Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: charting a future course

alan_rialto2-1The first part of this blog looked at Northern Ireland’s troubled experience with government without ministers for the last year and a half; while the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry offered colourful but not uplifting revelations about the way it had been conducted under devolution; and Westminster’s conduct of its responsibilities was widely questioned. Alan Whysall asks what lies behind these problems?

A lack of interest in good government and public policy has long been part of the Northern Ireland political culture. The dialogue in politics and the media has always readily reverted to the traditional issues – and more now that the parties are not constrained by the need to work together.

Partly, this illustrates the seriousness of the political and community divide that politics must seek to bridge. But the reflection of that divide in the structure of politics in Northern Ireland also means that no alternative government is on offer during elections, so misconduct in government is harder for the electorate to sanction. If the great priority of most electors is to support their community’s champion against the other side, the detail of the champion’s conduct in government gets lost.

Attitudes to governance, and indeed the public unconcern about the absence of any in recent times, probably also rest on a widespread assumption that, if absolutely necessary, Westminster – in particular the Treasury – will come to the rescue. But good government is important not only to the future well-being of Northern Ireland, but to its political stability. The Executive of 2007 to 2017 found it hard to grip difficult economic and social issues, and that left it short of achievements. Success in government was often seen in pork barrel terms: getting more money out of Westminster or Brussels. Its underachievement, and the regular mild whiff of scandal and clientelism, cost it a good deal in public regard.

How to bridge the legal void?

As previous blogs have outlined, however, there is no better alternative in present circumstances to a return to devolved government, despite all its imperfections. But the prospects of this happening now are poor. Divisions run deep, and Brexit makes them worse. The DUP, having failed to carry the party base for an agreement with Sinn Féin in February, appears privately to have cooled on resumed devolution, preferring to enjoy its influence at Westminster. Sinn Féin itself appears in no hurry to resume power-sharing, focusing instead on the prospects for Irish reunification in the context of Brexit.

In other circumstances the British and Irish governments would together seek to move the process on. But, because of Brexit, their capacity for joint action is limited.

The classic alternative to devolution, direct rule from London, would be massively controversial, given that the UK government, already declaredly Unionist, is now dependent for its survival at Westminster on unionism; and that direct rule necessarily involves a heavy Irish role in government under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The DUP argue for direct rule (with a minimised Irish role). Other parties, and the Irish government, strongly oppose it.

This is why London has not tackled the legal vacuum left by the departing Executive. But the court case mentioned in the first part of this blog makes action necessary. The government statement is unclear exactly what comes next – it is consulting parties. There is no easy way forward.

The maximalist approach would affirm that Northern Ireland departments could exercise any powers vested in them, without ministers. But this lacks democratic legitimacy – and would expose civil servants to intense scrutiny and criticism, of which there are signs already. The Head of the Civil Service has publicly cautioned about new arrangements that might compromise the impartiality of the service.

Confining departments to taking only decisions which would previously have been taken without Executive or ministerial approval fails to answer many of the accumulating problems, and might raise real problems of definition. That, though, seems to be what the government is likeliest to do – and probably for a limited period.

Going further would require some sort of validating authority for major decisions, all changes in policy. Some would say this must ultimately be Westminster: it has after all now taken on some role in legislating for Northern Ireland. But any attempt to give the final say in controversial issues to the government would be widely seen as covert direct rule, or as DUP rule. The least temporary bad option might be to entrust non-political members of the community, whose appointment the main parties would accept or at least not oppose, with rights to call in decisions. It might not be a popular role.

The aftermath of the RHI Inquiry

The Northern Ireland Civil Service, and the wider public service, have kept Northern Ireland going through decades of political turmoil, where it might otherwise have fallen apart – as has been the case again in the last 18 months.

But their performance as revealed at the Inquiry raises concern. Some have portrayed it as dilettante generalists floundering before technical issues. A service of this size will not always have in-house expertise for new initiatives. There should in future be a greater awareness of the risks in mounting new policy initiatives. On the other hand, the last thing Northern Ireland needs in its public policy is greater caution – it needs well thought out policy specific to its concerns, indeed it has often failed to act where it ought to have done, and it may have been at times too uncritical a consumer of Westminster initiatives. So the skills and the approach of the public service will come under scrutiny. It may need time to buy expertise in in and use it intelligently. With RHI, it did the first but not the second: there are lessons to be learned there too.

More fundamentally, there is room to question whether civil service priorities have been improperly skewed in the devolved political environment. That environment was characterised by an absence of informed political and wider public debate on public policy issues and a high priority for handing out grants to the favoured causes of different political parties. Did a wish to respond eagerly to ministers’ wishes lead the civil service to neglect its traditional roles as guardians of propriety, and scrupulously careful use of public money? Did the London safety net to take the edge off judgements about the need for value for money? Did it lose focus on getting policy right, since no one was asking questions about that?

Those are questions that ought to be asked. Not in a spirit of allocating blame: the first priority, rightly, of all the players was to keep devolved government going, across a wide political and community divide, bringing in different elements within each community, some of them with a long record of mutual hostility. But the lesson here is that in order to be sustainable the approach has also to reflect good government principles. The Inquiry will have some views on how this is to be achieved in the future, but is not well placed to offer general prescriptions. Others could helpfully investigate: Northern Ireland lacks serious capacity outside government for scrutinising its processes, but an ad hoc project would be well worthwhile.

Then there is the conduct of ministers and special advisers (SpAds). This is stark – certainly in the degree to which it has been publicly documented, though perhaps not radically different from tales told around Whitehall in recent decades. There may be individual casualties. There could be reinforcement of codes on ministerial and SpAd conduct – but one of the revelations of the inquiry has been the extent to which existing codes on SpAds were ignored – rules must be accompanied by enforcement.

But will that suffice? The real democratic sanction for this sort of behaviour is usually through the electorate and the legislature – but the Assembly, whose members are essentially subservient to party leaderships, failed completely to act on the RHI issues. Again the approach that led us out of conflict needs to change to underpin an enduring system of government.

And there is a wider ethical problem, at least in public perception. A standing watchdog, assessing compliance with rules and wider ethical precepts, might be a start – drawing inspiration from the Westminster Committee on Standards in Public Life (that Committee’s remit extends to devolved institutions only when it is invited).

There is a risk, though, as efforts are made to restore devolved government, working through precisely the politicians and their advisers, that subject to a few people falling on their swords, not much will alter. The success of devolution in the long term, however, really depends on more far-reaching change.

A more general issue that the RHI inquiry throws up is the near monopoly the public sector has on public policy initiation and oversight, associated with the absence of good government culture, and the relative quiescence of civic society, unwilling to offend important interests. There are few serious outside players in the field.

Having more of them might have helped generate the more critical environment and the focus on good government that RHI clearly showed to be lacking. There are steps now underway to set up an independent think tank and social and economic issues in Northern Ireland: more detail will follow soon. Indeed with the usual London/Dublin drive disabled, there may also be room for wider reflection in civic society on other issues, including the basis on which a strengthened Good Friday Agreement settlement might be founded.


The politics of the autumn, for Northern Ireland as more widely, will be dictated by Brexit. In that context, though, temporary arrangements instituted now might find themselves, as in the past in Northern Ireland, remarkably long-lived. For that reason, they need careful thought. And so does the establishment of a healthier approach to government, which one day might find an embodiment in the institutions. The debate on good government in Northern Ireland really needs to begin now.

This is the second of two blogs on governance in Northern Ireland in the absence of a government. The first blog, which discusses the challenges that must be faced, can be found 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s