Northern Ireland has finally broken its streak of over 1,000 days without a functioning devolved government.
The Irish and British governments published a draft deal to jumpstart the Stormont Executive. Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the two major parties in the region, have finally agreed to revive the government.
Stormont has been functioning for over 15 days. Yet, this was not a selfless compromise. It was a marriage of convenience based on growing public discontent.
Broadly speaking, the local population is fed up with the lack of transparency and democratic decision-making from their local officials. Over the last few years, ministers have not been in place to make decisions about healthcare, welfare, or education. This inaction resulted in unbalanced school budgets, more extended hospital waiting times, and, most recently, a strike of 9,000 health workers over wages and quality of work.
Without local representation, the Conservative Party in Westminster has gutted social safety nets, which forced many families into deeper poverty and debt. This angered many locals, especially since members of the Stormont legislature still got paid £15 million for not doing their job. Indeed, the draft deal acknowledges this anger and frustration by stating that, "Ministers and civil servants" have a part to play in regaining the "trust of citizens."
A vital source of discontent has been the lack of government during a time when there has been an increasing number of suicides amongst young people.
As a young person from West Belfast, I have witnessed my community lose an unacceptable amount of friends and family members in recent years. Northern Ireland has an incidence of 28 suicides per 100,000 men per year, which is over double that of England and well above the rest of Ireland.
The legacy of "The Troubles," as well as growing drug use, and untreated mental health issues have had a grave impact on both Protestant and Catholic communities. There is an increased feeling among the people that mental health should be prioritized, and the lack of Executive has hindered the development of a coherent mental health strategy.
Stormont allocates only 4% of its health budget to mental health compared to over 10% that other devolved governments have dedicated to the issue. Many people have been placed on 30-week waitlists to see a therapist despite the proposed waitlist aim being 13 weeks.
Michael Conlan, a renowned professional boxer, encouraged celebrities to take a stand on mental health issues. He argued that being an activist for "kids of the next generation" was more important than celebrity status.
Gary Lightbody, member of Snow Patrol, and dozens of other celebrities have followed Conlan's example. This forced Health Minister Robin Swann to issue a statement declaring that the new government would make suicide prevention a "top priority."
This popular discontent matches the electoral fortunes of Sinn Féin and the DUP between 2017 and 2019. In 2017, both parties were riding high as they secured all but one of the 18 seats in the Westminster elections.
The DUP found itself as kingmaker in a hung parliament and decided to enter into a disastrous coalition with the Conservative Party. Sinn Féin increased its votes in the North and South of Ireland, and they had political leverage in exploiting the disaster of Brexit. Basking in their success, both parties took their constituents and Stormont for granted as they attempted to play a long game based around the Brexit. However, Sinn Féin and DUP faced significant setbacks in the Westminster elections in 2019.
During the December 2019 elections, Nigel Dodds, the party's deputy leader, lost his seat in North Belfast to Sinn Féin's John Finucane. Afterward, The DUP were left stunned when the Conservatives won a majority under Boris Johnson, who quickly tossed them aside like yesterday's news. In the space of two years, they had gone from kingmaker to court jester.
Sinn Féin's Westminster performance was mixed, as they unseated Dodds in a unionist stronghold. Still, they lost the Foyle constituency to the SDLP's Colum Eastwood, and they saw their majorities eroded in South Down and West Belfast. Overall, the DUP and Sinn Féin's share of the vote dropped by 5.4% and 6.7%. Both parties became willing to accept a deal to restore Stormont's government due to their battered political power.
Political parties in Ireland and Britain are marketing the "New Decade, New Approach" proposal, and the return of Stormont as a political triumph.
Undoubtedly, it makes some significant changes to the power-sharing agreement in the region. The Executive will oversee a substantial investment into infrastructure in the area as well as prioritizing the economic potential of urban hubs, including Belfast and Derry.
Stormont will attempt to balance budgets for schools and develop an action plan for mental health. Most importantly, the draft proposal hopes to provide transparency to the Stormont system by publishing details of gifts received by Ministers, strengthening the requirements for record-keeping, and distributing information on Minister meetings.
However, the proposal still falls short of the grandstanding promises that the major parties have pledged over the last three years. No compromise is perfect, but many spectators have expressed concern about the lack of extensive advancement over an Irish Language Act, a Bill of Rights, and the rights of LGBTQ+ communities. It is unclear if the unionist community intends on honoring any of these promises, and the Orange Order has already spoken out against the Irish Language Act.
Indeed, Stormont's politicians have already demonstrated that they can still be tone-deaf by announcing that the assembly members will get a £1,000 pay rise. This caused outrage on social media as people argued, "MLAs have been back in Stormont for ten days and have been given a thousand-pound pay rise." People tweeted that the funds could have gone to "the nurses, the teachers, and everyone else who has being striking for better pay" instead of "folk who didn't do their jobs for three years."
Nevertheless, most people are happy with a return to democracy and some sense of normalcy. Yet, the media should not see this as a victory of political parties. It is the triumph of the disgruntled local population that rejected the lack of transparency and democracy within their political system. Thus, if the "New Decade, New Approach" idea is going to succeed, politicians will need to place more value on the opinions of the public and give them a bigger seat at the table.
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