As we rang in the New Year and a new decade, the thoughts of myself and other journalists were on what we believed would be yet another election campaign. Whilst party sources were briefing that a deal was all but agreed between four of the five main parties, the DUP were being accused of digging in their heels and being reluctant to move on the Petition of Concern reform (a mechanism which they have previously called to be scrapped, despite being responsible for its abuse). In their minds it could have been to their advantage to push for an election considering the hammering that they took at the polls in 2017, an Assembly Election in 2020 could only serve to damage Sinn Féin who were still licking their wounds from December.
It came as a slight surprise when sources began to suggest on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week that it looked increasingly likely that the devolved administrations could be back by the end of the week. In retrospect, it should not have been such a shock considering that the Secretary of State appeared to have them over a barrel with regards to the funding for Health Service pay parity in a move that could be described as shrewd or cold hearted depending on your opinion of the man.
When the draft text was published on Thursday, I never thought that I would be so happy to see the prospective return of devolved government to Northern Ireland and upon reading the text of the agreement it was clear that no party could say that ultimately they had won. It was apparent from this that parties now had to begin working more closely together and that their focus now had to shift to delivery.
One of the big surprises contained within the text was a commitment to a single, integrated education system which will eventually bring an end to the duplication of services within the education sector and bring an end to religiously segregated schooling. This commitment made the reappointment of Peter Weir as Minister for Education all the more intriguing considering that he failed to spend almost £50 million which had been allocated to the sector when he previously held the portfolio. When you take into account the long running industrial action campaign by teachers, Mr Weir has a tough job ahead if he is to be seen as a success.
However, he is not alone in having an in-tray full of challenges. The newly appointed Justice Minister, Naomi Long certainly has her work cut out for her and it will be interesting to see what she decides to tackle first. One of the biggest pieces of legislation that she will need to introduce is the Domestic Abuse Act as Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to not currently have legal protections in place which cover a larger remit of what falls under domestic abuse. In addition to this she will also be responsible for introducing stalking legislation and perhaps some of her biggest challenges will come in the form of prison reform and tackling problems with PSNI recruitment.
Communities Minister, Dierdre Hargey will face many challenges, not just because she is a new MLA who was immediately thrust into the Executive, but her department is responsible for turning around many of the issues her party has campaigned against, particularly welfare reform and tackling the social housing crisis in areas such as North Belfast. In addition to this, she will be facing extra pressures to sign off on the redevelopment of Casement Park which received a specific mention in the text of the agreement.
Of all the ministers, Robin Swann certainly has the hardest job. As Health Minister, he is now responsible for turning around a health service which is not only failing its staff, but its patients. Whilst the money to tackle the pay parity issue has been allocated by the Treasury, he will find it difficult to cut waiting lists and deal with A&E waiting times on top of implementing the recommendations of the Bengoa Report and ensuring safe staffing levels at our hospitals.
Whilst Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, gets used to being driven to meetings in her new electric Ministerial car, she too has a pretty full in-tray. With a portfolio that covers everything from public transport to the regeneration of Crumlin Road Gaol, one of the big problems that she will face during her ministry will be in relation to water and sewerage. It has been known for some time that Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure is in need of a major upgrade if it is to be sustainable however it will be costly and one of the ways in which it has been suggested that this money could be raised would be through domestic water charges. Whilst this has been dismissed by both the First and deputy First Ministers, it will likely rear its head again when the issue of funding the upgrade arises.
Over at the Department of Finance, Conor Murphy will face some considerable tests in that his predecessor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, failed to produce a budget while in office. His portfolio is also responsible for openness and transparency within government and following the revelations contained within Sam McBride’s Burned and what is expected to be revealed when the RHI report is eventually published, this is certainly an aspect of his job which is going to face monumental amounts of scrutiny.
As Brexit draws near, Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots will face some challenges in the form of the Single Farm Payment. While this is expected to continue for some time after we leave the EU, he and his department will be responsible for preparing the Agri sector for the financial implications that leaving the EU may have for farmers in Northern Ireland. In addition to this, he will also be responsible for environmental policy which is arguably one of the most important portfolios as we attempt to combat the climate crisis. However, as some of Edwin’s party colleagues continue to deny climate change, it will be interesting to see how he and his party deal with this issue.
Whilst Diane Dodds is returning to the Assembly after almost a 13 year absence, she can look forward to a number of tax-payer funded trips abroad as a perk of her responsibilities to seek out Foreign Direct Investment in the Department for the Economy. However, it will not be all jet setting and conferences for Mrs Dodds as her department is responsible for employment and skills including Further and Higher Education policy. One area where I suspect Mrs Dodds will face much lobbying will be around student finance and post-graduate finance in particular. In addition to this she will also be expected to bring forward a bill on the Protection of Shop Workers to bring NI in line with Scotland where a bill is currently going through the Scottish Parliament to afford greater protections to shop and bar workers who sell age restricted products and are often subjected to abuse and physical violence.
Whilst all eyes will be on the relationship between Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, there is clearly a lot of work to be done in just over two years which are left of the current Assembly mandate. Although some fundamental differences remain between our politicians, it is imperative that they set them aside and focus on delivering for the people who elected them.
James McCarthy is Journalism Masters student at Ulster University having recently graduated with a BSc in Politics.