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New decade, new hope…

Frances Neilson

The new legislation and ‘new approach’ to power-sharing are all vital to making Stormont work, but the most pressing matters are in getting to work on issues that affect all people in Northern Ireland – such as health.

If a week is a long time in politics, then three years is an age.  Whatever the strengths of power-sharing as a productive form of governance, its root in Northern Ireland is to promote co-operation between political parties that have historically been suspicious of each other.

The problem once power-sharing collapsed at Stormont was always that the longer it continued, the longer it was going to continue.  In the end, it was the events of the past month that spurred the DUP and Sinn Féin back in to the Executive, and on Saturday we finally saw all parties back on the blue benches.  A cynic would propose that the DUP and Sinn Féin only agreed to re-enter the Executive because the alternative was facing the electorate.  Had an Assembly election been called, while the DUP and Sinn Féin would most likely have remained the two biggest parties, there was a significant risk of the recent pattern continuing of both parties losing votes.

Boris Johnson’s resounding victory last month also secured the Conservatives the majority needed to pass the EU Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons without relying on the votes of the DUP, making a return to power sharing more attractive for the latter as a means of wielding influence.  However, Brexit is far from ‘done’, and what exactly the future of Northern Ireland is in a post-Brexit UK remains to be hashed out in negotiations over the next two years.

The New Decade, New Approach deal secured by Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith and Tánaiste Simon Coveney acknowledges the unique challenges of Brexit to Northern Ireland through the creation of an Executive Sub-Committee, which will be an exciting indicator to watch for improvements in relations between the parties, especially given the thorny nature of its focus.

The deal also reflects the complex nature of Northern Irish politics; there are attempts to address the dysfunctions brought to the spotlight by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme inquiry.  However, with the five main parties now entering the Executive, just five MLAs of the Assembly’s 90 are not members of a governing party – meaning scrutiny of the Executive may prove to be in short supply.

The new legislation and ‘new approach’ to power-sharing are all vital to making Stormont work, but the most pressing matters are in getting to work on issues that affect all people in Northern Ireland – such as health.  While both the DUP and Sinn Féin stressed the importance of health during the three years of stalemate at Stormont, it is surprising that both parties passed up the Department of Health portfolio, leaving it available for one of the smaller parties to take on.  Robin Swann MLA (UUP, North Antrim) is the new Minister for Health, and he inherits a substantial to-do list from Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly who has kept the lights on these last few years.

The Executive has announced its commitment to delivering the draft 2016 -2021 Programme for Government, and for ambitions relating to health, the recommendations of the Bengoa Report will provide guidance on how to achieve these.

In addition to these policy ambitions, the deal to return to Stormont includes agreement by the parties that transforming the health service is an immediate priority for the Executive.  In order to achieve this, the parties have agreed that the Executive will:

  • Immediately settle the ongoing pay dispute
  • Introduce a new action plan on waiting times
  • Deliver reforms on health and social care as set out in the Bengoa, Delivering Together and Power to People reports
  • Reconfigure hospital provision to deliver better patient outcomes, with commitments to improvements in stroke, breast assessment, urgent and emergency care and day case elective care by the end of 2020
  • Deliver an extra 900 nursing and midwifery undergraduate places over three years
  • Publish a Mental Health Action Plan within two months, and a Mental Health Strategy by December 2020
  • A successor strategy and action plan to the Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs Phase 2 within three months
  • A new strategy and implementation plan on cancer by December 2020
  • Build capacity in general practice through the ongoing rollout of Multi-Disciplinary teams to cover a further 100,000 patients by March 2021
  • Provide increased investment to fully implement service improvements for palliative and end of life care
  • Provide three funded cycles of IVF treatment

Furthermore, given the new deal’s commitment to hold at least one citizens’ assembly per year (the successor to the Good Friday Agreement’s provision for the Civic Forum) it will be interesting to see how the proposals from the Autumn 2017 citizens’ assembly on the future of adult social care will be used by the Department of Health – if at all.

There’s a lot to do, and the will to do it.  Now it’s about maintaining the momentum of the spirit that returned the Executive to Stormont, and this requires strong leadership from the British and Irish Governments to support Northern Ireland through what promises to be a challenging decade.