What Policy Challenges Lie Ahead for Northern Ireland Assembly?

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Dr Ka Ka Katie Tsang

Devolved government has returned to the Parliament Buildings at Stormont, and members of the legislative assembly must now begin to tackle the backlog of public sector challenges.

Since February 2022, the Northern Ireland Civil Service has had the unenviable task of running the country without ministerial direction.

Senior officials have continued to run government departments based on the policy direction set by the executive before the collapse. But in the past two years, Stormont’s budget has come under intense pressure. Westminster has imposed budget cuts, in part due to an overspend caused by the prolonged absence of a functioning executive.

These cuts have increased pressures on vital health services, meaning affected people are waiting longer for diagnosis and even longer for preventative treatment. For example, health providers are struggling to meet increasing demand for mental health services, and without access to emotional resilience tools, the potential for further harm to some of Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable and marginalised communities is likely to increase.

Ministers are faced with tackling some of Northern Ireland’s long-standing policy challenges such as long hospital waiting lists, acces to childcare, support to deal with the cost-of-living crsis, action on the climate crisis, and ending violence against women and girls.

What We Learned from IPPO’s Winter School for Civil Servants

The return of power-sharing to Northern Ireland brings hope for addressing the policy challenges that have accumulated during the two-year absence of a devolved government.

The problems are well-rehearsed and the civil service will need to work together to adopt the latest thinking around using evidence and intelligence from a variety of sources to address them. This was the focus of a recent Public Policy Winter School held at Queen’s University Belfast where the IPPO team shared its work with senior public servants across a variety of themes.

Department representatives expressed a pressing need for better cross-departmental collaboration and emphasised the need for bespoke policy solutions for Northern Ireland.

Questions arose on how to effectively measure policy impact and efficacy amidst ongoing industrial action within the education sector. The IPPO Winter School delegates also shared insights on current policy priorities concerning fuel poverty, energy waste, aged housing, long-term budget planning, and the necessity of local authority buy-in for future policymaking in NI.

IPPO will continue to support the work of the Northern Ireland public service as the political leaders re-assume the levers of authority. As the ministers take on their roles and responsibilities, the spotlight is on their ability to navigate these intricate policy issues and deliver tangible solutions for the benefit of Northern Ireland’s communities.

Three Key Policy Challenges for 2024

Barriers to Decarbonisation in the UK

The UK is not on track to achieve Net Zero by 2050 and is far behind other countries such as Norway, Finland, France, and Italy. Northern Ireland’s Climate Change Act places a mandatory duty on the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to monitor and report on the progress of interim and final carbon budgets and emissions reduction targets. Equally, the Climate Change Committee warns that Northern Ireland will fall short of its 2050 net zero emissions target if stronger measures are not taken to reduce emissions from livestock, homes and public transport.

The policy recommendations from IPPO’s recent evidence review on, ‘How to Overcome Barriers to Consumer Green Purchase Decisions’ advocates for behavioural change interventions as well as better financial incentives to motivate higher levels of heat pump installation. In addition to knowledge awareness and improving green consumer behaviour, Northern Ireland’s Green Growth Strategy also notes clear demand for a more carbon-friendly, green-skilled workforce adequately upskilled to ensure a just tradition towards a better green economy for NI.

Unemployment and the Cost of Living Crisis

News of the returning executive has seen calls for immediate action and strategies to address child poverty, the lack of affordable childcare and support to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.

These problems are compounded by Northern Ireland’s historically high level of economic inactivity in comparison with the other parts of the UK.

A recent report from Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) identified that over half of those economically inactive (55%) are not working due to long-term illness or disability. Policy recommendations from the UUEPC have identified the need for more inclusive labour market practices through sickness absence and preventative investment into employee wellbeing. Given the long waiting lists for healthcare in Northern Ireland, it’s clear more needs to be done to support those in-work with their health concerns, before they drop out of the system. Similarly, previous evidence collated by IPPO Scotland and IPPO Northern Ireland teams focused on inactivity and the influence of age as well as health. Our twin roundtables and policy briefings found that tailored, place-based partnerships between affected populations and local authorities greatly assist healthy ageing interventions and are effective in boosting positive health at work. The demographic profile of high economically inactive populations also points to the need to streamline and design more age, health sensitive employability support systems if the Executive is to revive a vibrant, growing economy for Northern Ireland.

Violence Against Women and Girls

Newly appointed First Minister Michelle O’Neill has re-emphasised that Northern Ireland is facing an ‘epidemic’ of violence against women and girls and this national emergency necessitates the delivery of a new strategy. Northern Ireland is currently the only region in the UK without such a framework.

Campaign groups have long argued that domestic abuse laws do not go far enough to protect women from the higher than average risk of femicide in Northern Ireland. Last year, the Police Service of Northern Ireland reported that 7 of the 11 local policing districts showed an increase in the number of domestic abuse incidents.

In September 2022, IPPO Northern Ireland and Ann Watt, the director of the Pivotal Public Policy Forum, invited speakers to reflect on the state of evidence around the patterned violence and the necessary policy drivers required to reduce its prevalence. Evidence from this online engagement session indicated how effective public messaging and the integration of survivors’ lived experiences were key to improving how women managed their experience.