Fergal McFerran is President of NUS-USI, the union of students’ unions in Northern Ireland.
Less than twelve months ago there was a sense of an emerging normality about politics in Northern Ireland; a growing expectation that historically entrenched divisions were slowly subsiding and that the business of government – and of governing – was becoming the priority.
And yet, less than a year later, here we are.
We’ve seen our second election in the space of ten months. Since March, the main political parties have been in a repeated cycle of crisis talks with the British Government’s Secretary of State. Not to mention the fact that senior civil servants have taken over the basic functions of delivering public services. We have no ministers, we have no devolved government and following the Prime Minister’s general election announcement, it’s clear that we’re quite far down Westminster’s agenda.
We are facing the most significant vacuum of leadership that we’ve had in a generation, a vacuum that doesn’t look like it’s going to be filled anytime soon. The future of devolution itself is very much at risk.
It’s easy to forget how this latest political crisis came about. A lot has happened in the space of a few months; after bringing devolution to its knees, concerns regarding a renewable heat incentive scheme have taken a backseat as discussions now seem to be focussed on unresolved issues from previous political agreements. The only certainty we have is uncertainty, and with Article 50 well and truly triggered we could not be further up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
In recent weeks I’ve found myself reflecting on the role of the student movement and students in our society here. Forty-five years ago NUS-USI was founded by student leaders who built a movement based on mutual respect, common purpose, and the idea of a united community. It was years before our politicians managed to deliver something similar. To this day we operate on a cross border basis, with both national unions in Britain and Ireland (NUS UK and USI) working together in the best interests of students here, in Northern Ireland.
That example of leadership is one from which I draw strength and inspiration, and it is one that also grounds me in the purpose of education itself; not as a means to an end, not just to roll out graduates on a conveyor belt, but to build and shape citizens who understand that they have a role and a responsibility to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
Now more than ever we need a devolved government focused on building a society which has at its heart a desire to afford each and every person the opportunity to shape the direction of their own future; to improve their life chances; and to shape active citizens who can make a valid and valuable contribution to our community.
But the reality is that political instability breeds uncertainty. Universities and colleges are preparing for the worst; and it’s not the first time. In recent years the sector has become a political football that politicians are happy to chat about but reluctant to actually do anything about, an attitude which has been a source of frustration for many of us.
With tuition fees remaining comparatively low here since they were tripled in England in 2010 our universities have claimed that there is a growing funding gap, unsustainable in the long term. Yet whilst fees have risen in line with inflation every year, student support has been frozen, despite the rising cost of living. NUS-USI very recently published ground-breaking new research which gives the clearest indication yet that the wellbeing of students is at risk as a result of this imbalanced approach to student support.
All of this is compounded by being dragged out of the European Union. Ours is the only part of the UK which shares a land border with another EU member state. Brexit poses very real and unique problems for Northern Ireland, its students, and its universities, and people are right to be anxious.
These are all issues that need to be dealt with, and the student movement has always been prepared to step up and offer pragmatic solutions. But with no government, and the snap election last month having been fought on the basis of crisis and deteriorating relationships between parties rather than any real, substantial policy, at times it can be difficult to be hopeful.
Perhaps the harsh reality is that for quite some time our devolution in Northern Ireland has only ever just survived rather than thrived. We’ve maintained a status quo – a symbolic status quo, mind you – but avoided having to do very much actual governing. The new era of ‘normal’ politics that so many people here – young and old – are crying out for pushes politicians out of their comfort zones, and when was the last time turkeys were excited for Christmas?
I think we need to see a re-emergence of the brave, bold politics that delivered the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 to genuinely reinvigorate our journey to a reconciled society; that allows us to all to work together to build a united community based on the values of equality and mutual respect.
With the prospect of a General Election now in our midst our local politicians face some stark choices about the standard of leadership they choose to embody, and the vision for our society that they want to offer to our people. The problem, as I see it, is that politicians seem incapable of finding the common ground needed to make the devolved institutions work. And as Westminster will now be embroiled in an election that makes Northern Ireland increasingly irrelevant, we really do have nowhere to hide.
I wait with baited breath, but I suspect civic society may soon step up to provide the leadership everyone’s desperately searching for.