Local Government Must Be Re-established In Northern Ireland
The Northern Irish Assembly has been suspended since January 2017. Yet up until this point its members have been in receipt of full pay despite the fact that they have been failing to carry out their jobs: representing the people of Northern Ireland. If local government is going to be re-established in NI, serious negotiations between the two major parties are necessary.
The Northern Ireland Assembly, first elected on 25th June 1998, received its fully devolved powers in December 1999 and was established as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. In the years since then – aside from several periods of temporary suspension – its members have been making decisions on devolved matters. Owing to its history, Northern Ireland has a unique situation where government, and therefore nationalists and unionists, must co-operate to form a power-sharing executive that lies at the heart of decision-making on devolved issues.
However, hopes of a new coalition were dashed at the beginning of last year, following Martin McGuinness’ resignation as Deputy First Minister in January. As a result, the NI Assembly entered the current period of suspension. This breakdown of government, though dramatic, is not unexpected. In truth, it had been impending for months prior to this, due to several issues on which the main parties in NI fundamentally disagreed, including the Irish Language Act and same-sex marriage. As a consequence of this, the Assembly entered a period of suspension, in which it has now remained for 21 months. Unsurprisingly, this has been a cause of major annoyance and discontent both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the Union.
Up until this point, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have also been getting full pay despite not taking their seats in Stormont and failing to carry out the job they are being paid to do. It was announced just last month that salaries would be cut by over £13,000. Despite this, many in Northern Ireland are still massively unhappy that they are not being represented by an institution specifically set up to serve this purpose. Furthermore, many are justifiably angry that the MLA’s salaries have not been slashed to zero, as would be typical in any other job where an employee had had over 600 days off. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has highlighted the issue of there being no executive and said NI was ‘stalling’ and people were ‘suffering’. The situation has been described as a ‘shambles’ by various stakeholders.
One of the big factors in the collapse was the scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which could potentially have cost millions of pounds. This was further exacerbated by the fact that the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, refused to stand down whilst an inquiry was performed into allegations of her involvement in the RHI scandal. However, power-sharing ultimately ended with the news that Sinn Fein weren’t replacing Martin McGuiness following his resignation, which meant Arlene Foster could serve as First Minister no longer. It is important to note that the RHI scandal wasn’t the only factor in this collapse; it was, however, an event within a series that led to the ultimate dissolution of the executive. Another key factor was the fact that, without a functioning executive, Northern Ireland’s voice was not being heard as loudly as that of other parts of the Union during Brexit talks.
As a result, it has been up to civil servants to make decisions in the absence of MLAs. Yet their power is limited, because an executive is essential in deciding to spend large amounts of tax-payer money for the large-scale interventions and changes Northern Ireland needs. Waiting times in hospitals, for example, cannot be targeted without a functioning executive; this is a major issue for those waiting for vital care. On the foreign front, the lack of an executive has also meant that Northern Ireland’s voice is not being heard as loudly as that of other parts of the Union in the context of Brexit talks. And more fundamentally, one of the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement is being undermined: the people of NI are, effectively, not being represented locally. So what does the future for NI look like? It is first of all essential that a functioning executive be again put in place. It is up to the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to come to some sort of agreement to make the executive function as one. Serious negotiations and a settlement is necessary if power-sharing is going to be re-established in NI.
Perhaps in the next few months NI can see their representative MLAs back in Stormont and working towards getting NI back up and running. Some have suggested that slashing salaries to zero would incentivise the MLAs to overcome their differences and start working together again – but of course the reaction could also be the exact opposite one. In any case, it is essential that power-sharing be re-instated if Northern Ireland’s government is, truly, to be representative of the interests of its own people.