Home » ‘The hope we had is gone’: how 20 months of stasis has paralysed It is a grim milestone for Northern Ireland
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‘The hope we had is gone’: how 20 months of stasis has paralysed It is a grim milestone for Northern Ireland

It is a grim milestone for Northern Ireland that some of its problems are now visible from space.

A vast blue-green algae is choking Lough Neagh, which supplies 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water, owing to excessive farm slurry, human sewage discharges and other management blunders.

The poisoning of the largest lake in the British Isles is bad enough, but it has become a symbol of wider dysfunction in Northern Ireland.

The Stormont executive and assembly have been mothballed for 20 months, leaving a discredited civil service and unpopular secretary of state, Chris Heaton-Harris, to run the region on a form of auto-pilot. Hospital waiting lists are the worst in the UK and schools, roads and housing are decaying, with worse feared given what has been termed a “punishment” budget. The police service is in crisis.

“There’s an end-of-days feel to Northern Ireland,” Sam McBride, the Northern Ireland editor of the Belfast Telegraph, wrote in a recent column. “A sort of half-hearted anarchy pervades. There are still laws, police and regulatory bodies. The streets aren’t filled with looters. But so much of what an advanced democratic society takes for granted is crumbling.”

It was a stark observation from a respected commentator, and few dissented. There is a sense that governance, public services and the state’s legitimacy are hollowing.

The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) is expected to put a brave face on the situation at its conference this weekend. The party’s raison d’être is to show that Northern Ireland works and to defend its place in the UK. Yet it was the DUP that caused Stormont to collapse in February 2022, in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements, and while in government, it presided over policy fiascos.

Its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, faces a difficult choice: try to persuade a divided, unruly party to return to Stormont even while an Irish Sea border remains in place, or hunker down for a prolonged boycott that destabilises the region.

A healthcare representative Emma Creagh with sign saying ‘Not happy with Stormont’
Emma Creagh, a healthcare representative, stands on the picket line outside Craigavon area hospital in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, in September. Photograph: Claudia Savage/PA

“Countries go through periods of calamitous breakdown. Northern Ireland is going through something like that,” said Malachi O’Doherty, an analyst and author of the book How to Fix Northern Ireland, published in April to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday agreement. “People have lost faith in the political system.”

Even if the DUP revives powersharing, people will assume it will be a matter of time before it or Sinn Féin again pulls the plug, said O’Doherty. “The hope we had 25 years ago is gone and I don’t think it can be restored.”

O’Doherty said Northern Ireland remains divided principally between two sectarian blocs that valued tribal advantage over administrative competence. “We don’t elect people based on their programmes on how to run the country.”

Even when the main nationalist and unionist parties have cooperated and run a devolved government – about 60% of the time since 1998 – the results have been, at best, patchy.

There was consensus on the need to rationalise the health service, but that risked angering voters so reforms were shelved, worsening gaps and delays in care. All five big parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionists, Alliance and the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour party) signed off on the 2013 “going for growth” strategy, which intensified farming and sent ever more slurry into Lough Neagh.

Downing Street and Heaton-Harris have been accused of using austerity to try to pressure the DUP back to Stormont. Education’s allocation has fallen from £2.64bn to £2.57bn, hitting holiday hunger payments and other benefits. Many schools are financially unsustainable, according to the education authority.

Environmental campaigners next to rough water with protest signs
Environmental campaigners hold a ‘wake’ at Ballyronan beach for Lough Neagh lake in September. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

While public services are fraying in England, Wales and Scotland, too, Northern Ireland’s problems go beyond lack of resources. Paralysed civil servants must run departments but their collective reputation remains tainted from debacles such as cash-for-ash, a bungled green energy scheme that exposed administrative incompetence and lack of accountability.

A series of crises have buffeted the police, forcing the resignation last month of the chief constable, Simon Byrne, who was found to have acted unlawfully.

Some shrug all this off as doom-mongering. Great Britain and Ireland have similar problems, so it is unfair to cast Northern Ireland as dysfunctional, said Ian Marshall, a farmer and former Ulster Unionist party politician who also served in the Irish Senate. “There is frustration at the lack of an executive but people are just getting on with things. There is a resilience.”

There is evidence for that. Local councils are functioning, business confidence is growing and an investment conference in September drew global investors.

But there was no disguising the flat atmosphere in April when Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and other dignitaries visited Belfast to celebrate the anniversary of an agreement that looks increasingly ropey.

Brendan O’Leary, lauder politics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Making Sense of a United Ireland, traced some of Northern Ireland’s political deadlock to the Tories’ return to power in 2010 and reduced cooperation between London and Dublin. “When the British and Irish governments don’t cooperate things get worse in Northern Ireland.”

Another factor was that when the two governments changed Stormont’s rules in 2006 they left the dual premiership as the “lightning rod for other difficulties”, said O’Leary. “Either first minister can bring down the house, or stop its construction.”

Source: The Guardian