With the four-week circuit breaker due to expire on Friday, people across Northern Ireland are looking for certainty. Businesses need to know if they can re-open at the weekend. Workers want to know if they’ll get an income over the next few weeks. All the while, six of Northern Ireland’s hospitals are at full capacity.
As of this morning, the Executive still hasn’t agreed a way forward. Robin Swann proposed a two-week extension of the circuit breaker but this was vetoed by the DUP. Citing business concerns and the economy, Diane Dodds wants restrictions to be relaxed. The Health Minister proposed a one-week extension as a compromise but that was vetoed by the DUP as well. The Executive is now considering a proposal from Naomi Long that would combine both proposals.
The NI Executive has always been chaotic but it’s truly exasperating to watch our dysfunctional system navigate a global pandemic. Sinn Fein, the UUP, Alliance and the SDLP say that the current crisis is the DUP’s fault. The DUP say that they’re not being unreasonable and the other parties are putting the economy and jobs at risk.
People aren’t wrong to be horrified that the DUP vetoed recommendations from the Chief Medical Officer. Robin Swann hasn’t pulled his recommendations out of thin air but based them on medical evidence. The NHS is on its knees. When the circuit breaker was announced four weeks ago, however, the evidence provided to inform that decision suggested businesses like beauty salons were low risk. It makes sense to allow some businesses to open. But, given the Executive’s indecision, it’s now too late for any re-opening to happen anyway.
It’s a shit show, to put it lightly. The Executive is racing towards the Friday deadline with the same energy I used to finish my undergraduate dissertation the night before hand in. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Businesses and workers need to prepare and plan. Many are anxious about their livelihoods, their families and their homes. People want clarity on financial support. Christmas is only eight weeks away. If we keep some restrictions now we could avoid another lockdown over the holidays.
The Executive has provided good leadership during the pandemic but that has been undermined by political rows, financial scandals and politicians acting contrary to their own health guidance. No matter what position you take on the circuit breaker, devolution has been further damaged over the past few days. This latest debacle is another reminder of our system’s inadequacies and the ineptitude of our politicians. ‘New decade, same nonsense,’ as one person said to me yesterday.
This isn’t about cynicism of politics but a fundamental lack of faith in the ability of the Assembly to deliver good governance. Many are rightly critiquing the DUP’s use of its Executive veto but the party hasn’t done anything unlawful. They aren’t abusing the system either because The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 says:
(c)that, if any three members of the Executive Committee require the vote on a particular matter which is to be voted on by the Executive Committee to require cross-community support, any vote on that matter in the Executive Committee shall require cross-community support in the Executive Committee.”
The Executive veto was introduced to stop ministerial solo runs. The DUP must see the irony of using it against another unionist. If Swann was prepared to move half way on his proposals, the DUP should have compromised as well. Richard Bullick was right to point out, on Twitter, that there is a risk to the DUP if Naomi Long is seen to break the impasse.
Northern Ireland will grow out of the Good Friday institutions at some point. Our system of government is built to transition society away from conflict and towards stability. No amount of reform can make up for bad politicians but I think we are reaching a point where we need to talk about serious reform of the Assembly. If the institutions can’t deliver basic confidence in government during a global health crisis, something needs to change.
Many have already lost complete faith in the Assembly and its abilities. If MLAs aren’t careful, they could undermine the entire devolution project.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.