David McCann: Either we govern this place or nobody else will

Former Health Minister Robin Swann made daily media broadcasts from Parliament Buildings during the Covid crisis. What would the pandemic have been like had New Decade, New Approach not been agreed and no local ministers been in place?

Northern Ireland is approaching 18 months without a fully-functioning Executive. Once again, we are witnessing problems with our public services get worse, without any political decisions to even attempt to resolve them being taken. We are left with the Secretary of State directing consultations to be held about revenue raising with no local democratic accountability.

The depressing return to that old familiar story of no government and rising public disillusionment. Only in Northern Ireland could we have major events such as an investment conference or a presidential visit where the centrepiece should have been our devolved institutions working. Instead, we have an empty chamber with the number of days without an Executive growing.

Since 1998, our power-sharing government has been down 40 per cent of the time. It is almost like this place seems to perpetually have one hand tied behind its back when it has an opportunity to really make progress.

And for what? To keep alive some misguided hope that the Windsor Framework will be renegotiated or changed in some substantive way.

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At this juncture, it is important to say that the DUP are not wrong when they say that a devolved Executive cannot solve every problem we have. They cannot put an end to the cost-of-living crisis or make massive shifts in economic policy, but as they did during the pandemic, they can tailor some policy initiatives to help local businesses and families get through an uncertain time. They could be moving spending from other areas to prioritise initiatives that could help people who are facing a tough winter.

During the 2007-2017 run of devolved government, many times the Executive was its own worst enemy. From welfare reform to foreign direct investment, it singularly failed to sell the successes of what it was doing. Was it perfect? No, but no government of any stripe in any system is and we need to stop pretending that Stormont will ever be such an administration. However, some positive things have stood this place in good stead and mitigated some of the worst aspects of British government policy.

Without devolved government, the tenor and tone of our local political debate gets swamped with vacuous nonsense. We don’t focus on debates around public services or the type of society we want to build because quite simply we are unable to shape it in any meaningful way.

The Secretary of State is currently leading the debate on revenue raising in Northern Ireland. Whether the proposals that emerge from this debate are good, bad or indifferent misses the point. Our locally elected representatives should be the ones making these decisions and then having to defend them to us as voters.


Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris at Erskine House, Belfast


I know it is a common belief that our politicians would not be up to the task even if we did have a functioning Executive. But we should not simply allow an anti-politician narrative to make us all feel content to let an untenable drift continue indefinitely. With relatively new bodies such as the Fiscal Council, we are better placed than we have ever been before to have informed policy debates about the future.

The winter is fast approaching, and Northern Ireland is once again left rudderless. I often wonder what the pandemic would have been like had New Decade, New Approach not been agreed in January 2020. Imagine heading into March without any local government being able to make decisions about lockdowns and then reopening. We often forget the crises we miss as a community. In 2023, we should also not forget the opportunities we are missing. Economically, socially and politically, we are being hurt by the lack of an Executive.

Either we govern this place or nobody else will. Our elected MLAs should be taking these important decisions and leading these debates, not the Secretary of State. When Stormont is down, we don’t get delivery, we only get drift and delay. All roads lead back to devolution, let’s get on with it and stop watching opportunities pass us by.