“There are many roads in Northern Ireland which are already well beyond their maintenance period” noted one correspondent with reference to Stormont’s ongoing stalemate and the consequent unavailability of Ministers to make any intervention on the issue.
Yet on a recent trip to central Italy my accommodation was down a rickety side road whose surface was worse than that of any public road in Northern Ireland even if we did no maintenance for the next quarter century. Actually, things are really not that bad.
And “not that bad” sums it all up. My sense is that part of the Secretary of State’s tactics for the restoration of devolution was that public outrage would steadily grow. Yet it hasn’t. In fact services are still being provided, hospitals are operating, schools will reopen this week as relatively normal, and anyone who took even a cursory road trip at home over the summer will have noticed roads most definitely being fixed as there seem to be roadworks everywhere.
Admittedly there is another side to this. Pupils returning to school will find their choice of subjects more limited than it was, and this is because of budget cuts. Waiting lists even for fairly major diagnoses or surgery now exceed one year, a ludicrous and obviously unsafe level. The issue there is that the public have come to some extent to accept such things; and they do not really believe that they will change dramatically no matter who is nominally in charge. When devolution is restored, as it likely will be some time around Halloween or Christmas, Ministers will be able to blame the “lost year” (and, implicitly, the other side of the sectarian fence) for their woes.
Nevertheless, the fundamental issue is that most residents of Northern Ireland are relatively comfortable. Public sector salaries generally match those in the rest of the UK and most people work in the public sector directly or indirectly; and they then benefit from lower household taxes. Low house prices are also a notable advantage for most people, who do not have their money wrapped up in huge mortgages. There will be exceptions to all of these rules of course, but it means most people are relatively comfortable and explains why, by and large, they continue to elect the same parties to positions of responsibility without much caring about their actual record in administering that responsibility.
Of course, there is little point in trying to make things uncomfortable in order to try to force the big parties into action because the sectarian political system simply allows them to blame each other (although in the end the scale of the problems in the Health Service and around welfare probably will see real pressure for devolved Ministers a few months from now – but not yet). It is exactly there, on institutionalised sectarianism, where the Secretary of State should (but probably won’t) function his energies. For as long as sectarianism remains institutionalised, breakdown and stalemate will be the norm.
We really should try good government instead – but why take the risk when you’re actually quite comfortable and you can just blame everyone else?