The public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland

Following the report of its Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, the Unit will in the coming weeks publish a discussion paper on the wider political options for Northern Ireland. In the first part of this blog, Alan Whysall, the author of the paper, sets it in the current political context, and discusses the public policy challenges facing Northern Ireland. The second part, which will be published later today, considers longer term destinies, and what can be done to encourage more realistic debate, and ultimately constructive politics, in Northern Ireland.


Politics will resume in Northern Ireland after the summer in deep conflict. But much of the political debate is totemic, neglecting the realities of public policy in Northern Ireland now.

The unreality of the debate reflects the unwinding of constructive politics, such as was seen in the better days following the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998.  

And the increasing talk of broader constitutional destinies is cast in vague and general terms, reminiscent of the Brexit debate; on one side, it often obscures serious issues that constitutional change would raise; on the other, it takes little account of the changing nature of Northern Ireland society.

The discussion paper

The discussion paper will aim, in a neutral spirit, to point up pressing immediate issues that need to be analysed and acted on; and key aspects of the debate about potential destinies.

And it will ask how a spirit of constructive political endeavour can be restored.

Is it practical to think of a renewed Agreement?

The paper will offer some tentative answers to the questions it raises, but it really does need to spark a discussion. Political tensions may once again reach breaking point before very long: and answers to the questions may be needed.

Finally, the paper asks who is to drive the effort towards changed debate and politics. The British and Irish governments have often sought to keep the Northern Ireland political system on the rails, and to impart new impetus. But at present their differences may mean they are challenged in doing so.

So the paper also asks whether others in Northern Ireland can help.

Dealing with the here and now

The Northern Ireland Protocol

The Northern Ireland Protocol looms over Northern Ireland politics. Brexit has been profoundly disruptive. It was the first major change in the arrangements established after the Good Friday Agreement that lacked the cross-community support by which the Agreement was reached – indeed Northern Ireland voted Remain. Hard Brexit inevitably meant more borders somewhere in or around Ireland. The Protocol is the outworking.

The debate has shed much heat and almost no light. The EU has generally demanded rigorous enforcement – though there is a persuasive view that it could take a more flexible position without compromising its fundamental interests.

London, meanwhile, appears to be upping the ante, demanding in its July paper substantial rewriting of the Protocol it signed two years ago.

Unionist leaders once talked of making the best of the Protocol, but in recent months, many have adopted increasingly entrenched positions against it. They now put their faith in a range of approaches – a court case, a vote the Assembly will have on certain parts of the Protocol in 2024, persuading London to take unilateral action. Some urge the collapse of the institutions.

In reality, these approaches have limited prospects of advancing unionist ambitions – unionists now lack their precious majorities in terms of votes, Assembly seats and parliamentary seats – and could be dangerous to them.  Certainly pulling down the institutions is a high risk tactic.

But there are strong arguments that the Protocol, properly handled, could bring significant economic benefit to Northern Ireland, which has unique access to both EU and British markets.

With flexibility in Brussels and London, the border in the Irish Sea might largely disappear.

How might this be brought about? A united Executive ought to have substantial leverage, given that Brussels has made great play of its wish to protect the Agreement; London claims the same; and Dublin would probably give strong support. The parties divided have little influence.

Politically, though, moving to such a position would now be a substantial shift for unionism.

And honest debate is at present difficult. Meanwhile, the government appears far from interested in brokering any agreements between the parties.

But Brexit and the Protocol may, if with variations, be with us for a generation. At some stage, accommodations will be needed.

Election challenges and opportunities 

The Assembly elections – due in May 2022, but which could happen earlier if there is a political collapse – may raise questions about the fitness of aspects of the Agreement arrangements in changing circumstances. They may also, in bringing home those changes, start to shift fundamental political attitudes.

The elections may, first, see the non-aligned parties, those professedly neither unionist or nationalist, and notably Alliance, substantially increase their vote – as they did in the elections (not to the Assembly) of 2019. Polling last week indicated that they will keep some but not all of the 2019 gains. The Agreement is essentially based on binary politics, and puts those not designated unionist or nationalist at a disadvantage. At some point, this may become unsustainable.

More immediate difficulties may come from the fragmentation of unionism, which last week’s poll suggests is in full swing. It shows a further marked decline in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) vote, a rise in that of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) but also of the ultra-hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). If reflected in election results, this would lead to Sinn Féin taking the First Minister post, with a unionist as deputy First Minister. That outcome would be a psychological blow to unionism, though the two offices are precisely equal in powers; and the disarray in unionism would certainly add to instability.

Both of these contingencies could lead to demands for significant adaptations in the Agreement provisions. They are, so far, little discussed.

Economy, society, the public services

Meanwhile, but with much more limited public attention, Northern Ireland continues to have serious issues of economic underperformance, and social fractures leading onto other serious deep-rooted problems; while public services struggle – notably the NHS, which had waiting lists for many treatments well beyond those elsewhere in the UK even before the pandemic.

And there are serious questions about governance, some of them pointed up by the RHI issue last year, but never properly discussed.

Good government and sound public policy are evidently valid objectives in their own right. But they have a broader significance in Northern Ireland: successful devolved institutions underpin stability. If they are delivering, the public – which has not been greatly impressed with their performance – and the players within them will be more resistant to seeing them overturned.

Northern Ireland political culture has rarely had much time for these issues, however.

New Decade New Approach, the deal that restored devolution in early 2020, proposed developing many strategies to improve performance; there have been elaborate Programmes for Government; and successive reports have urged substantial (painful) restructuring of the health service. So there are abundant processes.

But they have limited political or public traction. And so delivery has been painfully limited – for which COVID-19 is only a limited excuse.

Northern Ireland now has a think tank in the field, as for long it did not. And a Fiscal Council is being established, after many years’ pressure from the UK Treasury, with some similar functions to the Office for Budget Responsibility in London.

Much further effort may be needed to bolster the institutions’ performance, and change their outlook, however.


Arguments about ‘legacy’ issues – how to handle the legal consequences of actions during the Troubles – have rumbled on since 1998, via various agreements between governments and parties. These issues, though contentious, have never really threatened political stability. That may now change.

There may well be no good answers here – so that, in the short-term at least, sensitive handling, in particular showing the greatest consideration for victims, is at a premium. There are certainly arguments that Northern Ireland looks back too much, and fails to focus on the future. There are arguments that conducting criminal investigations and prosecutions now for far-distant Troubles offences is largely fruitless, offering victims little realistic hope of justice, and potentially damaging. In the current climate, these are difficult arguments to make publicly.

But the British government’s paper of July has at last brought all the Northern Ireland parties together – it was unanimously rejected by the Assembly, and widely seen as a response not to any Northern Ireland factors, but to London newspaper campaigns about prosecutions of (a small number of) soldiers for long-past offences.

The proposals are far-reaching: besides ending criminal investigations and prosecutions for Troubles offences, they propose suppressing inquests and civil actions. They effectively grant an amnesty to perpetrators of terrorist offences, are at odds with previous agreements involving the UK government, and very doubtfully compliant with international obligations.

There may be no good answers on legacy issues, but there are surely approaches that better meet Northern Ireland’s needs – and ultimately meet UK interests better.

The Agreement: hope and momentum

The Agreement envisaged a new start in many areas. There are a good many successes, and they continue. A striking example is policing, where in marked contrast to its predecessor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has achieved a large measure of cross-community support.

But in the current atmosphere of polarisation, there are signs of that support weakening, and other areas of Agreement success are at risk of crumbling.

And in other fields addressed by the Agreement, much remains undone – for example in the area of respect for identity, which is tied up with contentious issues like language. A commission established to look at these issues submitted its report more than a year ago, but it has not yet been published by the Executive.

The Agreement generated hope, and caused many to overcome hesitations based on traditional political allegiances to support it. Great political momentum came from the widespread public wish to see the Agreement implemented.

All this has flagged and the debate has again become starkly polarised. There is a marked lack of any vision for what Northern Ireland (whatever its constitutional status) might be over the next decade or two. It is difficult to discern what the Belfast institutions are trying to achieve, beyond managing from day to day.

The pandemic offers only limited excuse. Without ambitions beyond day-to-day survival, the Executive will never impress and will be less resilient to political stresses. Can it be rebooted?

The London problem

The Protocol and legacy issues have contributed to a perception of a London problem, where the UK government and parliament are seen to be lacking interest in, and perhaps understanding of, Northern Ireland issues, according them low priority except when playing politics with them. And, worse, that London is at times willing to heighten tensions that threaten institutional stability, rather than calm them, as governments in the past sought to do.

Recent polling shows a serious lack of trust in British government over the Protocol, and more general disenchantment with it reflects in the Secretary of State’s net approval rating in polling of -73. London’s approach attracts international criticism, including from the Biden administration.

Dominic Cummings’ recent utterances about Irish matters tell of an attitude radically different from that of successive British governments of both parties. He dismissed talk of Ireland, the Union and the rule of law in the context of the Brexit debate as ‘babble’. Issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol, he asserted, were ‘very low priority’.

Others have not spoken so explicitly, but there is little evidence that this has not been the guiding outlook (or lack of one) in Number 10. Certainly neglect of Northern Ireland interests as compared with Westminster politics was shown in the dismissal of Julian Smith early last year when he had just pulled off a remarkable deal to restart the Executive after a three-year hiatus, a deal that clearly needed nurturing.

If London has any strategic view about even the medium term in Northern Ireland, it is not apparent. There is little sign even of a strategy to preserve the Union: much of what it has done recently is liable to alienate support in the centre ground, which is now the swing constituency.

If we move into greater instability in Northern Ireland, the lack of trust in the British government will mean it is much harder for it to broker a compromise. Poor relations with Dublin further limit the potential for constructive intervention.

The attitudes now shown in London are widely perceived North and South as hostility to Ireland. And they have been paralleled by a resurgence of anti-British attitudes.

Previous governments of all parties have recognised that there are risks to the UK national interest in allowing discord in Northern Ireland to fester; and that a strategic approach is necessary which at times may impact on national policy. For the moment, that perspective appears to be lacking.

There has never been a great understanding at Westminster or across Whitehall of Northern Ireland’s politics; nor was there much popular feeling in Great Britain about it, and recent polling suggests that indifference remains widespread. But in government and parliament, there was felt to be a strong UK self-interest in sustaining the peace, and the Agreement.

It is important to redevelop a sense of what a British government focused on the longer term would do.

This is the first of two posts on the future of Northern Ireland. The second post can be found on our blog.

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office and now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising in politics in Northern Ireland. He was a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, but the views expressed in this post are personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Working Group as a whole.