It's all (not) happening right now . . .
IN the absence of an Assembly, and with no sign of if being resurrected anytime soon (and no indication that our ‘do nothing' Secretary of State intends to appoint direct rule ministers or even to assume political responsibility herself for our Stormont departments), our policy vacuum has now extended into it's 17th month.
Who would have thought that instead of Parliament Buildings or corridors of civil service departments, the high court would become the vehicle for policy setting?
These are frustrating times when the courts are setting out the parameters for how major decisions are taken. But that is precisely what has happened with two major judgements in the last two weeks.
In ruling that the decision to grant planning approval for an incinerator in Glengormley, Justice Keegan made no comment on whether the site was the right one, whether the plant was actually needed to manage waste or indeed whether the objections of residents should outweigh the views of planners. It came down purely to the fact that the civil servants do not have the authority to make political decisions.
She said: "I do not consider that Parliament can have intended that such decision making would continue in Northern Ireland in the absence of ministers without the protection of democratic accountability."
The reaction from within the Civil Service was quite stark and understandable. The Department of Infrastructure announced that no major decisions would be taken pending the outcome of an appeal. Even though that hearing has been expedited and will take place next month, a deferred judgement is the most likely outcome and therefore the whole decision making process will be stalled into the autumn.
I have sympathy for the civil servants here. They are a group of people who want to get on with implementing policy, overseeing the delivery of a programme for Government and bringing their energy to projects which can benefit us all. However they cannot do that without political direction and that's where the blockage is.
Like the incinerator decision, the second significant court ruling over the proposed office block adjacent to the Markets area was welcomed by politicians who joined the protestors outside the court and tweeted their congratulations. That judgement found that planners had erred in the process by which approve was granted.
In the Arc 21 case there was virtually all party support for the objectors and a welcome for the court ruling, despite the original planning application being made on behalf of a group of councils where every party is represented. I find that one hard to figure out.
What is easier to understand is that there is now a serious question mark over major infrastructure projects including Casement Park, the North South Interconnector and even the A5 and A6 motorway upgrades.
Simply put, they will not get the go ahead in the current political and legal context. The head of the civil service suggested that something as benign as an order to close roads to facilitate the North West 200 could not have been made by officials had the Arc21 judgement come a month sooner.
Maybe by putting a halt to even routine decisions which by their nature would attract no controversy or objections, the public consciousness might be awakened. No North West 200? No Balmoral Show? No pay awards to nurses?
In light of the court ruling it would be quite legitimate for these decisions to be put into abeyance en masse. And, really, who could blame civil servants if they shy away from taking decisions at the moment? No one would want to go about their daily work with the threat of judicial review sitting on their shoulder.
The nett result of this legal and political quagmire is that Casement Park, closed in 2012, is no closer to being built than when the first planning approval was overturned in court over three years ago, and that's a shame. Of course the quickest and cleanest way to progress this development, and the others in the pipeline infrastructure projects, is for our local politicians to do a deal, return to Stormont and provide the necessary political framework.
Last week Arlene Foster addressed a conference in London in what was billed as a landmark speech for unionism. Most of her comments were overshadowed by a gratuitous, unnecessary and factually incorrect insult to nationalism, but she did state quite bluntly: "The reasons for the collapse of Stormont are many and complex, but the range of cultural and other issues can and will be resolved. I am determined to ensure that is the case in the time ahead."
That was a commitment to resolving cultural and political issues which I am not sure we have heard before in such explicit terms, and really that should have signalled a renewed effort to establish a credible talks process which would lead to the restoration of a sustainable Executive.
A political deal, which provides the solution to the policy impasse, is entirely in the hands of our locally elected leaders. Economic progress depends on it, and so does the transfer of political decision making from the courtroom to the Assembly.
:: Brendan Mulgrew (email@example.com) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow on Twitter @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Claire Aiken