School is back in session and things should soon be settling back into the normal humdrum routine. After a few well-deserved months off to recharge the body batteries, things will soon return to how they were in June and there will surely already be some counting down the days until the next day off.
That is, of course, unless you’re one of our MLAs because they’ve been on an extended all-inclusive holiday all year.
It’s past the point of ridiculous now. In no other realm of reality would a group of people be paid thousands to not do their job. But it’s not just that. By them not doing what we elected them to do, they’re stopping other people from being able to do that they need to. You only have to listen to the headlines on the national news to realise how we’re becoming even more of a laughing stock. Obviously, they have to simplify things because you’d need several hours in order to explain everything that is going wrong with Northern Ireland, but the national broadcasters have it all summed up to a tee: our country is falling apart because of a green energy scheme gone wrong.
That’s not to say we can’t blame all the MLAs. There are many who have been elected who are sitting on the side-lines of this circus and just waiting for the whole painful performance to end so that they can get on with the job they’ve been tasked with. They’re trying their best to help and represent those in their constituencies, but without Stormont, they’re quite limited in what they can do. They’ve no ministers to press for answers so all they can do is go to the civil servants and hope that they have some idea of what is going on.
For the past month of two, it appeared that the DUP were setting us all up for direct rule if statements made by some of their MPs were anything to go by. Sammy Wilson said that we would be “better served by it at this time” despite it not being something he actually wished to happen.
Direct rule isn’t really something I’d want to happen either. I don’t really have conscious memory of the last suspension of the Assembly as it spanned from when I sat the 11+ to when I was in my first GCSE year. Those were five years that held a lot of change for me but Northern Ireland wasn’t moving anywhere. It was well timed on a personal level because as direct rule came to an end, my awareness of the political sphere developed so I was learning afresh alongside 108 MLAs.
Even from my purely theoretical standpoint, I can see that direct rule isn’t going to benefit us. It gives us no say whatsoever in matters that affect us as an English MP who probably hasn’t seen past Belfast thinks that they know enough to exact complete control. They’d bring in water charges and there’d be nothing we could do about it. If you think it’s hard to get hold of a politician now, just imagine how much more difficult it would be in that scenario. It was only ever intended to be a temporary measure for times of crisis zipped-up boilers and wood pellets does not constitute a crisis, no matter how expensive they turned out to be.
I fell into that alluring trap of hope last week when Arlene Foster made her big speech to her party. It seemed like a huge turning point because here she was telling her party what she intended to do, despite it going against what many of them believed should happen. She said that we need to put Ministers into their posts immediately to allow them to make up a government. The crucial point of the speech was this: “we also agree to bring forward legislation to address culture and language issues in Northern Ireland within a time-limited period to be agreed. If we fail to do that in a way that commands cross community support then the Executive would cease to exist.”
Not to be smug, but I think I may have suggested a similar parallel process within these pages a mere few months ago. So obviously I think it’s a great idea. Call it a U-turn, a concession or sheer pandering but making a commitment to creating legislation on cultural issues isn’t something many of us thought we’d see the DUP do.
Here there seemed to be a real determination to get things sorted out once and for all rather than deciding to play the waiting game and see how things pan out. Like the rest of us, she has realised that yet another round of talks is a pointless exercise because that’s all the parties have done so far and we’re no further towards a restoration of Stormont than I am to running a marathon.
Within an hour and a half of that speech, two fellow party leaders had officially responded. Jim Allister of TUV felt that she was being overly concessionary and was going too far whereas Michelle O’Neill felt it didn’t go far enough. Given those responses, I’m of the opinion that Arlene was spot on and perhaps they’re getting a little hot under the collar at the thought of running out of excuses. They’ll say that they reject this olive branch but not explain why. I’m starting to wonder whether some actually want the Assembly brought back.
We need that Executive back up and running. We needed it to happen yesterday. As it is, when our MLAs eventually do make it to their Stormont desks, they’re going to have so much paperwork to deal with that they’ll need another week off afterwards to recuperate!
The reality of the political mess is coming out.
The NHS in Northern Ireland is having to find nearly £70m of savings, with our trust having to make up £12.5m of that. The WHSCT consultation document sets out cuts to our local neonatal unit, stroke services and domiciliary care packages. They’re also looking to cut the number of locum staff which is set to close approximately thirty beds. With waiting lists getting ever longer as it is, we can’t afford to be closing beds. The public shouldn’t suffer because the Trust cannot incentivise working in Northern Ireland: that’s their problem and they shouldn’t be passing on that burden.
Parents may have had the pleasant surprise of receiving their whole school uniform grant during the summer but that doesn’t mean the cuts aren’t made. For each pupil a school has, the Department of Education allocates the school a certain amount. Instead of increasing this year as normal, it has decreased by £56 for nursery and primary schools which adds up to thousands for most. In real terms, this is the cost of a teacher, classroom assistants or school trip subsidies.
So where is this £1bn that was committed to us by Theresa May when the DUP agreed to partnering with the Conservatives? A minimum of a quarter is supposed to be spent on health and another £50m on education but we haven’t seen a penny. James Brokenshire won’t say that it’s dependent on devolution being restored but it’s certainly looking that way.
Here’s a plea. Put aside your differences for the sake of the people you’re supposed to represent. There is money there that Northern Ireland desperately needs but hasn’t got its hands on yet. Forget about those so-called “red lines” that are fading to pink as they’re forgotten about until it suits.
I’m sick and tired of the juvenile games that are going on here. Kids aren’t going to reach their full potential because there isn’t someone in class to give them a little extra attention. People are going to die as they’re on waiting lists because there’s one consultant is trying to do the job of three. Yet our MLAs got a pay rise in April despite not fulfilling their contract. So far, they’ve collectively cost roughly £5m in salaries and expenses.
Cuts may have to be made but it’s not hard to work out where that axe should fall. Get on with what you were elected to do or just bite the bullet and call an election to give us all the opportunity to get rid of those who are standing in the way of any progress being made.