At the start of 2020, NI had the pleasure (some may disagree) to witness our Executive return to government, just three years after power-sharing collapsed. A lot has changed and under the quiet nature of a wintry January, a power-sharing deal was agreed, albeit by the British and Irish governments with NI political parties signing up to it whether willing or not. Some would argue they had little choice as both national governments seemed to want to resolve the issue once and for all, either that was because they genuinely cared about the governance of NI or they wanted us off their hands whilst they have bigger fish to fry in the coming years. I would argue the latter was the better justification given the history of our region.
Nevertheless, the Executive returned to the normal business of government but also faced a number of significant and demanding challenges. And in the current period where nothing is normal, they face the biggest challenge of them all: maintaining the health of every citizen in Northern Ireland.
Before the pandemic really hit NI, (which feels like a long time ago) many challenges existed in daily governance of our region. The first of these was the health workers' dispute over pay parity; safer staffing levels; and to tackle the task of lengthy waiting lists. This was undoubtedly a key motivation for the return of our regional government as it could have plunged our health service into a deeper crisis or complete collapse. And in a pandemic, we need nothing more than a strong NHS. It is not worth thinking about the situation we could have been in during this current reality if those issues were not tackled at the beginning of this year.
Next was the challenge of addressing our struggling Education sector. It is visible that our schools are facing a lack of investment and they are relying on charities to provide some of the basic services for mental health issues of our young people. If we are to support the future generation of our region, this investment needs to come as quickly as possible. Clarity is also needed over a teacher’s pay dispute and staffing problems in this sector need addressed. With the ongoing health situation, education will unfortunately take another back seat for a while.
Another big challenge was in the Justice sector, mainly around the new recruitment campaign of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. A taboo subject in Northern Ireland, but a necessary conversation and agreement was needed as every country needs a strong and supported Police service. The support of Sinn Fein in agreeing to increase police numbers and the presence of the deputy First Minister at the launch of the recruitment campaign was unprecedented. It undoubtedly bought clarity and unity to a much-needed Executive of NI but was not without criticism from her supporters and party activists. The threats to both her party colleagues in the Assembly and to herself was a cautious reminder that in NI, we are never far away from stepping back into a past that my generation have only ever seen in history books and TV documentaries. Given that more powers have been granted to the PSNI due to unprecedented legislation agreed in Stormont as a result of the current situation, it is important that we respect the officers when carrying out a difficult job just as police across the UK and Ireland will be implementing the same roles with similar powers.
A further challenge is Brexit. Now in the current situation of protecting ourselves and the NHS from the effects of the pandemic, this challenge seems to have little importance than what it once did. That said, it still remains something that our nation needs protected against in the future, particularly in relation to job creation and ensuring our Agriculture sector has the safeguards and benefits it needs that it will likely lose from lack of membership of the EU. Cross-community agreement will be needed to ensure our region is not adversely affected by the 2016 vote to leave the EU.
I return to the overarching challenge of all which is protecting the health of every citizen in NI. As we remain attached to our screens during this period of isolation, the media reports of our Executive members ‘preparing for the worst’ and ‘this will go on for months’ is terrifying for all ages in NI. How we deal with the effects of this pandemic on our economy, our health service and our everyday lives needs unity and a sense of a community for all. Political backgrounds and tribalism should not be considered when it comes to helping each other out and working for the greater good. We can all play a small part in this bigger challenge by abiding by government advice and sticking to the rules. We have to give our Executive credit where its due for coming together at a time of crisis, putting differences aside and providing leadership and strategy. Without this Executive, it would be difficult to imagine what our country would look like without a regional government in place guiding our NHS and providing economic support. One can only predict that we would have been left behind by both British and Irish governments as they seek to deal with the challenge they face in their own country, with England and in particular London being the worst affected region of the UK and therefore a bigger priority. Ireland, in a similar situation, needs to put their citizens before us. For that reason and at this point in time, I am grateful for devolution and an Executive that is in place and largely working together for the greater good of our own citizens.
Whilst I remain optimistic about how well our Stormont government will deal with the local challenges arising from this pandemic, cracks are starting to appear. Enormous pressure is being placed on the leaders that we have and the decisions they will take will be vital for everyone’s future. Never before have we vested such massive responsibility on politicians to do the right thing for our country. Regarding the issue of what businesses should stay open in NI, the First and deputy First Minister did not provide clarity on this issue for our region until late on Saturday evening (28 March). These measures were expected to be introduced earlier in the week and it could be argued that this delay is a reflection of the division that still exists in this Executive, even when tribal politics doesn’t seem to play a part. Minimizing these cracks will be vital if lives are to be saved. Whilst our heroic NHS staff, care workers, food producers and supermarket staff are carrying on with their roles the best they can, politicians should be focused on providing the utmost guidance and making the right decisions as they are expected to do.
Getting through this pandemic is a contemporary challenge no country has faced since war time and we are no different. For now, all our lives are on hold and we can only take one day at a time, forever long that may be.
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.