Unity in times of crisis? How power sharing societies respond to Covid-19

by Henry Jarrett, University of Exeter

Parliament Buildings, or ‘Stormont’; the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

On 20 March 2020, Northern Ireland First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, stated that tackling the Covid-19 pandemic is not an ‘orange or green issue’ and that the Executive is united in its approach to the outbreak . For many this comes as a welcome deviation from the traditional divisions of unionism and nationalism that have dictated politics in Northern Ireland since its establishment in 1921.

Unity at times of crisis in divided societies is not, however, a new phenomenon. As part of the Indian independence movement of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, for example, members of many different religious and ethnic communities united to achieve an end to British colonial rule. Similarly, during the Arab Spring protests of the early 2010s, people of different groups and with often opposing positions came together to bring about regime change in several states in the Middle East and North Africa. In both of these cases, however, this consensus largely dissipated once the objective had been realised. So, can it be argued that crises can achieve unity in societies where power is shared between groups? And is Covid-19 such a crisis? 

Power sharing governments often struggle to be formed and are generally limited in their ability to effectively agree upon policy. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, just 30% of legislation proposed between 2006 and 2010 was signed into law, while the Northern Ireland Assembly has only recently emerged from a three-year suspension largely caused by ethno-national disagreement. Perhaps more than any other issue in living memory, the Covid-19 pandemic requires a fast response that can only be achieved through unity in power sharing societies and attention will now turn to analyse if this is being realised. 

Despite Foster’s call for Northern Ireland’s response to the pandemic not to be dictated by unionist and nationalist division, when schools in the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) remained open, Michelle O’Neill — Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein leader in the region — broke ranks with the Executive and argued that they should immediately be closed . While this was ostensibly a policy standpoint, many were quick to highlight that its implementation would bring Northern Ireland in line with the Republic of Ireland, where schools had already closed, and O’Neill herself stated that ‘we live on one island, we need one approach to this situation. We need to work together and be aligned’. 

Although there are likely to be genuine health concern driven reasons for O’Neill to promote this policy (which was indeed implemented in the UK soon after), it is also possible that she is using the pandemic as a vehicle from which to continue to promote the Sinn Fein objective of Northern Ireland’s increased alignment with the Republic of Ireland and eventual Irish unity. This example is evidence to suggest that the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is not at present bringing about a bona fide united response from the unionist and nationalist power sharing government in Northern Ireland. 

Power sharing governments are limited not only in their ability to provide a unified response to crises but also in their ability to respond swiftly enough. This is evident in the case of Malaysia — divided between the ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian communities — which has been criticised for its slow response to the outbreak. Writing in Foreign Policy, Varagur argues that the political crisis caused by Mahathir Mohamad’s decision on 24th March to resign as prime minister delayed the country’s response to Covid-19 until after a new power sharing executive had been established . Although such delays are common in power sharing societies due to the fragmented nature of politics, they are particularly problematic within the context of a fast-moving pandemic. 

Lebanon faces similar obstacles. Since October 2019 the state has experienced widespread protests due to high unemployment, economic stagnation and corruption attributed to the ineffectiveness of its sectarian political system. Like in Malaysia, the Lebanese government has been criticised for its response to the outbreak, which is argued to be the result of claims that the country is unable to afford a shutdown similar to those implemented in many European states at a time of economic strife . The examples of Malaysia and Lebanon show that power sharing politics is often marred by political infighting and public protests that impact upon the ability of governments to effectively respond to crises, and the Covid-19 pandemic is no different. 

Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for generations for governments of many states worldwide. It is, however, important to recognise that not all are able — or indeed willing — to respond equally. In many societies with power sharing we have until now witnessed  executives being unable to agree upon a unified approach or being limited in their response by factors related to the nature of sectarian politics. With the pandemic ongoing and showing few signs of abating at present, it remains to be seen if political actors in these societies can see the bigger picture of crisis management.

What Coronavirus might tell us about capacities and resilience’s in environmental public agencies after a decade of public austerity

By Nick Kirsop-Taylor, University of Exeter

The current coronavirus outbreak has exposed cracks in the NHS that can in many ways be linked to ten years of public sector austerity. But what might these cracks tell us about the resilience of other public agencies, such as environmental agencies who have faced similar funding pressures over the last ten years, and who face systemic challenges in the climate crisis and ecological crisis? In the blog I explore these questions to try and understand what the future of these agencies might look like.

Coronavirus, the NHS, and organisational resilience

The coronavirus outbreak is a national challenge larger than any the UK has experienced since World War Two. Some have suggested that this represents the major test of this political generation, others, that it is a foretaste of other systemic challenges coming down the road; that call for new political and economic thinking. Whilst some have argued that it exposes inherent flaws in liberal democratic political systems real analysis of this might have to wait till the afterward. Most agree that the response of the National Health Service (NHS) and its doctors, nurses and aligned health professionals has been fantastic. Although a popular appreciation of the NHS has been a consistent feature of British social attitudes surveys the preceding ten years of public sector austerity has been showed to of seriously damaged its capacities and capabilities. This period has seen a reduction in state funding compared to projections of need coupled to increases in competitive and commercial structures and reductions in core funding. These have led to increasingly fragmented and dis-jointed services and focus on outsourcing and efficiencies. And whilst the coronavirus might be precipitating a rapid roll back the marketisation and commercialised aspects of the NHS we are witnessing the consequences of when public austerity meets a public health emergency.

Global risks and national austerity

The national risk register recognises global pandemics as the most pressing risk in a world of growing systemic risks. Alongside these however are other systemic global environmental risks that threaten the UK — such as climate change and ecological degradation. Just as the NHS is accountable for mitigating against global public health risks (or at least managing the consequences) public environmental agencies are accountable for meeting the risks of global environmental risks. However, the last decade of austerity has seen these agencies similarly defunded with services increasingly fragmented and privatised to the private sector. Whilst these are normal and accepted aspects of the Thatcherism that has prevailed for the last thirty years. If however we can conclude from coronavirus that systemic challenges require collectivised responses that fragmented public agencies struggle to respond to, then we should be asking what have the impacts of austerity really been on these agencies, and what does this tell us about their capacities and capabilities in meeting challenges such as the climate crisis. Although one political narrative tells that ‘austerity is over’ others show how this only addresses the surface of the deep structural scars left by austerity on the human, social and technical resource capacities of public agencies.

Public environmental organisations and austerity

During austerity the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs saw the largest (real terms) cut in budget of any Ministerial department — and these rolled onto non-departmental semi-autonomous agencies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and others which saw budget cuts of up to 40%. These have led to internal re-organisations, rationalisations of services, retrenchment towards core functions, declining staff morale and potentially, increasing risk aversion in addressing complex or challenging problems. These have had deep impacts on their human capital, intellectual capital, and institutional capabilities retained within agencies. Certainly, these agencies continue to be staffed by bright, talented and hardworking public servants that have been innovating and trying to lessen the impact of funding cuts throughout the austerity period. However, it can’t be ignored that these agencies have been diminished and made less resilient by austerity. Whilst short-term injections of cash might help (see: The budget 2020), the diminishing of these agencies is not a situation that is easily or quickly rectifiable.  

Uncertain futures

As other blogs on this website highlight, coronavirus might end up as a gateway to social and political change away from the consensus of the last forty years. The consequence of which might be the rejuvenation of strong and resilient public agencies at a cornerstone of managing systemic global risks and mobilising collectivised national responses to those risks that can’t be fully avoided. In contrast others (the fiscal hawks) will argue that, despite the political consequences to the current administration, the cost of coronavirus and an impending contraction of the economy needs to be met through further longer-term rationalisations of public services and agencies. The key question becomes will coronavirus lead to more or less resilient public environmental agencies? A question that will likely be answered by which school of political thought comes to the fore in the current administration in the afterward.