AnalysisPublic Affairs

Megan Fearon: Choosing hope for Assembly delivery

Former Sinn Féin MLA and Junior Minister Megan Fearon outlines her perspective on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and what she asserts is the urgent need for delivery of effective legislation.

February 2024 saw the fog lift and the mood music change as were led the DUP back to Stormont after a two-year boycott. Despite numerous false starts, sense prevailed and those who held onto hope were proven right in the end. I can admit, I was not one of them.

Since then, the positive leadership being shown by Michelle O’Neill MLA and Emma Little-Pengelly MLA has, dare I say, offered us all a glimmer of hope. The charm offensive and public gestures of goodwill is exactly what we needed. It no doubt also helped to garner even more international goodwill. Michelle O’Neill’s becoming First Minster feels seismic, because it is. It resonates deeply with many people. There is a newfound confidence in the air in our capacity to create something positive and enduring for our children.

The unanticipated ministry selections have led Sinn Féin to control three economic departments – finance, economy, and infrastructure – a rare scenario in any coalition government. This decision by the DUP might prove short-sighted. What frequently goes missing in our political commentary and, at times, policymaking, is the ability to zoom out and see the bigger picture.

The North is not isolated or adrift in the Irish Sea; developments here have implications across the entire island, no matter how minor they may seem. For instance, Sinn Féin holding three economic portfolios is not only significant for the North but also provides voters in the South an opportunity to see that the party is not ‘new’ to government.

In the not-too-distant future, Sinn Féin will lead both governments on the island. This will have enormous implications for our future. Irish unity will feature prominently on the Irish Government’s agenda – something my generation has never witnessed.

How will the UK Government respond? How will the DUP adapt?

One thing is certain: the Assembly will not survive another collapse. It is in everyone’s interest to make Stormont work this time around. The DUP will not want to see Sinn Féin ministers from Dublin spearheading power-sharing negotiations in Belfast.

Fortunately, officials in the Department for the Economy can now openly discuss the advantages of dual market access – a topic previously considered taboo.

Minister Conor Murphy MLA leading the economy portfolio is a step forward in optimising our post-Brexit reality. Harnessing our unique position was always an obvious choice. Embracing the all-island economy is another.

I hope to see more north/south cooperation going forward. If there was ever an example of how crucial this is, it was the pandemic. As a small island nation, we could and should have handled the pandemic much better; but we worked back-to-back.

If we are looking for another example where we are making the same mistake, it is in our approach to climate and energy policy. A joint approach simply makes sense. There is still time to get it right.

We can hope that the recent announcement by the Irish government of €800 million funding for cross-border infrastructure projects is a step in the right direction. The A5 project, in particular, will significantly reduce travel time between the north-west and Dublin, create jobs, and crucially, save lives.

Nevertheless, the challenge lies in ensuring Stormont’s own finances are sustainable. Calls for the Assembly to ‘make do’ with existing resources have been met with rightful resistance, especially considering the historical context. The Good Friday Agreement was signed merely 25 years ago. We often talk about that like its ancient history, and it is a long time in one sense, but not in politics. To put it in context, the Brexit referendum, which seems like yesterday to most of us, marks its eighth anniversary this year.

Comparisons of per capita government spending in parts of the UK are frequently cited. If you can show me another part of the UK where the British Government was directly involved in conflict for decades, then I will consider these comparisons valid.

Many of the significant challenges we face, such as poverty, mental health, addiction, violence against women and girls, skills shortages, and rising emigration, are directly linked to intergenerational trauma from decades of conflict. The Brexit fallout and the loss of EU funding only add layers of complexity to these issues.

We have unique circumstances. Circumstances we did not choose for ourselves. They demand an appropriate financial response.

The period just before the Assembly’s collapse in 2022 was hailed as one of the most productive times for the Assembly. This was due to the rapid passing of numerous pieces of legislation that made a difference and cooperation between parties was at a high. As we now have only three years left in the mandate, the emphasis must shift to legislation rather than ineffective motions.

Key areas requiring attention include childcare, a fully funded anti-poverty strategy, a revamp of our approach to further and higher education with a focus on part-time opportunities, infrastructure enhancements, public sector pay, and special educational needs, to name just a few.

We can focus on the big picture and still get the small things right. Indeed it is often the things deemed ‘small’ that will most immediately improve lives.

As someone who was proven wrong before by losing hope, I am choosing to believe that we are at the beginning of a new era, both in the North and across the island.

Show More
Back to top button