An optimist might be inclined to think that, sooner or later, devolved government will return to Northern Ireland.

An uber optimist might be inclined to think that once we get a devolved government, it will see out the full mandate and not collapse (this has only ever happened twice in nearly 25 years). Even the uber, uber optimist, however, would have to concede that the next Executive – should we get one – faces an in-tray stacked with soberingly difficult challenges.

Responding to the cost of living crisis should be the next Executive’s first priority.

That is the public view according to new public opinion research released by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. Asked what the next Executive should focus on, nearly half of 1,000 people surveyed between 3rd–14th March 2023 ranked the economy/cost of living crisis as the most important issue, with a further 24% ranking it as the second most important issue. With sky high inflation and the UK about to experience the sharpest fall in living standards since the 1950s, the salience of economic issues among the public isn’t that surprising.

What should grab our attention, though, is that people in Northern Ireland are suffering under the cost of living crisis more acutely than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has investigated the impacts of the cost of living crisis, but their data only pertain to adults in England and Wales. To facilitate broad comparison with Northern Ireland, the Institute of Irish studies survey replicated a series of ONS questions and asked these of people here. The results make for grim reading.

16% of people in Northern Ireland indicated that, in the preceding two weeks, their household had run out of food and could not afford to buy more. The comparative figure for England and Wales, when the ONS asked about this in January, was 5%. In England and Wales, one-in-ten people cannot afford to eat a balanced diet; in Northern Ireland, the figure is one-in-five. In England and Wales, 9% of people indicate that not being able to afford enough food is negatively impacting their health and well-being; in Northern Ireland, the figure is 19%.

It is depressingly ironic that the region of the UK which appears to be suffering most severely from the cost of living crisis happens to be the region without a functioning government. Would the return of devolved government make any difference? People think that it would. Just under 60% of those surveyed in the Institute of Irish Studies poll believe that, in terms of the cost of living crisis, the return of devolved government would improve the situation ‘a lot’ (19%) or ‘a little’ (39%). Despite the chequered history of devolved governance here, sceptics are few and far between on this question: only 3% believe a restored Executive would make matters worse (the rest are unsure or believe it would make the situation neither better nor worse).

What exactly an Executive would do to tackle the cost of living crisis is the trickier question. In Scotland, the devolved government has introduced the Scottish Child Payment (to help low income families with young children), set up an energy efficiency cash back scheme for small businesses, and widened eligibility for the Tenant Grant Fund (providing support to tenants who have incurred arrears in social or privately rented accommodation). These initiatives have been possible, in part, because the Scottish Parliament has a range of tax and revenue raising powers at its disposal. However, the same cannot be said of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which, comparatively speaking, has weak fiscal devolution.

That could change. The Independent Fiscal Commission for Northern Ireland (2022) has recommended a series of measures to increase the revenue raising powers of the Assembly, including the devolution of (elements of) income tax, air passenger duty, stamp duty, and the apprenticeship levy. In theory, this would allow future Executives the financial bandwidth to develop the type of bespoke economic initiatives implemented in Scotland. The prospect of a more financially powerful administration may not be universally welcomed, however. Sound financial management hasn’t exactly been a forte in previous Executives. Nonetheless, greater fiscal devolution would demand from our governing parties a more mature approach to public finances – and that would be universally welcomed. If MLAs were to wield more power over the purse strings, they’d have more to answer for at election time.

Next on the Executive’s in-tray is ‘fixing the NHS’: 27% of respondents to the Institute of Irish Studies survey ranked this issue as the most important one facing an incoming Executive, followed by a further 32% who ranked it as the second most important. Again, this isn’t surprising. According to the British Medical Association (2020), Northern Ireland’s health and social care system performs worse than anywhere else in the UK on almost every measure. Chronic underfunding, thanks to 13 years of Westminster austerity, is an obvious contributor to the dismal state of Northern Ireland’s health service. However, that is true of the NHS UK-wide. In Northern Ireland’s case, political instability at Stormont has made so many of the problems in the NHS worse, impeding the implementation of much needed strategic reforms and creating deep uncertainty around financial planning. That is the view of clinicians at the coalface, as reported in research from the Nuffield Trust (Dayan and Heenan 2019).

Political instability has much to answer for, and the public know it. Reforming the Assembly and Executive – presumably to end the cycle of crisis and collapse – is the most or second most important issue for 17% of the public. In terms of public salience, that places it on a par with the Northern Ireland Protocol/Windsor Framework, which also emerges as the most or second most important issue for 17% of the public. Remarkably, institutional reform is held to be more of a priority than education or crime, which emerge as the most or second most important issue for 7% and 8% of the public respectively. The subject of institutional reform used to be the preserve of geeks and political anoraks; now it is edging towards a mainstream concern.

Would a restored devolved administration reform itself? Or, perhaps more importantly, would the veto holders in Sinn Féin and the DUP participate in a reform process which could eventually dilute their veto power? The uber, uber optimist thinks ‘maybe…if there is sufficient public pressure emanating from an inclusive and informed public conversation about institutional reform, perhaps to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement’. The pessimist thinks that, without institutional reform, devolution may not be worth saving.