. The ending of the impasse was welcome news but there will be little time for the DUP to pat themselves on the back. As I listened to Sir Jeffrey’s remarks in the early hours of last Tuesday morning, I couldn’t help but think of Shang’s line in the Disney film Mulan – “and tomorrow, the real work begins”.
Without wishing to underplay the importance of the trade related issues that formed the basis for this latest collapse in the devolved institutions, they were inconsequential to many as they witnessed the slow degradation of public services in the middle of a cost of living crisis that followed a pandemic from which we are still recovering.
Since Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minister in 2017, Northern Ireland has been without an Executive for less than a third of the time. For 2 of the years it was up and running, it was during a pandemic which was hardly ‘business as usual’ for any government. When the Executive has been down, Secretaries of State have engaged in no better than basic care and maintenance.
Nowhere can endure such a long period of time without government and not experience the kind of lasting damage that we are seeing across our public sector. Wherever we look, we see the same thing. Budget black holes. Delayed decisions that are now beginning to bite. And a standard of service that falls far short of what people should be receiving but, sadly, have become all too accustomed to.
Look at hospital waiting lists. Around half a million people are waiting for an inpatient or outpatient appointment with approximately half of that number waiting for more than 12 months. Back in 2015, I served as Minister for Health. Waiting lists were long then too but, on reflection, they were a mere fraction of where they are today. The advice I was given was that we needed to supplement normal activity in the health service with a waiting list initiative delivered with the help of the private sector. We found what spare money we could within the Department’s budget and the statistics started to go in the right direction but we were only making a small dent in a mammoth problem. Now, the size of that problem is on a whole other level. A few million pounds here and there isn’t going to cut it and transformation will take time.
Incoming Ministers will, to put it mildly, have plenty on their plate, with bulging in-trays but no budget to deliver big changes. They’ll be bombarded with demands on their diaries, calls to come up with new eye catching initiatives and pressure to pass new pieces of legislation. Finding the space to stop, think and set an agenda will be tough.
We can’t ignore the fact that relationships between the political parties who’ll form the new Executive are far from harmonious. At the risk of looking at the recent past through rose tinted spectacles, there seems to be little of the goodwill and generosity of spirit that characterised some earlier administrations. Nor too can we fail to recognise that many of the current crop of MLAs, whilst undoubtedly talented, on the whole, possess less frontline experience than those in previous Assemblies.
Governing is never easy, but especially so in the circumstances facing our new Executive. That isn’t an argument that we’d be better off without devolution. It is always infinitely better to have locally elected politicians taking the decisions that affect our lives and the future of this place even if that comes with the complexities and frustrations that are inherent in our unique system.
Very quickly, attention will turn to Stormont as people expect the Executive to start delivering. But to see it solely as a matter of ‘what are they going to do for us’ is wrong. We all have a role to play. It’s not merely about supporting them in their endeavours. It’s also about assisting them in making better informed policy decisions that start to get to grips with our economic, environmental and social challenges. They’ll need our help as much as we’ll need theirs. But, for me, above everything else, as eager as we all are to see Ministers begin to make a difference, it’s important that we display some patience. It’s easy, and very tempting at times, to criticise politicians, but before we do, we should appreciate the unprecedented scale of the challenge facing Ministers. An Executive is not an instant solution to all of our problems and we have to realise that we need to give them the time and space they need to succeed.