Why can't we all just stop gurning and get on with it?

Secretary of State Karen Bradley brought forward new legislation last week to allow things to get done in Northern Ireland. Photo Hugh Russell

I WAS in Amsterdam with some of my best mates this past weekend. One of our friends lives there and he hosted us in his trendy apartment in a part of Amsterdam called ‘The Pipe'. It's a very cool area with lots of little cafes, bars and eclectic shops. It was a beautiful autumn weekend and we had a fantastic time of it. We even hired bikes and did a big tour of the city. We felt like locals and we loved it. Amsterdam feels very different from Belfast.

The conversations, as always, were extremely wide-ranging and at times hilarious. It was life-affirming stuff. I also told the lads about my need to write this column and we talked about doing something on what Belfast could learn from Amsterdam.

One of the other topics that came up, however, was gurning. I looked ‘gurn' up when I came home, the online dictionary says ‘(Irish), to complain, peevishly.' Nobody likes a gurn and constant gurning drags everybody down. In Northern Ireland, we seem to be world champions at it, at times.

That got me thinking about what has most exercised me in recent weeks here. Local politics and the gurning that goes on in it. As a general rule I have avoided politics on these pages mainly because this is supposed to be about business and I am sure readers get enough politics elsewhere in The Irish News. Today though, I am making an exception, mainly borne from frustration.

People can over estimate what business people can do to make things work. Often within government and civic society, an experienced business person gets called in to fix a problem which civil servants or politicians can't solve or in some cases, don't want to solve on their own. The business person is heralded because of their private sector skills and can-do attitude and they write a report or make a set of recommendations to make things better. It doesn't always work. We've seen reports into transport, health, education and many other sectors which have had limited success. The truth is, it's hard to get these things right, especially when they are so complex.

In my view though, the political problems we have here at the moment, especially the short-term ones, are not complex. They are pretty simple. And I am wondering if business here can assist. Our politicians clearly need it.

By short-term, I mean getting things done here in the absence of a restored Executive. What I have found very frustrating recently is our inability to get decisions made and actions taken in government because of the limbo we have found ourselves in politically. There is a brilliant project close to me in Belfast city centre called Streets Ahead - it's a public works programme which has been delayed in the absence of a minister. My other favourite project is Casement Park, it has the potential to be delayed further because of the lack of a minister. Hopefully that roadblock has now been removed.

Yes, we don't have an Executive nor does agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein look on the cards anytime soon. And direct rule or another election have also, rightly, been ruled out. Sensibly then, Secretary of State Karen Bradley, recognising this dynamic and in an effort to get things done, brought forward new legislation to allow us to do just that. It's been delivered pretty quickly too. It went through Parliament last week.

The Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Bill creates a five-month period where an Executive can be formed at any time, during which there will be no duty to call an election. More importantly for me though, the Bill provides far greater certainty for civil servants to ensure the continued delivery of public services and includes a requirement for Karen Bradley to issue guidance for Northern Ireland departments to support the decision making process in the absence of Ministers. This guidance has been issued and was one of the items up for discussion when the main political parties were given a collective briefing last week.

If you looked at the papers or were on the airwaves after that briefing, you might have thought the world had fallen in on our politicians such was the level of gurning. Forty five minutes was the duration of the briefing and many of them got very offended by that. And yet, the main purpose of the briefing, as I understand it, was to provide an update on how the new legislation would work and the space it would create for renewed talks. It was an opening gambit and an opportunity to bring the parties together for the first time in seven months. Nothing more.

It was also on the same day that Karen Bradley did a big meeting with Belfast city centre stakeholders having secured an extra £2m of Primark-fire relief money in the budget. She also did a meeting with the US government and got back to Westminster to vote on the very same budget that provided major assistance for Belfast, including an additional £350m of City Deal funding.

Maybe the briefing was a little quick and maybe its purpose hadn't been fully understood. But was it worth the amount of gurning and personal attacks against Karen Bradley afterwards? Definitely not. Not even close.

Despite the criticism, Karen Bradley has worked hard and delivered some very important things since her appointment. The budget allocations and this new, helpful piece of legislation being two good examples. Our politicians need to learn how to cultivate and motivate friends, not push them away.

So, what can business do to help? I see two big issues. The first is giving everybody confidence here that we can make decisions and get on with practical projects in the time allowed by the Bill. That means civil servants, politicians and civic society, especially business, pulling together.

And second, putting a timetable and structure together that will restore the Executive. This is less straightforward but a process which needs fresh thinking and one which we desperately need to get on with.

For me, business people could add value to both those processes and Karen Bradley and those of our politicians willing to help, would do well to seek assistance. That is, if those same politicians would stop gurning and get in behind Karen Bradley and others, including the Irish and US governments, to help find some solutions.

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Conor Lambe

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