Northern Roots: “This should be the time when political leaders in Northern Ireland stand together”

In the third of our Northern Roots series, where we speak to people originally from Northern Ireland but currently living elsewhere, our interviewee is Roger Greer. You can follow Roger on Twitter @Roger_Greer.

1. Tell us about yourself. When did you leave Northern Ireland, and where did you go? What do you do now?

I’m from Cookstown, Tyrone and now live in Bracknell, Berkshire. After graduating from Dundee University in 2012 I moved back home to work for an MLA, then following the 2016 Assembly election I moved here.

I currently work for a company which runs conferences on public policy right across the UK, and I lead the work on the Ireland and Northern Ireland divisions — although I moved away, I cast a cold eye on the ongoing situation on the island day-to-day. I also get back once a month or so to put on the seminars in Belfast and Dublin.

2. What do you think when you see the Northern Ireland of today, in the news and on social media?

Northern Ireland — and some of our politicians in particular — have certainly been put into the national spotlight since the general election in a way that many of them would never have experienced before. And it hasn’t been hugely positive. I suppose that is a symptom of the fact that people in GB — really for the first time in a long time — have taken serious notice of Northern Ireland and our ongoing issues.

It was inevitable that some of the worst aspects of our politics were going to be highlighted, but — in my view — the recent coverage simply does not fully reflect Northern Ireland as a whole, which is a shame.

It is easy to be cynical about our politics and our politicians; but from talking to politicians from right across the spectrum, I get the impression that most of them just want to get on with the job.

I had hoped that the new-found attention from GB (and new-found wealth) might act as a catalyst for the recent talks process. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and we move into the summer still without a government. It is becoming harder to stand up for our politicians when our political institutions are so often held over a cliff-edge.

3. Are you hopeful for Northern Ireland’s future? Will Brexit make a difference?

It is such an uncertain time for Northern Ireland. Without an Executive or Brexit plan, it’s hard to be hopeful. The absence of the Executive is already causing short- and medium-term damage. One example is the health service: the money which was allocated in the recent DUP-Conservative deal to address immediate pressures in healthcare (around £50m) is tiny in relation to the overall health budget (around £4bn), but it is welcomed.

The real problem is that the long-term transformation of services has stalled. So, any money allocated is just going to filling gaps, rather than making the system more effective, and this is symptomatic right across government.

I speak to officials who are hugely frustrated. The domestic policy vacuum is stark, but with Brexit looming, there are extra reasons to be fearful. Border arrangements alone have the potential to change the lives of so many people.

Scottish and Welsh representatives met with EU negotiators recently, and Northern Ireland was not in the room because we don’t have a government. This should be the time when political leaders in Northern Ireland stand together to protect the economic and social interests of the country, not fighting amongst ourselves.

4. Do you think you will return to Northern Ireland? What could convince you to come back?

A colleague asked me this a few weeks ago, and it struck me that I hadn’t actually thought about it, really since I moved to England. I am enjoying my time here. I cycle five minutes to work on a cross-town cycle path which is removed from traffic flow. I’m 10 minutes on the train from Ascot and Sunningdale. I’m half an hour from Reading and Windsor and an hour from London. I have only been here for a year, so I’m not really thinking too much about the medium to long term; but I have no immediate reason to race home.

5. What can Northern Ireland learn from the place you live now?

Berkshire is part of the Home Counties, so it’s a different world to the metropolitan sprawl of Tyrone. I think it’s difficult to simply lift one aspect of a society or a governance system and transpose it elsewhere. Systems are rarely designed, but develop over time through innovation, necessity or just plain pragmatism, based on the needs and conditions of that area.

What works well here might not work so well elsewhere. That being said, the public transport system and infrastructure network here is miles ahead of what is in place in Northern Ireland. And the Bracknell cycle paths really are very good. I’d love to see more of that sort of thing right across NI.

6. If Northern Ireland had a president with sweeping powers, and it was you, what would you do?

I’d give it away. I’d devolve as much power as I could to local councils. The reform of local government was a real opportunity to put power back in local hands, and I would hate to see it as an opportunity wasted.

Properly resourced, councils could be real drivers of economic and social development, making the best use of what each area had to offer, whether that’s the North West, Fermanagh, Belfast or wherever.

I was delighted to see city deals mentioned in the DUP-Conservative agreement. That could be a real boost for NI. I’d love to see how far councils could push themselves.

There are many other social and economic wishes on my (ever growing) list, but we have to be realistic about where we are with Northern Ireland politically. It’s not enough to simply demand X or Y.

There needs to be meaningful dialogue on those issues that polarise; but I don’t think there is enough mature discourse generally to allow real progress on a wide range of issues. That is unfortunate.

7. What would you like to see more of on Northern Slant?

I’m going to be a real suck-up and say that I like it for what it is. It’s a sensible and accessible view on matters from NI and afar. It’s informative and enjoyable. And the Northern Lens is a real sight for sore eyes.

8. If you could ask three Northern Ireland politicians (past or present) to dinner, who would they be? And why?

That really is a difficult question. It might be interesting for some of our recent political leaders to meet their past-selves in a ‘ghosts of Christmas future’ type scenario. Is that allowed? Might that have changed things? Who knows?

9. Do you have a favourite quote, or mantra?

‘Á chacun son petit enfer’, meaning ‘to each his own little hell’. I’m a devotee of Samuel Beckett, so I’m not sure I have any words of wisdom which would inspire a sense of encouragement or optimism, I’m afraid. It might be just through my eyes, but I feel our politics is a bit Beckettian at times: Repeatedly with only minor variants the same bygone.

10. What’s your message for people back home?

I was at an event in London a few weeks ago at which [Sinn Féin MLA for South Down] Chris Hazzard said that, for Sinn Féin, “all roads lead back to Stormont”. I questioned him on that point, noting that, as the former roads minister, he was heading the wrong way. I think he took it in good spirit; but I suppose my message for people back home would be to put pressure on the elected representatives to get back into the Executive, to get on the road back to Stormont and begin to show leadership at this really crucial moment.

Brexit is just around the corner; we haven’t even got a budget for this year; we haven’t plan to deal with what’s coming down the line and that’s worrying. I would hope there is an appetite to put the rhetoric aside and begin to tackle the challenges coming our way. But I’ll not hold my breath.


Originally published at Northern Slant.