As we enter 2022, the threats to collapse the Northern Ireland Government leaves us with uncertainty about the future. We may have differing views about the whys and wherefores of this action, and we can only guess at what governance arrangements will be set in place in the event of it happening.
The one common denominator in this scenario is that we have been here before – five times before! The last suspension lasted an astonishing three years!
The impact of such actions is that all MLA seats become vacant, and no plenary or committee business takes place. This results in no new laws being passed in crucial areas such as health and social services, education, agriculture, social security, employment and skills, economic development, environmental issues (including planning) and transport. It also means budgets cannot be set which may lead to departments without a legal basis on which to continue to spend and invest in our much-needed public services. Plus, there will be no support and oversight offered to the Departments in the delivery of public services.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused one of the worst economic and social downturns we have ever experienced. Coupled with this is the Brexit crisis and its impact on our fragile peace process. The government’s eye appears to be off the goal of reconciliation and building a united multicultural society. Its other eye may be closed to the growing divisions created by Brexit which has led to street violence, increased paramilitary strength, a breakdown of north/south relations and the opening of wounds that so many people have invested time and money to heal.
Our economy and society generally have taken a negative nosedive that will take years of focused dedication and resources to repair. We face a very uncertain future.
However, at a time when we need to be united in seizing the opportunity to reimagine a better future for everyone, politicians are threatening to collapse the institutions necessary to deliver it, focusing instead on constitutional issues rather than healing the damage caused by the pandemic and Brexit.
Most people here are in favour of a shared, equitable, peaceful, safe and prosperous society where future generations can live, work, be educated and socialise without fear of discrimination or alienation. How can this be fulfilled if we have no government?
In the eventuality of another government collapse, civic society organisations should seize the opportunity that this vacuum creates and take on responsibility for building a cross-community and cross-sectoral platform dedicated to achieving meaningful progress towards a genuinely equal, just, inclusive and sustainable shared future.
Should the Assembly collapse for the sixth time, we need to have a plan B ready and waiting in order to move away from crisis politics and its negative impact on society and start focusing on providing good quality, fit for purpose, public services.
Therefore, in the event of another collapse, the voluntary/community sector should be ready and waiting to step up to fill the vacuum by collectively producing a plan to assist in oversight of the delivery of government responsibilities to ensure society is improved rather than diminished.
There are many valid and good reasons why the voluntary/community sector should step up to fill this potential vacuum left by an absentee government and volumes of supporting research evidence to support it:
- The sector has made significant contributions to the achievement of the Executive’s strategic goals and priorities. It plays an important role in environmental, social, advocacy and human rights work and promotes social and/or political change in the Northern Ireland Executive key areas of responsibility:
- Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
- The sector is experienced in putting resources, time, and effort into improving services and promoting citizen participation with decision makers. And, based on its strong community links and understanding of the history and needs of communities, the sector tends to be able act faster than government.
- The sector effectively contributes to enabling political progress, conflict resolution/reconciliation and peace building (long before the Good Friday Agreement).
Because the sector is heavily monitored and audited by government it must be assumed that it operates professionally and has the confidence of government. This is acknowledged in the Concordat between the Voluntary & Community Sector and the Northern Ireland Government (2011). The Concordat underpins a shared vision between Government and the voluntary/community sector to work together as social partners to build a participative, peaceful, equitable and inclusive community in Northern Ireland. In the Concordat’s Agreement section, Point 8 states:
‘The Concordat will enhance the engagement of Government and the Voluntary/community sector in policy development and implementation. This engagement will contribute to both the delivery of “Programme for Government” objectives and the development of a vibrant civil society. Working effectively together will help, for example, to develop sustainable, safer communities, ensure a well protected and valued environment, contribute to economic growth, tackle poverty, disadvantage and inequality, and assist in the promotion of health and well being.’
Voluntary/community sector organisations continue to address issues in support of the public good and often act as proxies for the concerns of society and stakeholders as they tend to have a high degree of public trust. They are non-profit organisations that are independent of governmental influence (although they may receive government funding). This makes them excellent candidates to step into the shoes of an absentee government to help ensure quality of life for all citizens by e.g.
- oversight and delivery of services
- advising on the setting of budgets in line with the Programme for Government
- decision making in partnership with civil servants
- liaison between government departments and civil society
- monitoring and promoting the peace process.
All this is a big ask and may be rubbished by those who feel threatened by it (especially some political parties). Nevertheless, it needs to be discussed now before yet another crisis sets in. Or, has anyone else got a better Plan B?
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.