Some way to go yet to break Belgium's record for a democracy going without an elected government

Stormont will soon not have sat for an entire year. Picture by Mal McCann
Stormont will soon not have sat for an entire year. Picture by Mal McCann

Tomorrow marks a year since the power-sharing institutions at Stormont collapsed.

Northern Ireland still, however, has some way to go to break the world record for a democracy going without an elected government.

That honour is held by Belgium, which managed to clock up 589 days in 2010-11 because the opposing Flemish and Walloons were unable to agree on policy issues and form a governing coalition following national elections.

The country, home of Belgian mathematician Victor D'Hondt after whom Northern Ireland's cross-community allocation of ministers is based, managed day-to-day affairs with a temporary government run by a former prime minister.

Meanwhile, the two main political parties fought over everything "from Flemish collaboration during the Second World War to allegations of francophone cultural imperialism seeking to impose the Gallic language in Flanders", according news articles from the time.

It became a light-hearted benchmark for small government enthusiasts, who pointed out that the civil service ticked along with little difference in day-today life.

Belgium even managed to serve a term as president of the EU during that period.

Among the decisions made were sending troops to Libya, brokering a deal to rescue banks, authorising budgets a prison crisis and winter homeless shelter and new migration legislation.

While services in Belgium were maintained partly because, unlike Northern Ireland, it runs an intensely federalised and decentralised system, with many decisions taken in regions, provinces and cities.

However, political commentator Newton Emerson believes the north and Belgium are "very similar".

"You have three linguistic communities and a power sharing system and there must be (cross-community) participation in all levels of government," he said.

Cynics may well ask, what would an executive be doing that isn't being done now? After all, the executive's own figures put the number of bills passed between March 2011 and May 2016 at 67 - around 13 a year.

Of these, 60 were `executive bills' introduced by ministers, five were Private Member's Bills introduced by individual MLAs, one was a Committee Bill to establish the Public Service Ombudsman, with a second, technical bill on the same issue.

The figure is likely to include so-called `housekeeping' bills, such as budget.

Mr Emerson points out that, despite having a constituted executive, the UK government is barely passing any legislation, with Brexit occupying the bulk of its attention and time.

"We don't have ideological politics in Northern Ireland, so there is no consideration of the idea that less government is better," he said.

"But perhaps the fact that we can tick over with no government at all is introducing that idea to people.

"The most striking feature of the last year is, apart from online, there is no anger at all.

"Politicians and journalists spend a lot of time having arguments online, but outside that there is no talk about it."

In fact, Mr Emerson - who places himself `centre-right' politically - points out that it has been a particularly peaceful year in the north.

"We have had a peaceful marching season, no street protests. It has been one of the most peaceful periods of the past 20 years.

"Part of me wonders if Stormont stirs the pot and creates agitation."