Our own populism holds us back in Northern Ireland

For a part of the world that relies so heavily on compromise to literally allow public administration to function, we don’t do nuance very well. You need only look at the public outcry to the mere suggestion that we may have to pay for our own water back when the New Decade, New Approach deal was agreed as the latest evidence of our own self-defeating populism. 

The uncomfortable, and unpopular, truth is that this mindset holds us back in Northern Ireland. It quite literally stops us from progressing as a society, even allowing for a wide degree of latitude on what progress means for you and your family.

In the context of a finite amount of resources, we have to make decisions about how to allocate them. It’s not practical for nearly two million of us to make these decisions, so we choose people to do it on our behalf through elections. In a similar way, on the first day of GCSE economics, you learn of the basic economic problem.

It goes that we, as human beings, have unlimited wants but, in the context of limited resources, we have to make decisions as to how those resources are allocated. In this sense, the politics and the economy (money!) are inextricably linked. When you bring politics and economy back to these base principles, the logical conclusion that you can’t be all things to all people is uncontroversial. But not in Northern Ireland. 

Our default setting historically is to blame “the folks on the hill”, but in the classic way that a cart follows a horse, politicians move in the direction of the electorate. If they don’t, they don’t get elected. And if they don’t get elected, they can’t implement any of the probably well intended things they’d promised and that you asked for. It’s that simple.

In more mature democracies, there is a general acceptance that there are pros and cons to any decision and that more money for health is less money for roads, or that more money for both is less money in your pay packet. This jostling of pros and cons is what gives political leaders and policy-makers space for thinking creatively about how we respond to problems. But not in Northern Ireland.

Populism has seen somewhat of a resurgence across the world of late, but its primary impact in Northern Ireland is that it prevents the development of new ideas and stops good people getting elected to public office. Because we continue to allow our elections to become de facto border polls, there is little or no space for a proper debate about how we get creative with all of the levers at our disposal to make things better.

Moreover, our lack of responsibility for raising the money we spend means there is little or no accountability in how public funds are used, outside of scandals like RHI, or any scrutiny of spending commitments in manifestos.

For example, it’s generally accepted that there are too many big hospitals in Northern Ireland and that it has a detrimental impact on both general and acute services. The point being made isn’t that we want to close hospitals to reduce what we spend on public health, rather we want to spend the money we have more efficiently and in a way that will deliver better outcomes.

There is public outcry when our nurses have to strike over their pay, but we refuse to pay for our water that would provide the money to do so. We introduced prescription charges, then we scrapped them.

We are obsessed with the free universal provision of absolutely everything, even though much of the evidence suggests that it can actually exacerbate inequality because we can’t target spend on where it is really needed. 

Breaking this mould is a “first mover” problem for our politicians. Because nobody can be sure anyone else will pipe up in a similar fashion, there is no incentive to be the first person to answer a Nolan question simply and honestly.

Until we, the electorate, realise that our own populism and nimbyism is hampering our collective progress, the answer to the difficult questions will remain “but not in Northern Ireland.”

Photo by geralt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA


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