367 Days Without a Government – So Who’s Running Northern Ireland?

The Parliament Buildings in the Stormont Estate in Belfast, after it was announced that the Northern Ireland elections due to be held on May 29, were to be postponed.

Northern Ireland is gaining ground on Belgium’s record of 589 days without an elected government in a democracy.

It is 367 days since the devolved administration at Stormont collapsed, leaving one corner of the UK without a ruling executive in place.

With no ministers in office, senior civil servants have had to step in to keep the various departments of government – health, education, etc – ticking over.

Unelected officials are making decisions daily on how hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money should be spent.

But that is not without precedent.

In 2010-11, Belgium spent a year and a half in political limbo, and Spain found itself in a similar position for 10 months in 2016.

Germany has been unable to form a coalition since the election last September but outgoing ministers remain in place in the interim.

One year and two days after the power-sharing government fell apart in Northern Ireland, the civil servants fear they will soon run out of cash.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - MARCH 22: Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill (L) and (DUP) Democratic Union Party Leader Arlene Foster wait to sign a book of condolence at Stormont on March 22, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness died overnight on Monday 20th March 2017.

David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland civil service, has warned that public finances will reach “crunch point” if there is not an agreed budget.

With no budget in place for the start of the new financial year in April, officials cannot make crucial decisions and public services are at breaking point.

Karen Bradley, the new Northern Ireland Secretary, has announced a short, intense phase of talks in the hope she will not have to step in.

If the parties – and the DUP and Sinn Fein, in particular – refuse to compromise, Westminster will be required to set a budget for Northern Ireland.

Whatever spin the various players might put on that, it would amount to a return to direct rule for the first time in 10 years.

That risks significant tension between the British and Irish governments at a time when they are already divided on how Brexit will affect the border.

Repeated efforts to restore devolution and a series of broken deadlines over the last 12 months have drained credibility from the political process in Belfast.

The failure to resume power-sharing and the Prime Minister’s reluctance to cut politicians’ salaries has provided local comedians with a wealth of satire.

But those affected by the growing crisis in public services, particularly in health and education, stopped seeing the funny side of stalemate a long time ago.

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