For many people, August represents a time to take stock; to relax after the busy first part of the year and to think about the approach of autumn. Pupils and students will take a well-earned break after another year of study and review their exam results. Farmers will look at well-filled barns and think about sowing new crops. Much of the population will take some form of holiday or break - a respite that is needed this year more than most, after the frenzied buffeting we have all experienced through the twin storms of COVID and Brexit.
But in this moment of calm, a question arises. Have both of these storms passed, or are we in their eye, with another series of turbulent fronts about to engulf us? With COVID, there is a sense that the vaccination programme, which the vast majority have people have now embraced, is going to cause us some difficulties from time to time but that the worst is past. With Brexit, there is less reason to be so sanguine, with massive issues remaining unresolved and Monsieur Barnier’s famous clock still ticking towards the end of the grace periods. We can expect to hear little until next month, by which time those little summer zephyrs may well turn to raging autumn storms. We shall see.
Whatever way those two storms develop, there is another that we know to be coming but which the efforts of just ninety people here in Northern Ireland could avoid. We are in the final months of a strange Stormont mandate that began with an election in 2017 but which saw nearly three years slip past before an actual Assembly was formed. Then, as the first cases of COVID were emerging and the Brexit transition period was in its last year, politics prevailed, discord turned to harmony, and an Executive was formed. Within weeks, COVID swept over us and Ministers set aside many of their traditional differences and really impressed people with their determination to act together, support one another, and help pilot Northern Ireland through one of its most dangerous challenges in a generation.
Eighteen months on, those same politicians will be starting to think about the strategies they need to deploy as we approach next spring’s Assembly election. That is usually the starting point for an acrimonious, point-scoring, do-the-other-guy-down sort of governance, as efforts are made to put clear blue water between parties. Normally, the first 80% of an Executive mandate is akin to warring parents who have decided to put on a show of uneasy peace for the benefit of the visiting relatives before, in the teeth of the election, that pretence is abandoned and each adopts the role they think we will find impressive as they assert themselves and do each other down as publicly and nastily as they can. But it needn’t and, indeed, shouldn’t be that way this time.
The handling of the COVID pandemic, whilst peppered with mis-steps, showed that our Executive can, indeed, raise their sights and that Assembly members really do care for this place and its people. The ninety MLAs at Stormont now have an opportunity to find the common ground and show real ambition in the months ahead, as the outworking of the Brexit process and the Northern Ireland Protocol move forward. Just as MLAs gave space for the Health Minister to find his feet and get to grips with an unprecedented situation to help us all, so there must be resolve to avoid the temptation to deny politicians the space they need to manoeuvre to maximise the opportunities afforded post-Brexit.
No one wants to live in a bad or impoverished neighbourhood; nor aspires to live next to one. Whatever political ideologies and allegiances our politicians harbour, none will be well-served by presiding over a Northern Ireland that has failed to make the best of itself. A confident people can make good, informed choices. Whether a party’s politics cherish the union within the UK, or aspire to a united Ireland, or see benefit in a prosperous region that can be closely engaged with all of its near neighbours, it has a duty to maximise opportunities for its local people and electorate. Education, health services, infrastructure, law and order – these basic requisites of a good society all underpin that other great aspiration, a prosperous economy with plentiful jobs and all of the benefits that generating wealth can deliver.
Northern Ireland’s unique place in both its relations with its near neighbours, combined with its close relations with the United States, means it has the opportunity to pursue a remarkable place as a key manufacturing and trading base for global companies that want to trade with both the EU and the UK. We approach the forthcoming election at exactly the same time the Brexit negotiations and settlement of new systems that respect all strands of the Good Friday Agreement will play out. It would be unforgivable if the spirit of cooperation that saw us collectively face down the worst threats of the pandemic, and which could still see us harness the best of opportunities to improve and secure economic prospects following Brexit, were to be set aside in a petty attempt at creating notional differences for party political electoral gain. Far better, by far, to show qualities of leadership and ambition, and a commitment to empower people to maximise their individual and collective potential. Perhaps that is something on which our politicians and their party strategists will reflect as they take stock in this watershed month, and let us avoid another unnecessary and damaging storm.