Northern Ireland

Stormont’s in-tray: The multiple funding crises facing a new executive from health to education, the A5, policing and Casement Park

Thousands of public service workers are gathered on the roads around Belfast City Hall in the city centre, carrying placards and banners
Over 100,000 public sector workers took part in strike action across Northern Ireland on January 18 over pay, just one of many funding demands facing any new Stormont executive. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

WITH expectations of Stormont’s imminent return, public anger built up over two years of political deadlock means swift action will be demanded of any new executive.

Executive ministers.
These are the ministers who will be tackling the issues.

With a budget offer of £3.3bn on the table from the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, the Irish News examines some of the most pressing issues in Stormont’s in-tray.

1. Agreeing a new budget.

With Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald taking the Finance post, setting a budget to keep Northern Ireland’s public services from collapsing and agreeing a pay deal for public sector workers, will be an immediate priority.

Financial journalist Paul Gosling said a key question would be where the interests of the DUP and Sinn Féin overlap.

“If it’s a traditional carve up between the two, it will also be about to what extent the Alliance Party go along with that,” he told the Irish News.

“Possibly the Ulster Unionists will decide not to be part of government as well. The budgetary allocations will be very difficult to deal with.”

Paul Gosling.  Picture by Mal McCann
Paul Gosling. Picture by Mal McCann Paul Gosling. Picture by Mal McCann

An obvious source of contention, he added, would be how capital allocation will be spent on the development of Casement Park compared to other priorities like the reorganisation of the health service under the Bengoa health reforms.

“There’s going to be an awful lot of things where you have differences in priorities, not least in geographical prioritisation,” he said.

“I think senior civil servants still take the view of the economy, that what’s good for Belfast is good for the whole of Northern Ireland.

“Clearly, representatives from other parts of Northern Ireland are going to disagree.

“They also won’t have much time for these negotiations so a lot of it is going to be down to the permanent secretaries who are often the problem.”

2. Health reforms

The Bengoa report, a 10-year plan to make Northern Ireland’s health service fit for the 21st century is now eight-years-old.

Multiple health strikes in recent months from nurses, midwives and paramedics could now also be followed by a junior doctors strike, with balloting currently underway.

Incoming health minister Robin Swann is the first to issue an executive statement. In it yesterday he said: “I want to see pay negotiations being initiated without delay, consequently I have written to the trade unions inviting them to early discussions.”

Last year, the Department of Health’s Permanent Secretary Peter May also warned he faced a budget shortfall of £472m, of which £375m would be needed to meet a pay deal matching England.

Ambulances drive ahead of a parade of public sector workers from the Unison union along with other public sector workers. The strikers are walking from the picket line at the Royal Victoria Hospital to Belfast City Hall carrying placards and banners and are wrapped up warmly in winter clothing
Industrial strike Ambulances drive ahead of a parade of public sector workers from Unison joined by other public sector workers walk from the picket line at the Royal Victoria Hospital to a rally at Belfast City Hall on January 18. PICTURE: Liam McBurney/PA Wire (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

Dr Ursula Mason is the chair of the Royal College of GPs Northern Ireland.

“The incoming health Minister will face huge challenges as they seek to pull our health service in Northern Ireland back from the brink,” she told the Irish News.

“General practice is in crisis and our next Health Minister will have to deal with instability at practice level as dozens of practices have handed back their contract or are having to access emergency support.

“We have a GP workforce suffering from high levels of burnout and escalating patient need for our care and services is simply unmanageable.”

With GPs leaving the profession at a faster rate than joining it, she said a new minister would need to urgently address the workforce and workload issues facing general practice.

“We look forward to working with the Health Minister and we will be making the case for the investment and support that is so badly needed to secure the future of our GP surgeries in Northern Ireland.”

Dr Ursula Mason, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland
Dr Ursula Mason, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland Dr Ursula Mason, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland

Mr Gosling added that he was hopeful a three-year budget would be set, rather than “muddling through” with a one-year plan.

“That’s particularly the case with health, you need to allocate more resources for specialised units in the main hospitals,” he said.

“But you can see what’s going on in the Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry and on Causeway Coast, that creates a lot of resistance from local people.

“One of the big problems that Northern Ireland government has had over the years is an unwillingness of ministers and MLAs to see down vested interests.

“Unfortunately, if you give up to the lobbying of vested interests then you’re often not making the important strategic decisions.”

He said that a campaign to return maternity services to the Causeway Hospital went against an argument that women were more likely to give birth in a healthy way in Antrim Area Hospital.

“You can see that writ large across all policy areas.”

3. Education

Northern Ireland teachers gave “a guarded welcome” this week following the DUP meeting, but said nerves would remain until a pay claim has been agreed.

Ulster Teachers Union General Secretary Jacquie White said the UTU and four other unions still retained a mandate for a further three days of strike action if needed.

“We have had not just two years of stalled government but a decade of under-funding in education which will require a committed will and determination to address when so much has been lost,” she said.

“Much remains to be done to confront the challenges schools here are facing, along with other public services.

“The tragedy is though so much time has been wasted and throughout all that time it is our children who’ve been paying the price.”

File photo dated 12/09/18 of a teacher and students in a classroom. Funding for the National Tutoring Programme is expected to end this academic year
Teachers across Northern Ireland have been campaigning for a pay award and sustainable funding in schools. (Ben Birchall/PA)

Earlier this month, she said that teachers elsewhere in the UK earned £8,000 more, meaning teaching graduates that have studied outside of Northern Ireland could not afford to work back home.

A crisis facing special needs education, she added, meant more vulnerable children were also being left behind.

Jacquie White, UTU general secretary speaking at Ulster Teachers’ Union Conference in Newcastle yesterday. Picture by Kevin Cooper/ Photoline
Jacquie White, UTU general secretary. Picture by Kevin Cooper/ Photoline

4. Transport

Among the most high-profile infrastructure demands facing a new Stormont Executive will be a long-campaigned for upgrade of the A5 between Derry and Aughnacloy.

It has been 17 years since a Planning Appeals Commission approved the plans, with over 50 lives lost on the road since then.

The Irish government has committed £75m towards the project and, if approved, could potentially be upgraded by 2028.

The long-awaited A5 Western Transport Corridor project could finally get underway next year.
The long-awaited A5 Western Transport Corridor project could finally get underway this year if Stormont returns.

Roads commentator Wesley Johnston told the Irish News that any new infrastructure minister faces the challenge of coming third after health and education.

“The two main challenges will firstly be money. There’s an acute shortage in the Department for Infrastructure,” he said.

“Last summer DFI had to make a list of schemes they would have to pause, so any new minister will face very difficult decisions.

“It will be good for civil servants to have some kind of political oversight.”

Before Stormont collapsed, Stormont had also passed a new law requiring the department to decarbonise transport.

“That will have caused some new question marks over whether certain schemes are viable,” he said.

“The A5 is probably one of the most pressing things. DFI now have the inspector’s report from the public inquiry.

“DFI’s working on the response to that, so a minister will need to decide whether to proceed with the scheme.

“We don’t know what the recommendations were because the report hasn’t been made public. But potentially a new minister could sign on off on starting work on that process this year.”

He said plans to establish a north-south Glider route in Belfast were also years away.

“There’s maybe a £100m shortfall so any minister will have to decide if that scheme is affordable.”

On top of this, he said Northern Ireland’s general state of road repairs was getting worse ever year.

“We need to spend around £150m a year just to build roads up to the same standards year on year,” he said.

A pothole on the Donegall Road Bridge in Belfast. Picture, Greater Village Regeneration Trust.

“But we haven’t been doing that for about 20 years. Last year we spent around £125m which was the highest for quite some time but is still less than what’s needed.

“It’s a difficult situation for our politicians because you don’t get a picture cutting a ribbon over a pothole, and yet it’s a massive issue.

“Building a new dual carriageway is more politically appealing, and I’m all for that, but you do have to look after what you have as well.”

On raising revenue, he said options like congestion charges or road tolling were a difficult sell in Northern Ireland.

“The country tends to be divided into different communities, so you risk disadvantaging one community over another. I don’t expect to see either measure introduced any time soon, but we may need discussions around that.

“A big problem facing a DFI minister will always be that schools and hospitals will always take priority over the road network.

“That’s just the way it is and DFI won’t be top of the pile.”

5. Policing

2023 was one of the most challenging years for the PSNI in recent memory, with the resignation of a Chief Constable and the worst data breach in the history of UK policing.

In August, the police accidentally released the personal details of all 9,500 staff members including their surnames, initials and place of work.

This was especially damaging to morale just months after DCI John Caldwell narrowly survived a New IRA shooting in Omagh – with the resulting security and claims costs predicted to be well over £200m.

A PSNI officer has changed his plea ahead of a trial relating to a sexual relationship with a female (file pic)
Northern Ireland is supposed to have 7,500 officers, but the number has dropped to below 6,500.

Serious budgetary problems include around a £52m deficit this financial year, including money needed for a 7% pay increase.

The PSNI is supposed to have 7,500 officers, but the current number is just under 6,500 and falling as a recruitment freeze is not replacing those who leave.

This week, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee also heard of concerns that paramilitary groups were accessing public money by “masquerading” as community groups.

Liam Kelly chairs the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which represents rank and file officers.

Calling for a speedy implementation of a pay award that was six months overdue, he said officers were also faced with the effects of the “unrelenting cost-of-living crisis”.

“On the wider front, we have consistently argued for a realistic budget for an under-pressure PSNI. Officer numbers are falling to well below a safe level and we have to see approval shortly for a re-start to recruitment,” he said.

Liam Kelly, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (Peter Morrison/PA)

“The cost of dealing with the data breach, which is estimated at £240m, and police holiday pay have to be factored into a new allocation from the Department of Justice.

“The PSNI has to maintain services to the public but to do that, it has to be properly resourced and supported. The consequences of doing nothing will see a marked and serious deterioration in frontline services and that would be wholly unacceptable.”

6. Childcare

Another key area for families in Northern Ireland is childcare provision, with government support far behind that offered in other UK regions.

Alliance MLA Kate Nicholl said the last two years had been “devastating” for households and families.

“I know that the cost of childcare in Northern Ireland is astronomical, and that parents and families are really struggling to cope,” she said.

“That they’re being forced to make impossible choices between their career and caring for their children. It is an unacceptable and unsustainable situation, and remains a key priority for myself and the Alliance Party as we look towards the restoration of the Assembly and Executive.”

Kate Nicholl pictured at work with her baby daughter Étaín
Kate Nicholl pictured at work with her baby daughter Étaín

7. Casement Park

As the clock ticks towards Euro 2028, anxiety is growing as to whether Casement Park in west Belfast can be completed in time.

Last week the London Times reported that the tournament’s organisers are drawing up contingency plans in case the plans are abandoned.

Rather that picking another host city for the three matches scheduled for Belfast, it is reported the games would be split among the other nine venues in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Casement Park in west Belfast has been confirmed as a host venue for Euro 2028, but concerns remain over whether it can be finished in time. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

A consolation for Northern Ireland, would be the potential to host pre-tournament friendlies, training grounds for teams and possibly as staging the draw for the tournament.

Lying dormant for 10 years, no work on the proposed 34,500 stadium has started at Casement – with the initial costings of £73m having risen to £110m.

A pledge of £15m from the GAA has yet to increase and the use of the grounds has been opposed by some unionists and Northern Ireland football fans, as well as those who think it is located in too built-up an area.

In May, the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris-Heaton Harris famously stated: “We’ll get the money, don’t you worry.”

The Irish FA’s Chief Executive, Patrick Nelson, maintained that he was “completely confident” it would go ahead.

“There is a disparity of views but this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to show the world what a wonderful country Northern Ireland is,” he said.

With no plans for soccer matches at Casement beyond the Euros, he said other benefits would include more children playing football and better grassroots pitches.