In August 2018, Northern Ireland set an unwanted record, surpassing Belgium for the world’s longest peacetime period without a working government. This shocked and appalled many, but given the costs involved and what many would perceive as a lack of success when Stormont was up and running, is an Executive really necessary?
Maurice Bradley is relatively new member of the Stormont Executive, having only been elected as an MLA for East Londonderry in 2016. When he took his seat in office, he had no idea of the chaos that the RHI scandal would cause and certainly didn’t expect the entire political system in Northern Ireland to collapse.
‘I left the newspaper industry after 47 years to go into politics, so the fact that I have no role to play in Stormont is alien to me and to say I’m unhappy about it is an understatement.
‘I came into politics to help people and although I can still assist people in my local constituency, the fact that I have been robbed of the opportunity to do this on a nationwide scale frustrates me.’
Since the collapse of Stormont in January 2017, over £9 million has been spent on MLAs salaries, with this figure rising to £12 million once pension costs have been included.
‘I come from a background where I’ve worked for everything I’ve ever earned and to be paid for something I’m not doing doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I’m actually earning less now than I did when I worked in the newspaper industry because of pay reductions, but I think that’s fair. If you’re not doing a job, you should not be paid.
‘Perhaps the money used for salaries could have been better re-directed but unfortunately, no ministers are in place to make those types of decisions. It’s not just as easy as saying ‘x’ amounts of millions were paid in salaries to MLAs, that could have been better spent on ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’, it just doesn’t work that way.’
The thoughts of East Londonderry MLA Maurice Bradley
The amount of taxpayers’ money spent on both MLAs and the actual running costs of the Stormont Estate, which functioning costs amount to £3,600 daily, is something that has frustrated many people, including Dylan Quinn, founder of the WeDeserveBetter campaign.
Dylan founded the movement roughly a year ago, wanting the mark the fact that Northern Ireland was approaching a peacetime record without a working government.
‘Originally it was a local initiative, trying to say that smaller communities outside of the Belfast and Londonderry areas could voice their opinions as well. It has grown from that and become a nationwide campaign.
‘From the first event we held back in August of last year it has become evident that there is largescale frustration at the lack of political progress in Northern Ireland but more importantly there is a desire to not go back to the ‘same old, same old’ system of government. We aim to voice the peoples’ concerns and campaign for real change.’
The amount of money still being paid to MLAs despite their absence in parliament cannot be justified according to Dylan.
‘The argument from a lot of MLAs is that they have a lot of local work to do in their own constituencies and whilst I recognise the relevance of that, they are employed primarily as legislators and they aren’t doing that legislation job.
‘I think it’s an absolute disgrace that they’re continuing to get paid for so long on a full salary. It doesn’t bode well for democracy here at all.’
The ongoing debate surrounding the allocation of taxpayer’s money towards MLAs salaries coupled with the apathy felt by many towards politicians here has led to some calling for a new system of government.
The opinions among the student body at Ulster University’s Coleraine campus were mixed, with media studies and production student Thomas Fullerton believing Westminster should take action.
‘If these children can’t settle their differences over something so futile, Westminster should be getting involved and taking all the devolved powers. We should have a system like the SNP in Scotland. Say what you want about Nicola Sturgeon but at least she’s getting the job done.’
Interactive media student Robert Graham takes a differing view, believing priority should be given to restoring a functioning Stormont rather than returning to direct rule.
‘Stormont has brought a lot of benefits our way. For example, student fees are a lot cheaper because of Stormont. I think we need to focus on getting a Stormont Executive that can operate so we don’t have to turn to direct rule.’
Naomi Reading, a journalism student, believes that the resumption of Stormont is essential in order to solve the crisis in both education and mental health in Northern Ireland.
‘We’re left in Northern Ireland with a mental health crisis that’s not being fixed, education cuts from Westminster that are leaving schools closing or having to merge; Northern Ireland is being left behind and without Stormont, we will continue to be left behind.’
Some Ulster University students give their thoughts on the Stormont crisis
Naomi’s concerns regarding the education sector here are shared by Ulster University Vice-Chancellor Paddy Nixon, who believes a Stormont government is essential to resolving the crisis in higher education.
‘Northern Ireland continues to be the worst funded higher education system in the United Kingdom. This ultimately means we get on average about £2000 less per student meaning there’s only so many students we can take. At this point in time, since 2015 the number of A-level students leaving to go to University in the UK has risen from approximately 2500 to over 5000. Northern Ireland is losing its talent every year, with the vast majority of students not coming back.
‘Ultimately all these things, whether it be issues regarding funding, a medical school at Magee or a veterinary school at Coleraine are all policy decisions and without a working government, nothing can be pushed forward.’
Ulster University Vice-Chancellor Paddy Nixon explains how the collapse of Stormont has impacted higher education in Northern Ireland
Nixon, who assumed his role in 2015 following his move from the University of Tasmania where he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor, believes Northern Ireland is approaching a tipping point regarding the long-term success of the economy as a result of the higher education problems brought about by the Stormont hiatus.
‘Inward investment is impacted because new companies coming into the country are usually high value and want graduates. We’re going down in the number of graduates we produce rather than up.
‘I think you’ll see real economic impact and the next twelve months are absolutely critical. We’ve managed for the past two years but there’s a point at which the decisions not being made become not just a pause, but a stop.’
Concerns about the long-term growth of the Northern Ireland economy are a real concern amongst the business community, asserts Christopher Morrow, a member of the Executive team at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. He believes significant progress was being made before the Stormont stalemate and calls for local government to be restored as soon as possible, stating direct rule is not the way forward for Northern Ireland.
‘The Executive was making a lot of progress before it stopped. Corporation tax was about to be agreed for Northern Ireland meaning we would have lower rates than the rest of the UK, we were starting to develop an export strategy to help firms here grow and a lot of good stuff was being done.
‘We need local government back to continue the good work that was being done. The Civil Service is doing a great job at the moment of keeping things ticking over but financially we need legislators in who can make big decisions; to move and allocate money between health, education etc.’
It’s not just the future impact that a lack of government here in Northern Ireland will have on businesses that worries Christopher, he says local companies are suffering in the short-term because of a lack of business confidence and concerns around outward investment.
‘Having a government gives businesses confidence that they can invest their money and spend. Surveys have shown a severe drop in confidence investment wise.
‘From an outward-looking perspective, we are giving an image across the world that we have issues with regards to our government. In fact, some companies here with international offices are beginning to get asked questions about Northern Ireland and whether or not it’s a stable place to be doing business.’
With the stalemate showing no signs of being resolved anytime soon, the debate surrounding the costs of Stormont and whether or we really need an Executive government is sure to rumble on. Despite the apathy felt by many, Maurice Bradley maintains that Stormont is the way forward.
‘Because of Stormont you have no water charges, you have no bedroom tax, your ATMs were subsidised; there are an awful lot of things that Stormont did introduce.
‘Stormont has worked, people just don’t want to recognise that it has worked.’