In the week when the Prince of Wales and Gerry Adams shook hands I thought about how terrible events shape everyone’s lives and of how so many unknown, unheralded people have contributed to what Northern Ireland has become.
One untold story of ‘the Troubles’ is of the courageous work of public servants who steadfastly carried on with their jobs in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances.
My first inkling of this was 30 years ago when as a youth justice worker I went every week to police stations to negotiate cautions for young people.
At a conference with colleagues from Northern Ireland I was astounded to hear that while I was having a civilised conversation with police officers about trying to help children in trouble avoid a court appearance they were talking to paramilitaries about why similar children, in similar situations, should be spared a knee capping.
Years later, when I visited Northern Ireland regularly on behalf of social workers I heard from a colleague of how child protection operated in those desperate days. On one occasion she and another woman were asked to investigate concerns raised about a child living within a ‘no go’ area in Belfast.
Although no police or army would be present, their car was allowed through the barricades because, chillingly, their number plate and their purpose were already known. When they arrived in the street there was a bus on fire, simply being allowed to burn out.
Once in the house, the women fairly quickly ascertained that the child could not safely remain there and obtained the agreement of the parents that they should take her with them.
However, as they were doing so a crowd had gathered outside, concerned at the presence of these ‘representatives of the British state’ in their midst.
Fortunately the situation was saved when two ‘officials’ from the Provisional IRA interceded, bluntly told the locals that the welfare of children was important to them and enabled the two social workers and child to leave.
For many hundreds of public servants, over many years, this sort of day to day heroism was simply doing one’s job. Indeed, it’s extraordinary to consider that in such grievous conditions Northern Ireland’s integrated health and social services, backed up by high quality training and professional development from Queen’s University and the University of Ulster provided some of the best public services in the UK.
Child protection has never been properly funded and supported across England and after a 40% reduction in local government spending over the past five years one of our most vital public services is utterly reliant on the professionalism and dedication of its workforce.
Now, a narrow range of public services, notably everything provided by local government, faces an unprecedented further £13bn of cuts over the next two years from a Government which has been elected to power without ever having to specify how these would be achieved.
Nevertheless, ahead of the Budget on July 8 it’s perfectly possible to see what George Osborne has in store for the North East. Offered the prospect of a Combined Authority, 12 Council leaders in the north and south of the region have embraced the idea of having two; one for the ‘North East’, one for Teesside all in the hope of gaining a little more power, a taste of ‘devolution’ without the inconvenience of asking the electorate what they think of it.
Of course, now that the structure is in place, when the cuts hit, the logic is clear. The best way to protect vital frontline services will be to scrap those 12 councils, 12 chambers of councillors, 12 management suites of chief officers and for those of us who live between the Scottish border and Newton Aycliffe there’ll be one Combined Authority – and the Chancellor might even get his own way on an elected Mayor.
Of course there’ll be furore, civic pride mingled with a certain degree of self-interest will be invoked and opprobrium will be heaped on ‘the Tories’.
Personally I think it will be a good thing; much of the agenda of the unitary authorities is driven nationally, their required standards set by those who would deride local accountability as a ‘postcode lottery’.
We need children to be protected and looked after well with our bins cleared efficiently, we don’t actually require hundreds of councillors and chief officers to tell people how to do it.
Indeed I’d go further; real political leadership in North East England would place thousands of disabled people from our region who are facing £13bn of their own social security cuts at the forefront of concern.
Real political leadership wouldn’t even stop at two Combined Authorities but would find further efficiency savings from one regional government, the integration of layers of NHS management and the removal of decision making from expensive offices in Whitehall with a reduced number of civil servants accomodated in a vacant Town Hall.
Elected, empowered regional government would generate new funds. Out of difficult circumstances, thankfully in peace time, it would enable dedicated public servants to deliver public services well.