The coronavirus pandemic is placing a great strain on the health services and economies of regions across the UK. However, the specific constitutional position of Northern Ireland, along with underlying issues affecting its health service, may leave it with a completely inadequate response to the crisis.
Although devolved administrations are arguably more exposed to cronyism and competition with other regions, the intended benefit of decentralised government is that it can be more responsive to the needs of the people within that region. The idea is that a government in Belfast will better understand the needs of Northern Ireland than the government in Westminster, which is one reason direct rule was widely rejected during the three years of deadlock over the formation of a Stormont executive.
But there are issues that make Northern Ireland particularly vulnerable to this crisis.
For one, the lack of funding or direction from a non-existent Stormont government has meant the NHS in Northern Ireland was already under incredible strain before this crisis took place. While the NHS is in trouble across the UK, the state of healthcare in Northern Ireland is worse still. A lot worse.
As of November there were just over 100,000 people in Northern Ireland who had been on NHS waiting lists for more than a year – that’s about one in every 18 people in Northern Ireland. For context, at the same time in England just over 1000 people had been on waiting lists for more than a year, and England has a population roughly 30 times the size of Northern Ireland’s. While up-to-date statistics are not available from the Northern Ireland health trusts, it is hard to see how the condition of the Northern Irish health service will cope with the coronavirus crisis even as well as those in England.
Another issue will be the effect of the coronavirus outbreak on the Northern Irish economy. The exact financial relationship between Stormont and Westminster is very complex, but it is worth understanding that the money the executive in Stormont is able to spend is determined by Westminster’s spending. Ordinarily, this means the size of Northern Ireland’s budget is tied to the level of public spending in the rest of the UK. It also means that the amount of money Northern Ireland is able to spend in response to this crisis (both for the health service and for financial assistance for households and businesses) has been determined by the UK treasury.
Rishi Sunak has announced that the devolved governments (of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) will receive at least £3.5bn each to help them respond to this crisis, but the delay in securing this funding will have pushed back the start of any stimulus measures taken by the Northern Ireland executive. There have already been moves to protect Northern Irish businesses, with some £100m of rates payments being cancelled, but it is clear that much more will need to be done yet, particularly ensuring that those asked to self-isolate have the financial means to do so.
But the issues facing Northern Ireland run deeper than being dependent on Westminster for funding. Indeed, the Scottish government has managed to be even more proactive than the UK government in its response so far. Northern Ireland’s political landscape is fraught, with many competent, well-established politicians having stepped down during the three years of deadlock in Stormont. This means that the response crafted by the Northern Irish government will lose the input of a number of experienced figures with greater competence of dealing with economic issues.
Any response will also need to be agreed by the main unionist and nationalist parties. But the creation of a new Stormont government has not done much to heal divisions, and just a month after the new executive’s formation it was reportedly on the brink of a fresh collapse.
There have been efforts to overcome these obstacles in the face of the crisis, with first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill meeting with Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss the response to the pandemic. However, this largely provided a platform for further disagreements between Foster and O’Neill, who have been described as “miles apart” on dealing with coronavirus. The sour relationship between the two is unlikely to be improved by the publication of the inquiry into the renewable heat incentive scandal, for which many across Northern Ireland blame Foster, and which first led to the collapse of the Assembly in 2016.
If the executive is to offer an effective response to the pandemic, or even if it is to hold together, it will be essential that the secretary of state for Northern Ireland offers support for the executive and works to bring Sinn Féin and the DUP to some sort of consensus. Until the latest cabinet reshuffle, that was the job of Julian Smith, who was widely respected in Northern Ireland for having succeeded in ending the three-year deadlock.
His replacement, Brandon Lewis, may be well respected within the Conservative party for having worked his way up through the party’s ranks, but it is difficult to see how it has given him the expertise to navigate the complexities of Northern Irish party politics. The Northern Ireland office is hardly a sought after position in the cabinet, but it is essential that a neutral arbitrator is present to find a common ground between Northern Ireland’s unionist and nationalist parties. Without a competent figure in this role, Northern Ireland may be left without a consensus on an adequate response to the pandemic.
Patrick Geddis is a student and writer based in Belfast, with interests in peace-building, economics, Northern Irish politics and the climate emergency.