After three years of impasse in the Northern Ireland Assembly, hope is on the horizon. David Smyth from the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland talks of his hopes for the future as Downing Street puts forward a new deal to restore power sharing between the two main political parties.
PCN: How frustrating has the past three years been?
DS: It's been a very unusual time. We've had three years with a local assembly making key decisions about the health and wellbeing of people in Northern Ireland. It's really beginning to bite. We marked three years yesterday. Today, nurses are on strike over pay parity with the rest of the UK, and over their concerns for patient safety because waiting lists have got so long, and emergency departments are so overcrowded. There's a real concern around basic things like health, education, and strategic governmental decisions being made on those issues. There's also a frustration because some really important social issues like same sex marriage and abortion, rather than being decided upon by the Northern Ireland executive here as devolved issues as they should have been, they were decided on at Westminster over in the summer, and those changes have or are due to come into effect in the next number of weeks.
PCN: For those outside Northern Ireland just explain to us why it's been so hard to get politicians to work together.
DS: We have a long history of division here in Northern Ireland with a backdrop of over 50 years of troubles. We're 22 years old from the Good Friday Agreement, which largely saw a cessation in the violence. More recently, as politics and peace has become normalised here, the executive fell three years ago, because of a disagreement between the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, over a heating scheme, where there was a bit of a botch job around that and an overspend is predicted of around £500m. So there was a fall out and the structure of our government, because of our past, is based on a power sharing model. So Sinn Fein and the DUB need to be in power together as the two largest parties, one from each side of the community. Because one party pulled out of government three years ago, the government fell. Part of this new deal is trying to look at some of these issues, so it's more difficult to bring down the government and easier to keep it going.
PCN: How confident are you that the parties are going to get round the table again?
DS: This deal which was published last night by the British and Irish governments in draft form is now being considered by the parties. It does look like the DUP has indicated that they think that the deal is, while not perfect, it's something that they'd be prepared to back. So, eyes have been turned to Sinn Fein and the other parties to see how they're going to respond so we're in a very fluid and crucial moment. The deal is wide ranging from health care to the environment to poverty, a whole range of issues and there are some things that aren't in there, like that abortion legislation so we are concerned to see some more detail around some things like that, but this is a crucial moment. The parties have until midnight on Monday coming and then the Secretary of State may well call a fresh election. We want to see the restoration of good, local governance. We want to see strong relationships because the text of any agreements is only as good as the relationships between the parties that underpin that. So for us, it's less about a model of government, whether that's devolution or not. It's more about how can good local governance be returned to Northern Ireland to serve the people here. And that's what we're encouraging people to pray for.
PCN: We know the Church has been vocal in Northern Ireland about getting things moving, how important has that role been?
DS: We still have a high church going population, we would still have a larger number of people who attend church who would identify as Christian here in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of these islands. So the Church's voice on this has been important, they've continued to speak out strongly around welfare reform and the most vulnerable. They've spoken up like sectarianism, mental health, abortion and marriage. The church is still involved, very much in everyday life here in local communities and still has a relatively strong political voice. I know the Secretary of State and the parties have met with church leaders, and do meet them on an ongoing basis because they have an important role in voicing the concerns of many people here. So I do think as church leaders call for good governance in this moment, that is one of the considerations that the parties will be will be thinking about.