15 May 2020

For the people of Northern Ireland, the costs of devolution have never been clearer


All of the UK’s devolved administrations have deviated from Boris Johnson’s plans to relax quarantine by varying degrees, as a way of proving their apparent independence from the government.

While the SNP in Scotland and the Labour Party in Wales have obvious reasons to undermine a Conservative government, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive is furthest from allowing people back to work or reopening its schools. In fact, the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and her co-equal deputy, Michelle O’Neill, announced no immediate relaxations to the existing regulations, as they laid out a five-step plan to end confinement, on Tuesday. Yesterday, they finally conceded that garden centres could open from Monday.

More significantly, the document they published doesn’t include any target dates and avoids specifying the criteria that will trigger each of the stages, preferring to rely instead upon much vaguer principles. It’s an example of the type of ambiguity Stormont almost always produces when its power-sharing government can’t agree to make a decision – but this time it really matters.

While the regular political logjams, failures and omissions in Northern Ireland all had consequences for its people, they could at least get on with work, socialising and exercising unhindered. Now, as the rest of Europe comes out of lockdown, they can’t restart their lives or rebuild their livelihoods until the DUP and Sinn Fein give them permission, because the two parties have an effective veto over any progress.

The Northern Ireland Executive was originally supposed to publish its plan last Thursday, but its launch was delayed and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister announced that significant changes to quarantine would not be considered for at least three more weeks. While that sounded ominous, at the time the Government was also trying to reduce expectations that lockdown would be lifted imminently.

In fact, Arlene Foster implied that the Executive might consider some minor tweaks to the restrictions. Over the weekend it became clear that none of the devolved regions would follow Westminster’s example by changing their message to the public from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’. But there was an expectation that Stormont might follow Scotland and Wales by implementing some of the lower-risk measures, like permitting more outdoor exercise.

Increasingly, it’s accepted that the virus is exceptionally difficult to contract outdoors. For that reason, people in Great Britain are again being allowed to play non-contact sports and undertake leisure activities that take place outside. The failure of Northern Ireland’s politicians to announce even these modest measures shows just how tightly Sinn Fein and some of its allies at Stormont have embraced a lockdown ideology that casts any relaxation of the rules as an example of putting the economy before lives.

At the Assembly, the DUP has been careful to present the plan as a result of collective responsibility between the power-sharing parties, but its outspoken MP, Sammy Wilson, wrote in Thursday’s Belfast News Letter that the requirement for cross-community consent in the Executive meant, “it has proved almost impossible to get the initial guidance on lockdown changed”.

While Sinn Fein couldn’t impose its preference that schools should shut before the rest of the UK at the start of the crisis, it can now use its veto in the Assembly to prevent Northern Ireland from going back to work and education.

The result is that businesses in the province don’t even have target dates that would help them plan to resume their activities. Nobody is being encouraged back to work, whether or not they can do their jobs from home. Meanwhile, some reports suggest that lockdown may damage Northern Ireland’s economy even more seriously than other regions of the UK.

The province suffers from particularly high rates of economic inactivity and low productivity, which you might think would add urgency to its politicians’ attempts to ease quarantine rules. But there are a few reasons why this is not necessarily the case.

Firstly, a disproportionate number of jobs in Northern Ireland are in the public sector. That means many people will be well-insulated from the worst effects of a private sector collapse and non-frontline workers have less incentive to get back to work. It also gives public sector unions a particularly influential voice in Ulster’s affairs.

In addition, the Executive at Stormont has a reputation for attempting to milk the Treasury for ever greater quantities of money. Devolution across the UK gives nationalist parties added opportunities to nourish grievances against the government in London.

We’re already moving toward a situation where most of England has gone back to work, while workers in Scotland and Northern Ireland are urged to stay at home on ‘furloughed’ wages. That is clearly not sustainable, but the devolved administrations can always whinge about a rapacious, irresponsible Conservative government when Westminster eventually refuses to pay the bill.

Northern Ireland didn’t have an Assembly for three years and, while there was a gap in governance, because London refused to implement direct-rule, its people worked, went to school, socialised and played sport without interference. Now, to restart all those basic aspects of life, they’re waiting for the go-ahead from ministers for whom prevarication, impasse and horsetrading is a political culture.

Never have the costs of devolution been so clear.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.