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Stormont is back - what are the eight key challenges facing Northern Ireland’s new government?

Ministers face an array of problems and the top priority will be attempting to extract more money from the UK treasury to pay for everything

Powersharing is back in Northern Ireland. Now that MLAs have taken their places on the Assembly benches and ministers are at their desks, it is time for the hard work to really begin.

The Sinn Féin First Minister Michelle O’Neill, the DUP Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly and their colleagues around the Executive table – made up of Sinn Féin, DUP, Alliance and Ulster Unionist MLAs – have quite the to-do list.

Five years without government – from 2017-2020 and 2022-2024 – and the Covid-19 pandemic in between have left Stormont’s finances in a perilous state and public services have suffered – above all, health.

It’s a lot to tackle, not least given the system of mandatory coalition in operation in Northern Ireland, which requires Sinn Féin and the DUP to agree on the big decisions, and the lack of funding which is a common problem for all Stormont departments.


These are some of the priority issues in the ministerial in-trays.

Fixing the health service

Of all the challenges facing the new Executive, the biggest is on the shoulders of Minister for Health Robin Swann.

The situation has grown even worse since the Ulster Unionist minister’s last spell in the job, from 2020-22; now, more than a quarter of the North’s population is on a health waiting list, and the health service is struggling with continued underinvestment and lack of long-term reform.

This has sparked a workforce crisis, with frontline staff leaving in their droves – there are almost 3,000 unfilled posts in nursing alone – and plummeting morale.

GP services are also under pressure, as evidenced by a recent rise in the number of practices handing back their contracts.

Ultimately, root and branch service reform is required, as has been recommended in seven successive independent reports, none of which have been implemented due to lack of political will

First, Mr Swann needs to sort out the public sector pay dispute which has seen healthcare workers from nurses and ambulance drivers to physiotherapists and midwives go on strike. In the longer term, workforce planning comes under the health portfolio and needs to improve in order to attract new blood while incentivising current staff to stay on in both hospital and community settings.

Sustained investment in social care packages to speed up hospital discharges will be key but Mr Swann’s civil servants may struggle to balance the books with so many other competing priorities.

Ultimately, root and branch service reform is required, as has been recommended in seven successive independent reports, none of which have been implemented due to lack of political will.

Health receives the biggest share of the Executive budget out of the nine Stormont departments – it received £7.3 billion out of the overall £14.2 billion for 2023/24 – but is regarded as a poisoned chalice. It was telling that neither of the two largest parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, opted to take it on when selecting ministers last weekend.

Sorting out public sector pay

Robin Swann isn’t the only minister for whom sorting out public sector pay is a priority. Northern Ireland has become well accustomed to strike action by public sector workers in recent years. Last month, a mass walkout by unions representing 170,000 employees brought the North to a virtual standstill.

Approximately £600 million to resolve this dispute is included in the £3.3 billion offered by the UK government to a restored Stormont, but the assessment of the new Minister for Finance, Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald, is that it “only provides funding for one year and falls short of what is required.”

Here, the new Executive is united; it has written to prime minister Rishi Sunak outlining precisely why its £3.3 billion was only a “short-term solution” and “does not provide the basis for the Executive to deliver sustainable public services and public finances”.

Sorting out public sector pay was always about more than just salaries. Anyone on a picket line will tell you that, after years of cutbacks which have left services stretched to breaking point, they are also striking to ensure public services are properly funded.

Resolving this in the long term will ultimately come down to whether the Executive can successfully renegotiate the level of funding provided by the UK government, which is currently set at £1.24 for every £1 spent in England.

A tall order, not least because Scotland has already been asking how it can have a share of the extra money which has been found for Northern Ireland. Pulling it off will require ministers to maintain that united front and for the Minister for Finance to prove Stormont can keep its end of the bargain and introduce its own revenue-raising measures, potentially through an unpopular rates increase.

Funding education

Tackling the fallout from budget cuts on Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable children will among the immediate problems facing the new Minister for Education, the DUP’s Paul Givan.

Pupils with special educational needs and those from poorer backgrounds have been the hardest hit in the cuts.

On his first day in the job, Mr Givan confirmed plans to examine legislation about branded school uniforms and sports kits – an issue raised by his “embarrassed” constituents struggling to meet costs.

Increased investment in Special School provision will also be a priority given the demand for places and projected spike in the number of children requiring additional support over the next decade.

Teachers were among the public sector workers who took part in mass strike action last month and it will fall to the Minister for Education to bring their salaries into line with their counterparts in Britain.

Additional money must also be found for capital build schemes – on his wish list is an extra £100 million – and he must also take forward a new law which committed to increasing the number of pupils educated in integrated schools.

Saving Lough Neagh

The images last summer and autumn of Lough Neagh choking under a carpet of blue-green algae brought home the extent of the threat posed by climate change to Northern Ireland.

Tackling this will be the biggest challenge faced by the new Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, the Alliance Party’s Andrew Muir.

Northern Ireland has fallen severely behind when it comes to protecting the environment. The assessment by the UK’s Climate Change Committee last year was that planning for climate change in the North “remains at an early stage” and most of the “critical” policy and planning milestones “are not in place”.

The minister demonstrated his commitment by visiting the lough on his first full day of ministerial engagements but warned that funding was “critical”.

“Money is what is needed in relation to this, alongside commitment and partnerships working,” he told the BBC.

That united front at Stormont will be vital. As per its rules, any proposals deemed “significant, controversial and cross-cutting” require Executive sign-off and cross-community support, so this minister will need the support of others if he is to make change happen.

Sorting out childcare

Much like public sector workers’ demands for pay parity, working parents in the North have called for a new UK scheme offering free childcare to be introduced by Stormont.

From April, working parents of two-year-olds in England will get 15 hours of free childcare per week during term-time. This will increase to 30 hours’ per week for under-fives when the scheme is fully rolled out from September 2025.

One campaigner said the ‘glass ceiling hasn’t been smashed’ as it tends to be new mothers who return to work on a part-time basis because they can’t afford full-time childcare

Because childcare is a devolved matter, working parents in Northern Ireland are not eligible, sparking outrage among those paying creche and childminder fees of more than £1,000 per month in some cases.

One campaigner said the “glass ceiling hasn’t been smashed” as it tends to be new mothers who return to work on a part-time basis because they can’t afford full-time childcare.

Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly have pledged that affordable childcare was a priority for the new Executive. It will be a pledge closely monitored by parents.

Repairing the roads

It seems as if Northern Ireland’s roads have never been a worse state. The number of complaints about potholes more than doubled last year and the newly installed Minister for Infrastructure, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd, has acknowledged the “deterioration in our roads due to years of underinvestment” and the impact of recent weather events, not least major flooding.

Like all departments, Infrastructure is short of money, estimating in July 2023 that, even with substantial cutbacks, it was facing a funding gap of £112 million.

Financial and resourcing pressures mean development work on many major road schemes has been paused.

Among the handful prioritised is the upgrade of the A5 from Derry to the Border at Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone. Work is scheduled to begin on the first stage this year, but given that it has been in the pipeline for more than 15 years there will be few who do not treat this timeline with caution.

Elsewhere, the list of delayed or stalled projects is lengthy, including further work on the A6 Derry-to-Belfast upgrade and Belfast’s second Glider route. New transport plans must also take into account commitments under recent climate change legislation.

Ending violence against women and girls

Femicide rates have risen sharply in the North over the past decade, yet a dedicated strategy to tackle violence against women and girls couldn’t be actioned during the political deadlock.

In her maiden speech to the Assembly Chamber last Saturday, Michelle O’Neill acknowledged that violence against women had reached “epidemic” levels and pledged to prioritise the strategy’s implementation.

But there is a lot of catching up to do. Women’s Aid welcomed the move but said that “essential resourcing” must be found by the Executive if it is to follow through on its commitment.

Kelly Armstrong from the charity warned it will “take a generation to make change”.

Rebuilding Casement Park

Dogged by controversy since it was announced the west Belfast GAA ground was to be redeveloped for Euro 28, fresh concerns have emerged about Casement Park amid the new ministerial line-up.

As Minister for Communities, the DUP’s Gordon Lyons is responsible for overseeing the ambitious project – one that his party leader Jeffrey Donaldson is fiercely opposed to funding.

Mr Lyons has yet to comment on Casement’s future despite a looming deadline for building work to begin.

Uefa has reportedly drawn up contingency plans over fears the grounds will not be ready in time to host the 2028 football tournament.

Michelle O’Neill described the redevelopment of the derelict Andersonstown site as the “opportunity of a lifetime” for west Belfast and it is her party which holds the finance portfolio.

The Irish and UK governments have also pledged financial support but with no contractor currently in place to rebuild the stadium, time is running out.

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