Three months ago, in late March at a time of complete lockdown in our region and beyond, I reviewed what I thought were the most important challenges facing our Northern Ireland Executive when they had just returned to the power sharing table. There were many challenges that I outlined to say the least, and to my surprise or maybe lack of disbelief, I have to admit that even our politicians maintained a largely strong and united Executive, despite what they had to tackle.
Whilst it might be too optimistic to say that the ‘old ways’ have been forgotten and party divides and criticism of each other have disappeared, take for example, the criticism of the Health Minister by the deputy First Minister of his handling of the current Public Health situation. Or the criticism of Executive Ministers for being too slow to ease lockdown, as suggested by the Agriculture Minister. However, in the grand scheme of things, public disagreements between Executive colleagues have been few and far between. This, I would suggest, means that our public has a better opinion of what our NI Executive can achieve when faced with a momentous task that requires a sustained united front. Both our First and deputy First Ministers have recognised that at the beginning of the pandemic, they had a “tetchy start no doubt” and experienced “turbulence” surrounding the issue of whether to close schools in an effort to combat the spread of the virus. Recognizing these issues and disagreements probably enabled our politicians to move on quicker rather than allowing things to boil over. After all, secrecy and tensions behind the walls of Stormont led to its collapse after the ‘Renewable Heat Incentive’ scandal revealed the true extent of what a lack of transparency and self-sabotage does to a regional government like our own.
Looking at the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic within NI by our regional government, it is fair to say that both the public, our key workers and our politicians played a key role and suffered major sacrifice in keeping the number of deaths low in comparison to what the worst-case scenario would have been without social distancing and a lockdown. Whilst every death is a tragedy and many families will have had their world turned upside down, to say that we have maintained a lower death rate in comparison to other regions of the UK and the Republic of Ireland is a small achievement. Now that we are in the ‘Pathway to Recovery’ process, the people of NI can be hopeful that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel slowly progressing towards us, which three months ago may have seemed a lifetime away. However, tackling the challenges of unemployment and economic recovery will also need the enduring united front, which has largely put party differences aside, to continue throughout the whole process of recovery. Saving jobs and providing practical guidance for all sectors will be essential if our society and economy is to remain intact as far as possible. Education, Hospitality, Tourism, Leisure, Health; these are just a few of the sectors that will need sustained support from our own government.
When we start to turn away from the issue of the pandemic, and by no means does that suggest that it won’t be any less important as the threat will remain for some time to come, our government does need to get on with the business of government. At the forefront of this ‘business as usual’ is the major issue of Brexit. In six months time we will be leaving the transition period, with or without a deal. Right in the middle of that situation is Northern Ireland. At the start of June 2020, a Lords committee found that NI faces a “potent threat” from Brexit, especially to our economic stability and prosperity as well as to our relationship with the UK and down South. We have seen in the media that talks between the EU and UK have made very little progress in recent weeks and that there will be inevitable checks on our agriculture and manufactured goods entering the rest of the UK and vice versa given that NI will be following EU rules. This could lead to many companies recognizing that NI may not be economically viable due to increased costs of checks on goods and therefore, major companies may move out of NI to somewhere else in the UK. However, if a trade deal is not agreed between the EU and UK, then those companies will face increased costs nonetheless. There seems to be a no ‘win-win situation’ as a result. Our NI Executive needs to push for very limited checks to mitigate against the economic impact and societal damage this will cause if border infrastructure at any part of NI was to be established. Combine this with the negative economic impact the Coronavirus pandemic has had on our regional economy, we are looking at a recipe for disaster.
It seems that advocating for limited checks may be a compromise both the DUP and Sinn Fein will be able to agree upon given that neither party want to see checks on goods or border infrastructure implemented in NI, albeit for different reasons. Maybe this is another issue our Executive could unite behind, and the more a sustained united front exists which speaks out with a unifying voice, the increased likelihood that we will be heard. That said, this year marks the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (23 December), which put into law the partition of Ireland into Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. A week later we will be leaving the transition period which could further strain the tensions between the two parties, especially if no deal is the result of stagnated talks. By then the united front that endured during the height of the pandemic may be under increased scrutiny and spotlight, with cracks beginning to appear. This could put us into dangerous territory as regards to collapsing our Executive. However, I do believe that our parties will see this centenary as only a symbolic event and symbolism may no longer play a big a part in how we are governed given what our nation and the rest of the world has been through this year. Wishful thinking maybe.
This time next year, we will have passed the centenary of the Parliament of Northern Ireland (7 June) and this could further stir the pot given the provocative history of that Parliament. Recognizing that history is something our nation has struggled to do, but also understanding that harsh history has encouraged us into making a change in the past, just look at the Good Friday Agreement. Acknowledging the effects of our party divides and our tribal politics is no bad thing but as we have seen during this pandemic, it is largely possible to put those differences aside and long may it continue.
Lessons may well have been learnt by our NI Executive but when it comes to continuing to govern after the effect of the pandemic reduces and the business of government returns, that will be when the real test of the sustainability and endurance of our recently formed government is revealed.
Jessica Johnston is a 20 year-old final year student at Queens University Belfast studying International Studies and Politics. Her political interests include local politics, American politics and international relations.