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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

Northern Ireland: four key areas in crisis

Amy Corry and her daughter Penny with sign saying My mummy deserves better pay
Amy Corry and her daughter Penny, picketing against cuts at Craigavon area hospital, in Co Armagh in September Photograph: Claudia Savage/PA

The Stormont executive and assembly have been suspended for 20 months, hospital waiting lists are the worst in the UK, schools, roads and housing are decaying, and the police service is in crisis. Dysfunction is taking hold in Northern Ireland.

Here we take a look at some of the key difficulties facing the country:


Schools across Northern Ireland are struggling to pay bills and maintain services. Stormont’s education budget for 2023-24 was cut by £66.4m (2.5%) and the education authority is estimated to have a financial deficit of £300m. The result is the stopping of benefits such as the school holiday food grant, or “holiday hunger” payment, and less money to pay staff, repair buildings, supply books and subsidise uniforms.


More than a quarter of Northern Ireland’s 1.9m population is waiting for elective care, a 185% rise since 2014 blamed on an ageing population, staff shortages, antiquated structures, Covid-19 and insufficient funding. Waiting list performance levels are “significantly worse” than other UK regions, according to the NI Audit Office. About 122,000 patients are awaiting surgery and 378,400 are waiting to see a consultant for the first time. The health service has “fallen off the cliff edge”, according to the Royal College of Nursing.


Simon Byrne resigned as the PSNI chief constable in September after a series of crises. Unprecedented data breaches leaked details of more than 10,000 officers and employees, exposing them to potential targeting by dissident republicans. A court ruled that Byrne acted unlawfully in taking action against two officers over an intervention during a pandemic lockdown. Unionist politicians accuse the police of kowtowing to Sinn Féin. Yet the proportion of Catholics in the force has dwindled to 31.7% and few reach senior positions.


Campaigners say the Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the UK, which supplies nearly half of NI’s drinking water, is “dying in plain sight” because of vast algal blooms. Farm slurry, human sewage, sand dredging, rising temperatures and an invasive zebra mussel species have all contributed. Dozens of governmental agencies and private organisations are responsible for the lake, splintering management and accountability. Stormont insiders say agricultural interests routinely trump environmental concerns at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera).

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