The ongoing political impasse at Stormont is having a “hugely damaging effect” on vital services in Lagan Valley, it has been claimed.
According to local MLAs, the lack of a deal to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running again is having a detrimental impact on some of the most vulnerable people in society, and is causing frustration and fear across the community.
Deadlines have come and gone, but negotiations between the political parties are expected to continue over the summer in a bid to restore the power-sharing Executive. However, the ongoing deadlock, finger-pointing and recriminations have sparked public calls for MLAs’ salaries to be stopped until they “get back to work”.
Stressing that they are keen to take their seats at Stormont, Lagan Valley MLAs Robbie Butler (UUP), Trevor Lunn (Alliance) and Edwin Poots (DUP) have warned that failure to reach an agreement soon will mean further hardship for organisations that rely on government funding to provide vital services in areas such as health, education and the community sector.
“The lack of a 2017/18 budget means reduced funding across all departments, and already we can see the effects at a local level,” Mr Butler said.
“In terms of education we are now seeing teachers, in some cases, having to buy classroom materials themselves, a reduction of school transport and Special Educational Needs provision, and some schools now facing the real possibility of laying off staff. In our health service, we are now seeing our already extended waiting lists increasing and the implementation of the Bengoa report has had to be shelved. Plus, many voluntary and community groups that are reliant upon departmental grant funding are now in a state of limbo, not knowing if they will be able to continue.
“In many ways the most vulnerable of our society are being the hardest hit by our current political impasse. My constituency office is just as busy as ever, if not busier, but with no Executive ministers in place and no ability to scrutinise departments through the Stormont institutions, many issues that people come to me with simply cannot be addressed and they are left waiting indefinitely.”
He continued: “We have had no functioning Assembly at Stormont since January this year. The failure to form an Executive is a serious indictment of those who are more interested in playing political games, rather than actually delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
“I have been ready to take my seat in the Assembly since March, but the childish political games of others holding the entire Assembly to ransom are stopping everyone from doing so. This is simply not good enough. We all deserve better politics than this.”
Mr Lunn said the standoff between the DUP and Sinn Fein is causing “a lot of frustration and fear across the community”.
“There is frustration because the two biggest parties seem to be incapable of resolving differences to work together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland,” he commented.
“The fear comes from not knowing what the situation is with budgets and what flexibility civil servants have to continue supporting jobs in existing community projects or even committing new expenditure to new projects. Civil servants cannot replace ministers, so many issues will be left unresolved, with untold consequences.
“Undoubtedly there will be people across Lagan Valley, working in the voluntary and community sector providing essential services, who are now genuinely concerned that their funding may be affected by this lack of agreement.
“Alliance remains committed to doing all we can to help restore devolution as soon as possible and start delivering again. Local politicians working together are the only way forward and it is my hope this impasse can be resolved quickly.”
While the finger of blame for the current Stormont stalemate is being pointed firmly at the DUP and Sinn Fein, Mr Poots says he and his party colleagues are keen to get back into the Assembly as soon as possible.
Describing the lack of a functioning Assembly and Executive as “hugely damaging”, Mr Poots commented: “As a consequence of there not being a deal the budget is operating at 95 per cent of its normal allocation, which is effectively a five per cent cut across services.
“Roughly £500 million has been stripped out of public services at this stage and won’t be returned until the Assembly is actually up and running again.
“Every body, including the health trusts and the Education Authority, all of those areas are being affected by it. And the community sector will be particularly badly affected because they are normally the first for civil servants to cut, and many of those people are working out their notice at the minute, so many of those people will be losing their jobs around the end of July.”
He continued: “It is hugely damaging. We offered to do a parallel process where we would get the Executive up and running again and continue to deal with outstanding issues during a set timeframe, but Sinn Fein wouldn’t do that so consequently everyone is going to suffer because of a narrow set of issues which are of concern to one particular party.
“There is a really damaging effect to this unless the government bring in direct rule ministers, which we would favour in the absence of Sinn Fein actually getting sensible and doing a deal.”
Mr Poots, who is part of the DUP’s negotiating team, is still hopeful that a deal can be done, but says he isn’t confident that an agreement will be reached any time soon.
“Some of the demands are totally unreasonable and just cannot be acceded to, and consequently we can’t agree to the demands that Sinn Fein are putting forward. The reciprocation coming from their side was not great either, so on both fronts there needs to be a levelling off and an understanding that we need to move on, and we need to move on sensibly and rationally and deal with each other in a way which is in the wider public interest,” he added.