Skip To The Main Content
25 July 2017

Is there a political vacuum sitting at the heart of Stormont?

That ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and that ‘change is the only constant’ are comments attributed to two ancient philosophers, Aristotle and Heraclitus. Both phrases are so frequently quoted that they have become embedded in our language and, as such, are widely held as truths - except perhaps here in Northern Ireland. 

Here, whilst nature might abhor a vacuum, human nature seems to be oblivious, perhaps tolerant, or even welcoming of it. It could be argued that a political vacuum has been created and sustained at Stormont for the past half-year; deadlines have been set but they have been missed, so the vacuum has intensified. It is one into which the Secretary of State is working strenuously to avoid being drawn lest, as in nature, his very presence would fill the void. Whilst such an ending of the vacuum might satisfy nature, our local politicians and wider society would abhor the loss of local control and accountability that it would usher in.

That other great truth – of change being the only constant – is also hard to square with the reality of the ‘control experiment’ that is Northern Ireland. Of course, there is abundant change in the world around us and, locally, in our own landscape and economy construction projects are really taking off, businesses are winning awards for innovation and export, and, of course, Brexit is happening. Change is all around us - much of it positive; some negative; all challenging. In parallel, however, the ‘constant’ in our politics seems to be the lack of change. All sides recognise the need for change in others - echoing the standpoint of the business community – but signs of that change are still absent.

Another more recent commentator, Albert Einstein, asserted that ‘Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. In Northern Ireland, we are at a time and a place where competitive pressures from around the world are ensuring that change is coming at us from all angles. We can no longer repeatedly keep doing the same things whilst expecting a different and better outcome.

The situation is urgent. We have a tiny window, perhaps just a few short weeks, while politics in Westminster and Europe move into holiday mode. It is for this reason that politicians, who can acknowledge the need to find common purpose and embrace change in pursuit of prosperity, must fill the vacuum.

Our local politicians, who have been unable to carry out their Assembly functions over the past sixth months have, nonetheless, been immersed in the most remarkable political fray. Not one election but two, each associated with challenging negotiations. On a human level, all of this will have sapped energy and taken its toll on the individuals involved, so it is not unreasonable to want them to take some time out, to refresh and regroup. But, in giving them that space, we cannot remove the urgency and importance of their re-engaging, doubling and redoubling the efforts they have already made to reach agreement and restore the Assembly and Executive. Brexit is the largest challenge facing these islands in more than two generations. There are two main courses - we can seek to limit negative effects and retain much of the status quo in our relations with the EU; or we can strive to find positive advantages from the change that will occur, repositioning ourselves globally, seeking out the benefits and recalibrating our economic ambitions; both of these are noble positions. What would be unacceptable, however, would be to be absent from the field of play, leaving a political vacuum because of resisting change and a belief that, by so doing, a different outcome will be achieved.

Northern Ireland features in many of the statements of Irish, UK and EU politicians at the moment, as resolution of our particular situation is high on the agenda. We are being talked about, but we are not taking part in the conversation as we have no Executive so participate in talks. Let’s be clear; we need our elected politicians to overcome their differences, find ways to work together, and take up their posts again so that our voice can be heard in all of the discussions that will affect us. Business is all about change; and business, like nature, abhors a vacuum

Read more about Wilfred Mitchell