Alan Whysall gave a lecture at Ulster University in February on the future of Northern Ireland politics. The full text of the lecture is available here in revised and expanded form. In this post he discusses the key points it raises, which are a development of themes raised in blogs on this site. The views set out are personal ones, but the Constitution Unit will be doing further work in the coming months on how the institutions in Northern Ireland might function better.
In a lecture at Ulster University in February I argued, in summary, that the underlying politics of Northern Ireland is such that the institutions remain in some danger – and in the longer term the sands are shifting in unexpected ways. Meanwhile grave problems that face Northern Ireland are not being addressed as effectively as they might be. For the institutions to have the best prospects of surviving and delivering, leadership is needed from the wider Northern Ireland community. There is a need to develop a clear vision for what can realistically be achieved by the Executive, capable of inspiring people; new capacity to develop policy in support of it; and a more positive political climate to ensure it is done. If that leadership cannot be found, it is hard to be confident of Northern Ireland achieving its full potential: the British, Irish and US governments have an important role, but lack the time and focus to resolve the fundamentals.
More fully, I argued that the Fresh Start package of last November is welcome because it keeps devolution on the road. Politicians had a strong self-interest in saving the system, but matters might have run out of control. Few others in Northern Ireland love the institutions.
Some there looked forward to the prospect of resumed direct rule. But in reality that would be very troubled. Ending the arrangements for working across communal boundaries, however imperfect, would have let loose serious division and recrimination, and the institutions would have been hard to bring back, possibly for many years.
The agreement is also welcome for the elaborate commitments of the then First Minister, and the deputy First Minister, about their future work together. But its substance is not at all as far-reaching as the rhetoric: it does not tackle all the fundamental weaknesses in the present political arrangements. Hence the institutions are still liable to upset, for several reasons.
First, their political underpinnings are still potentially threatened. The commitment of the parties to the institutions and to the common good above other political interests – such as satisfying sections of their supporters, or achieving success in the Republic’s elections – has in the recent past seemed limited.
Meanwhile much of society feels excluded from politics: loyalists – a long-standing and critical fault line; many in the centre; and markedly, according to recent research, the young. And this sense of exclusion narrows the contribution to public life from beyond the political sphere. Given that business and academia have also often kept their heads down, not least because they are often beholden to the Executive, the civic society voice is not loud, though there are signs that it is growing.
Hence Northern Ireland politics is even more a bubble activity than elsewhere. Political debate focuses on well-worn themes and fails to address the real challenges of government policy that bear on future wellbeing. So far as a vision is projected by political parties, it has chiefly been about the constitutional future. And there is too little capacity to develop public policy – both within the Executive, which of its nature finds new thinking especially difficult, and outside: there are no think tanks.
For the immediate future Northern Ireland faces acute problems, for example in community division, in the economy, in public service provision. Though to a large degree they are masked by Treasury largesse, they need to be tackled if Northern Ireland is to move on.
Will the performance of the institutions improve?
There is an assumption that much in Northern Ireland politics is set for the foreseeable future – including the dominance of the DUP and Sinn Féin, and, according to polling in recent years, the existence of the border. But there may be shocks around the corner: for example from Brexit, and Scottish independence, which play into the border issue, and into that of identity, where sands are shifting. Those possibilities, and the alienation of various groups, potentially create threats, as well as opportunities, for political parties.
Short of that, though, it’s not clear Northern Ireland politics can of its own devices avoid future crises, still less address seriously the key problems of public policy.
In the lecture I suggested that ensuring effectively performing devolved government requires leadership from among people in Northern Ireland, going beyond the current political sphere. There is a need for their contribution to develop a clearer sense of what government should be seeking to do, and the costs (irrespective of final constitutional destiny); and bring about a change in the climate in politics to help achieve it. This is not to denounce the whole Northern Ireland political class, only to suggest a need to change the political imperatives to which they respond.
A starting point may be to develop, with public participation, an explicit vision of how Northern Ireland might develop. And that might include a commitment to become a recognised world leader in reconciliation, building on the substantial international goodwill Northern Ireland still enjoys.
Home grown leadership is necessary because nobody outside Northern Ireland is going to sort out its problems. The interested governments, British, Irish and American, now lack the focus and resources to do so (unless the problems get very much worse). But they do still have a key, proactive, role, rather different from the one they have played in the past, as critical friends, helping politics succeed.
There are signs now that people outside politics are ready to make a greater contribution to public life. Finding effective channels for that impulse is essential: it has had its successes, but they have been spasmodic.
Meanwhile there is an urgent need for more capacity for thinking on public policy, independently of the Executive, prepared to think through ideas that may be politically difficult.
And we should scrutinise the way that the institutions operate more closely. In time, radical institutional change may be possible. It is unlikely while politics is founded on its present sectarian basis, but improvements to the system we have are worth pursuing.
I concluded the lecture with a plea to move quickly. Fatalism often holds people back in Northern Ireland. But politicians recognise that they need to do something to repair their reputations, and there are prospects of change in the three years of ‘election holiday’ after May – subject always to the possible complications of Brexit.
You can read the full text of the lecture titled ‘Northern Ireland politics: do we have a fresh start?’ in revised and expanded form here.
About the author
Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The Constitution Unit, where he is undertaking further work on Northern Ireland, together with Hilary Jackson and Brian Walker.