Work together or else

Posted on October 25, 2006 · Posted in The Guardian’s Public Magazine

Northern Ireland’s public sector is going through a radical and rapid transformation. The 26 district councils are being abolished, replaced by seven “super councils” with more powers. Regional quangos administering health (it has four) and education (with five) are going, with the central administration taking on more oversight of public services. But the number of government departments is also being cut, from 11 to maybe seven or eight. A new system of domestic rates is about to come in, increasing costs for many households. Alongside them come water rates, with water transferred to an independent, but government-owned, company.

Most contentiously of all, the 11-plus is to be abolished for secondary level education – with parental choice and location becoming the key factors in determining where a child goes to school. A further review has begun into the organisation of schools to rationalise their number and reduce surplus places.

There are 47,000 surplus places in schools – equivalent to about 13% of current pupil numbers, which would rise to about 24% in a decade without school amalgamations and closures. Peter Hain, who doubles up as Welsh and Northern Ireland secretary, has spoken strongly about the unacceptability of costly spare places being maintained by a culture in which both Protestants and Catholics must be given their own schools in every community, no matter what the cost.

For Hain, who has declared he will stand for the deputy leadership of the Labour party, this is clearly symbolic of a wider culture of expensive “dual provision” of public services that has to end.

Hain’s preferred solution is believed to be the creation of more mixed service provision, achieved through a construction programme of facilities in “neutral” or “interface” areas. In education, there could still be nominally separate Catholic and Protestant schools – but pupils might enter through separate school gates before sharing classrooms and other campus facilities. It is an approach that might be copied for other public buildings.

But such enforced living together is unlikely to win agreement, certainly not quickly, and Hain gives every impression of being in a hurry. While reform initiatives predate his time, he gives the impression of wanting quick movement. This may be a manoeuvre. His mantra to the local parties is “if you don’t like it, enter government” – resuscitating the Northern Ireland assembly. Perhaps it’s just a reflection of his personal impatience.

Things have certainly changed, according to Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service from 1984 to 1991 and, accordingly, the key adviser to local prime ministers James Chichester-Clark and Brian Faulkner and the former Northern Ireland secretary, Willie Whitelaw. “There is an oppressive note in the way the place is run that I don’t recall previously,” he says.