Northern Ireland news

Report says 'Culture change' required if Stormont is to fulfil its New Decade New Approach commitments

Think tank Pivotal said after a period of initial cooperation between Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill 'cracks began to show'

STORMONT must undergo a "culture change" if it is to tackle the north's persistent, long-term problems in health, education and the economy, according to a think tank's newly published report.

Pivotal's assessment of the regional government's performance in the 12 months since the institutions were re-established says some progress was made during 2020 but long-standing economic and social challenges remain.

The 'New Decade New Approach – one year on' paper says advances have been made but many commitments in crucial policy areas remain unfulfilled.

While the report acknowledges the challenges presented to the regional administration by the Covid-19, it says the pandemic has not lessened the need for significant reform.

It notes how the executive's ability to work together "wavered" throughout 2020, with fractures after an initial honeymoon period followed by a complete breakdown in relations.

"Failure to provide leadership and a united front in the middle of an unprecedented public health crisis represented a grave failure of governance," the report says.

"At times, senior politicians' behaviour caused frustration and undermined public health messaging – whether through an inability to follow rules they helped craft or the failure to work collaboratively towards joint decisions."

In its sector-by-sector analysis, Pivotal found little work was done on the transformation needed to make health and social care fit for the future, with resources focused on "re-tooling the service to fight Covid". It notes that this "reshaping" largely went well and that the ability of the health system to change quickly "bodes well for permanent structural transformation".

However, while the prompt settlement of the nurses' pay dispute and publication of a mental health strategy consultation, alongside the appointment of an interim mental health champion, is welcomed, the report points to a lack of action in tackling growing waiting lists and zero progress on the wider health service transformation envisioned in the Bengoa report.

The think tank acknowledges the disruption to education caused by coronavirus but says there was still some progress on bringing about long-term change, with the launch of a review into the link between underachievement and low socio-economic background, and an independent review into the entire education system.

Pivotal's highlighted priorities for the executive in the year ahead include the need for it to make coalition government function effectively by "recognising the need for collective working, long-term planning and compromise".

Stormont's leaders must also urgently agree a multi-year programme for government that prioritises long-term economic and social challenges like health service reform, low skills and climate change, the report says.

Pivotal director Ann Watt said the north needed a government "focused on tackling our persistent, long-term problems in health, education and the economy".

"To do that, the executive needs to work with a genuine sense of partnership and common purpose – this has been lacking – a culture change is necessary," she said.

The think tank director said after a period of initial cooperation between Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill "cracks began to show".

"The new year offers a fresh chance for the Executive to function better. Covid-19 is far from over – but the development of vaccines means the end is in sight," she said.

"All the parties now need to agree a path to navigate Northern Ireland through the rest of pandemic while also showing more progress on other areas of policy where there are significant problems."

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