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News & opinion

14 JUN 2018

Stormont's construction to-do list is piling up

The vacuum in Executive decision making in Northern Ireland is creating a backlog of delayed infrastructure projects.

Months of political uncertainty in Italy came to a conclusion recently when a coalition government was agreed, breaking an impasse that had endured since the inconclusive election in March, when no party or bloc won a majority.

The three-month political deadlock had spooked the markets and threatened to send the Italian economy – one of the Europe’s largest – and the wider EU into turmoil, with stock markets in Italy and elsewhere rattled and confidence plummeting.

A three-month political deadlock in a country like Italy is a major issue and rightly became a significant cause for concern within the EU and beyond. As a result, it generated headlines around the world.

In Northern Ireland, we have been without a government at Stormont for approaching 16 months. I’m not directly comparing Northern Ireland with Italy; they are clearly constitutionally and economically very different. But Northern Ireland’s situation is still remarkable and becoming an increasing concern for our economy, given the lack of decision-making.

With no ministers in place at Stormont, civil servants have been making the day-to-day calls on running public services. But major decisions  many involving hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds of public money  need to be approved by an executive.

Belfast High Court’s recent ruling on the proposed energy from waste facility in Newtownabbey raises significant questions about the delivery of infrastructure projects in the absence of a functioning executive.

The judgment introduces an additional measure of uncertainty in an environment already dominated by indecision. If this principle applies more broadly, other significant infrastructure projects will become the subject of doubt.

Critical road developments in the North West, the North-South Interconnector, vital for Northern Ireland’s future energy security, and other crucial projects may be put on hold until ministers are in place.

If senior civil servants are unable to approve regionally significant applications, Northern Ireland will experience a widening infrastructure gap and a dwindling project pipeline for our construction industry.

The High Court’s judgment switches off the auto pilot option that politicians may have been hoping for while the impasse continues. This demands a political response both locally and from the UK government.

Although the recent ruling goes to the Court of Appeal shortly, no judgement is expected until the autumn and depending on what that is, it could then go to the Supreme Court. That offers the prospect of limbo for quite some time yet.

Infrastructure investment is just one part of the problem reform of Northern Ireland’s health service is clearly another issue that should be right at the top of the decision-making agenda  but it is a very considerable one. Investing in our infrastructure not only provides an important economic benefit in the short-term, it is also vital for ensuring competitiveness in the longer term. Without modern, functioning infrastructure, the ability to attract inward investment for instance will certainly be impacted.

What is clear is that the current situation in Northern Ireland cannot continue. We need decisive action to end this directionless drift and to bring certainty to local industry.