When should we admit that devolution in Northern Ireland has so far been a dismal failure? Even when the power-sharing Executive operated, it rarely legislated and refused to tackle the most pressing problems afflicting our society and economy.
Twenty years after the IRA renewed its ceasefire, is it still enough that bombs don’t explode regularly on our streets? Maybe the latest political crisis should be the point at which we finally insist upon a system of government that gets things done.
The Good Friday Agreement launched a process intended to build a peaceful and successful Northern Ireland. The institutions it established were supposed to develop into a functioning local government, capable of taking decisions about health, education, the budget and other aspects of policy that comprise ‘normal politics’.
Perhaps even more importantly, power-sharing was supposed to create a ‘shared’ Northern Ireland, where the social and financial costs of segregation were drastically reduced. The Agreement specified that the Executive was obliged to encourage integrated education and mixed housing, for instance.
None of this has happened remotely convincingly.
The most difficult policy decisions are either deferred - like reforming the health service, solving the 11-plus impasse and rebalancing the economy, or become part of Stormont’s regular crises - like devolving policing and justice, implementing welfare reform and dealing with the past. Rather than pursuing integration, the devolved Executive has actually magnified differences between identities and elevated them into a kind of fetish.
After the St Andrews’ accord in 2007, the Hillsborough negotiations on policing and justice, the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and the ironically titled ‘Fresh Start’ of 2015 it’s both staggering and drearily predictable that the parties are in another round of talks aimed at getting power-sharing started again. The RHI green energy scandal that prompted the crisis has been practically forgotten, while Sinn Fein focuses on its ever shifting shopping-list of demands.
That party is particularly addicted to set-pieces, because its political strategy is dependent upon nurturing disenchantment and instability. It showed formidable cynicism and hypocrisy when it collapsed the Executive.
Republicans certainly tell bare-faced lies about the past, in order to legitimise their twisted version of what happened in the Troubles and their notion of ‘equality’ is just an just underhand way of attacking Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. Yet the DUP showed little cunning in dealing with such slippery, dishonest opponents, allowing them to drag everything from Brexit to gay marriage into a dispute about boilers.
This is the way business gets done in Northern Ireland and the pattern is reinforced by the involvement of both the British and Irish governments in negotiations. Meanwhile, because the Executive did not agreed a budget for this financial year, public services face cuts, as civil servants do not have the same freedom to take far-reaching decisions as elected representatives.
That could be devastating for Northern Ireland’s health service, which is already creaking, thanks to successive ministers’ failures to implement badly needed reforms. Schools here also expect to lose 2.5% of their funding. Yet the parties who won’t get back to work continue to blame civil servants and the British government.
The self-importance of some politicians at Stormont has been indulged for far too long. They shouldn’t need to be constantly cajoled and appeased to get them to do their jobs. If they won’t take responsibility for governing Northern Ireland, then devolved powers will have to return to Westminster. Perhaps the Assembly could retain some kind of consultative role at the committee stage of legislation, though only if its wages and expenses were pruned drastically.
Alternatively, the government might refuse to facilitate any more talks or elections until the parties agree to discuss serious reform of the Assembly. At a minimum, the opposition needs seriously beefed up powers.
The parties could be offered three choices after the Westminster election has taken place and talks resume, either go back to work now without any preconditions, accept important reforms to make Stormont operate better or face direct rule immediately.
If there isn’t agreement on developing the devolved institutions and if there were a lengthy spell of direct rule, some of the long-standing problems with the health service, education and rebalancing the economy might finally be addressed. The local parties have proved incapable of taking difficult or potentially unpopular decisions and until there is evidence that they’re prepared to be more responsible, power-sharing is a meaningless sham.