Covid-19 pandemic cracks facade of unity at Stormont
16 April 2020
The declarations of a new found approach and unity of purpose that accompanied the restoration of the Stormomt Executive in January have quickly given way to the well worn rhetoric and operating methods that accounted for the demise of its predecessor. In early 2017, it was the “Cash for Ash” scandal that was the immediate cause of the collapse of devolved institutions that had been in a state of decay for a long time. Today, it is the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic that is exposing divisions within the Executive and highlighting the underlying weakness of the political institutions.
By coincidence the report of the RHI Inquiry was published just as the pandemic was beginning to escalate. Given the timing the findings of the report were largely overshadowed and what had been anticipated to be a significant event turned into a damp squib. However, the failings of government that it documented - of bureaucratic incompetence; political patronage; and lack of coordination across departments - are once again in full display within the current crisis. Despite pledges by officials and politicians to learn lessons and institute reforms this dysfunction persists. What this points to is not just the failure of individuals but more fundamentally of a political system and a state that have the distribution of sectarian patronage as their primary function. Under the pressure of a crisis the bogus claim of the Executive to be a government is rapidly exposed.
A feature of the Stormont system is that - despite the devolution of significant powers - the political institutions cannot act independently. On a formal constitutional level the Executive exercises power in areas such as health, justice, employment and welfare that would allow it to develop its own strategy in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in practice it does not, and its approach largely follows that of the British government. The deference of unionism towards Westminster is partly responsible for this but at a more strategic level it is a result of the control that Britain exercises over the north through the institutions of the state. While Nationalists claim that those institutions are politically neutral - and can even be a vehicle towards a united Ireland - the old adage that power devolved is power retained is closer to the reality.
Health officials in the north (at the Dept of Health and Public Health Agency) have largely followed the approach of their counterparts in Britain, initially dismissing the coronavirus as low risk and rejecting the need for early testing only to later swing to restricting movement and shutting down parts of the economy. Despite being presented as a phased plan this was bureaucratic panic. It was the same scenario in the local education sector with the Department following the lead of the British government in delaying school closures. This approach was backed up by the health minister Robin Swann who said that he had “no evidence to justify school closures and indeed to do so at this stage may even be counter-productive”. However, this was overtaken by events on the ground with pupils being withdrawn by parents, some teachers refusing to work, and principals announcing their own unilateral closures. When school closures were officially announced the Department was only catching up with reality.
The early episode around schools exposed both the absence of any planning by the Executive and also a lack of public confidence in its ability to deal with such a crisis. This lack of confidence would certainly have been confirmed by the divisions between the political parties over this with Sinn Fein pressing for school closures and unionists resisting. In addition to school closures divisions have opened up between Sinn Fein and the DUP over testing, the provision of PPE to medical staff, the deployment of the British military and the shut down of parts of the economy.
Not orange and green?
For all the talk of the pandemic not being “an orange and green issue” this is exactly what it has turned into. Further evidence of this was the furious response by unionists to a Tweet by Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd in which he accused the British government of “carrying out a ‘twisted medical experiment”. He was accused by a DUP MLA of engaging in “reckless rhetoric and narrow party political point scoring” while another from the UUP accused him of creating “fear and panic”. While both claimed their responses were informed by scientific advice the thrust of their complaint against O’Dowd was his disrespectful tone towards the British Prime Minister and by extension the whole of the unionist community. In these rows claims about “following the science” have nothing to do with science and everything to do with being aligned to either the British or Irish state.
While there are legitimate arguments around the correct strategy to tackle the pandemic the complaints made by Sinn Fein lack sincerity when they are used to evade responsibility and create the impression of the party being in government but also in opposition. The fact is that Sinn Fein is in the Executive and supports the political arrangements that have created the dysfunction that has come to the fore in the response to the pandemic. It is also the case that Sinn Fein has contributed to this - the most glaring example being the botched attempt by the Dept of Finance to procure Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). The unilateral announcement by the finance minister Conor Murphy about a joint order with the Irish government - which was barely acknowledged by unionist ministers - typified the silo structure of the Executive. Another unilateral decision was the request from the UUP health minister Robin Swann - backed by the DUP - for assistance from the British military. This was presented as practical proposal that no reasonable person could object to. However, the fact that it could not be justified on medical grounds (with the health service working within capacity despite the additional pressures of the pandemic) shows the political nature of such a request. That Sinn Fein were not consulted over something so obviously controversial demonstrates the powerless of the party within the Executive and also the myth of a nationalist veto.
While there are immediate divisions between Sinn Fein and the DUP they do share a common responsibility for the state of the local health service. Over the long period of devolved government - when the Dept of Health has mostly been led by one of their representatives - there has been a great degree of continuity in policy whether that is in regard to the reduction of acute care facilities, recruitment of staff or the regionalisation of pay. It is local political parties that bear responsibility for the lack of preparedness of the NHS to deal with a pandemic. They claim that the health service could be overwhelmed in this crisis but the truth is it was already being overwhelmed in a period of normality.
Most importantly all parties within the Executive are in favour of expanding the role of private companies in the health sector. They fully endorse the Bengoa Report which calls for the transformation of health bodies from providers to commissioners of services (a mechanism for privatisation). Even in the current crisis the privileging of private companies continues with the agreement for private hospitals to lease beds to the NHS. It is claimed that this deal is non-profit and only covers costs but we can safely assume that the costs are well above those within the health service.
One of the areas where the Executive has been exposed is on the question of workers safety. Most immediately this relates to health workers and centres around the slow rate of testing and the shortage of PPE. The Dept of Health claims that testing of health care workers is being “rapmned up” but the figures show that it is well behind target; it also claimed that PPE stocks are adequate but the categories of staff who it is not deemed appropriate for include those working in care homes and domiciliary care.
The Executive has also failed more broadly in relation to safe working conditions. Discussion here has centred around what is essential and non essential work but this is really a distraction from the need for safe working conditions for all workers irrespective of the sector they are working in. There is no evidence that the Executive is doing anything to ensure that. It has been reported that the body responsible - the Health & Safety Executive - has stopped carrying out inspections.
This question of safe working was one of the points of contention between Sinn Fein and the DUP but this has been resolved in a typically bureaucratic fashion with the formation of a forum involving trade unions, employers and government officials that will consider these issues and make recommendations. At the time of writing no recommendations have been forthcoming from this body.
In many ways the Executive shares the failings of other governments in its response to the coronavirus pandemic. However, in the north of Ireland there is always that additional layer of sectarianism and bigotry which raises failure to a higher level. That is why in the midst of a health crisis the Executive can reserve time to delay the introduction of new regulations that would have allowed women with crisis pregnancies to self administer abortive pills at home during conditions where travel is currently impossible. So alongside incompetence there is cruelty. It is clear that workers cannot look to the Executive for protection during this health crisis.