We need our politicians rowing in the same direction but too many are paddling their own canoes - Deirdre Heenan

The snail’s pace around the programme for government betrays the executive’s lack of collective responsibility

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre is a columnist for The Irish News specialising in health and social care and politics. A Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

Robin Swann in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings at Stormont, walking into the Assembly Chamber
Robin Swann in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings at Stormont last Tuesday, when he voted against the budget on his last day as health minister (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Stormont budget debate, held last Tuesday, was in many ways a formality as the financial settlement had already been agreed upon by the main executive parties in April.

The lengthy session was an excruciating exercise in performative politics. Many of our elected representatives were barely able to hide their boredom.

Notwithstanding the quality of the discussion, a budget has been passed for the first time in three years, which is an achievement of sorts.

However, the fact that we have agreed a budget without sight of a programme for government highlights the dysfunctional nature of Stormont. Without this blueprint, which sets the strategic direction for the work of the executive, there is no way to assess budgetary decisions against stated priorities and alignment to outcomes.

One might reasonably ask, why has it not materialised? It is nowhere to be seen. The First Minister stated that the executive are working “at pace” to deliver it. A snail’s pace, perhaps.

Consequently, a budget has been adopted without the electorate being informed or consulted on targets and proposed outcomes. What are our reduced resources focused towards? Economic regeneration, health and wellbeing, improving productivity, addressing the skills deficit, increasing the efficiency of public services, transformation? How will it address the crippling silo mentality characterised by interdepartmental turf wars?

Your guess is as good as mine. In the current context it cannot be the same old story of overpromising and underdelivering. More of the same is no longer sustainable. A radical approach is required which includes proposals for economies of scale, plans for the disposal of assets and, crucially, a review of departmental activities and functions.

Could it be that we are waiting because our executive cannot agree on a vision and a set of priorities? The debacle over the health budget illustrates the inherent difficulties with mandatory coalition.

The outgoing health minister Robin Swann warned that the proposed budget was inadequate and would have a “catastrophic impact” on our health care system. It would inflict “irreparable” damage. Did you ever hear anything so defeatist?

Conveniently, he neglected to stress that these cataclysmic consequences were likely to be averted by the further allocation of £200 million in this month’s monitoring round; health will doubtless get the lion’s share.

Yes, of course the minister would like more money, but this does not remove the need to make difficult choices. The key question is where and how the money is spent.

Health and social care spending currently accounts for approximately 51% of the block grant. Overall health spending in Northern Ireland is £2,436 per person, which is 6% higher than the average UK spend. At £11,535 per person, public spending in the north is the highest of any of the UK regions.

One might reasonably ask, why has Stormont’s programme for government not materialised? It is nowhere to be seen. The First Minister stated that the executive are working “at pace” to deliver it. A snail’s pace perhaps

Mr Swann reported that he had asked health and social care trusts to come up with savings plans to address this £189 million budget shortfall. He described their responses as the “most alarming” advice that he had received outside the pandemic. Making these savings could involve a cut of 400 acute hospital beds, a staffing reduction of 1,200 staff, a reduction of 1.1 million hours of domiciliary care support and a reduction of approximately 500 care home beds.

What a tale of woe. The Department of Health is deafeningly quiet on the subject. One might imagine that it would have had the foresight to draw up plans to address the inefficiencies in the system.

After all, they are responsible for policy and the trusts are the delivery bodies. Instead, the buck was passed to the trusts. Full marks for weaseling out of taking tough choices.

One of the major problems with the current governance structures in Northern Ireland is that parties are often half-in government and half-in opposition. It is inconceivable that this would be acceptable in any other part of the UK.

There is little collective responsibility or cabinet decision-making, yet a united front amongst ministers is a prerequisite for political stability. They may disagree in private; but they must publicly support the agreed position.

The public are tired of this endless cycle of unspeakably bleak pronouncements. We are crying out for long-term solutions that are scalable, executable and realistic.

Is this grandstanding the price we pay for powersharing? It shouldn’t be. A unified vision and a clear purpose are prerequisites to achieving common goals. Policy matters and the performance of public services must be prioritised.

We need our politicians all rowing fiercely in the same direction. Unfortunately, we have been lumbered with too many content to paddle their own canoe.