Reforming governance in Northern Ireland

Government in Northern Ireland needs reform, but the fact that it works at all is actually impressive given the past, says Jess Sargeant of the Institute for Government, a London-based think-tank. She was speaking in the first of a new series of podcasts produced by the Holywell Trust, which feature opinions from policy experts who consider some of Northern Ireland’s biggest challenges.


The Institute for Government published a review of Northern Ireland’s system of government at the end of last year, which considered how the civil service had coped with a three year period in which there was no political leadership. She concludes that the vacuum led to the emergence of a stronger civil society, with business organisations, human rights bodies and charities developing a stronger voice – which they continue to exercise, even after the Executive has resumed work.


However, while it is positive that the Northern Ireland Civil Service was able to function and run the system without an Executive, the Renewable Heat Incentive failings illustrated the weaknesses in the administration. It needs to be acknowledged that unlike the situation in Scotland and Wales, the Northern Ireland Civil Service is a separate entity from the British civil service. And that has had implications about limiting skills development in Northern Ireland administration, which showed through from the inquiry into RHI.


Jess makes the point that the “power sharing arrangements are almost completely unique”, which makes bold decision-making “very difficult”. “The fact that it works at all, is quite remarkable… we shouldn’t forget that.” But that does not deflect from the need to introduce reforms that enable better collective decision making. Building relationships of trust between representatives of parties that would prefer not to be working together is very challenging, but could benefit from good personal relationships and the development of mutual trust at a personal level.


Another weakness of the current system of government is the lack of evidence-based policy-making and the absence of independent expertise into decision-making. That has been partially addressed by the formation of a new Northern Ireland think-tank, Pivotal, but the process could be further improved, says Jess, if think-tanks based in GB engaged more with Northern Ireland. It would be helpful if the devolved governments could learn from each other in terms of policy development and implementation.


One difference between Stormont and Westminster is the lack of expert support for Assembly committees, in contrast to select committees in Parliament. With Northern Ireland government departments servicing the committees at Stormont, there is a limitation to committees’ ability to gather the expertise needed to challenge the departments. That is exacerbated by the political reality that with five parties within the Executive, a robust scrutiny function becomes more difficult when the committees are largely comprised from those same five parties.


“There’s a tendency to see the Northern Ireland Assembly as an extension of the Executive, as opposed to a check on it,” argues Jess. “And so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to allow the Assembly to develop its own individual identity.” There needs to be what Jess calls a “buttressing of the institutions” in Northern Ireland.


One opportunity for systemic improvement comes from the example of the Republic, where citizens’ assemblies have enabled politicians to gain external cover in addressing difficult political decisions. That process could be adopted in Northern Ireland to make progress on challenging issues, such as healthcare reform, where the Bengoa reform proposals have partially stalled. Citizens’ assemblies, though, are “not a panacea”, Jess stresses. Politicians still need to work hard to engage the wider public to assist them in understanding why difficult decisions need to be taken. It can, though, help with building public trust.


Another reform that might be considered, suggests Jess, is returning some powers to local government. She points out that political power is unusually centralised in Northern Ireland.


The interview with Jess Sargeant is the first of nearly 20 new podcasts produced by the Holywell Trust, a peace and reconciliation charity, financed by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme. It is available here.


This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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