Northern Ireland: politics on the move, destination uncertain

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Three years on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive m prompted by the RHI scandal, a power sharing government has returned to Stormont on the back of a deal that promises a ‘new approach’. Alan Whysall analyses the new deal, how it might work in practice and what pitfalls might await the new ministerial team.

We have devolved government in Northern Ireland once more, with a new political deal, New Decade, New Approach. This is a cause for real hope, responding to the public mood, and the politics dictate it must operate for the moment. Many of the underpinnings are, however, fragile. Government and politics need to operate differently if they are to succeed in the longer term.

The last thousand days

Government in Northern Ireland has been in abeyance for three years. In early 2017, one of the two main parties, Sinn Féin, withdrew over the involvement of the other, the DUP, in a mismanaged sustainable energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Beneath the surface were other tensions, notably around respect for Irish identity – crystallised latterly in demands from Sinn Féin and others for an Irish Language Act. Division between the parties was sharpened by Brexit, which the DUP favoured but others did not; and later by its Westminster alliance with the May government. 

While devolution operated, parties in government had moderated their language. Once it collapsed, rhetoric, and feeling in parts of the community, became hardened and polarised, reminiscent of the atmosphere before the Good Friday Agreement. The British government, under uninspiring Secretaries of State and writhing in its Brexit agonies, incurred universal mistrust. Relations between London and Dublin became tense. The prospect of Irish unity through a border poll – which the Agreement makes in principle a matter for simple majorities in both parts of Ireland – featured increasingly in Sinn Féin’s approach, and appeared from opinion polling to be growing closer. Paramilitaries on both sides saw opportunities in the political vacuum; last spring dissident Republicans, seeking to kill police officers, murdered a journalist, Lyra McKee.

There was at first remarkable equanimity over the extraordinary situation of Northern Ireland being left without government, beyond civil servants minding the shop. The British government hesitated to impose direct rule, as in the past; its dependence on the DUP would have made such a step destabilising. 

A report late last year by the new Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal shows how seriously Northern Ireland has suffered from inattention to its grave economic and social problems, under devolution and since. Continue reading

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and the Sandringham settlement

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgbob_morris_163x122.jpgFollowing the decision of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to withdraw from a frontline royal role, the nature and timing of that departure has now been announced. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris explain what the settlement means for both the Sussexes and the monarchy itself. 

When it wants to, the British monarchy can move with remarkable and decisive speed. There were just ten days between the Sussexes unilateral declaration on 8 January and the outcome of the second Sandringham meeting released on 18 January. What has it all been about and how should the immediate and longer-term effects of the settlement be understood?

The settlement of 18 January

Its main features are:

  • The couple will from 1 April 2020 withdraw from active royal duties (including Prince Harry’s honorific military offices), no longer receive public money, surrender use of their ‘HRH’ titles, and seek to become self-sufficient financially.
  • They will live for substantial periods each year in Canada, at a location as yet undetermined.
  • So far as their activities abroad are concerned, they have undertaken ‘to uphold the values of Her Majesty’: this a reference to the Nolan Principles of Public Life.
  • Frogmore Cottage on the Windsor estate will remain their residence in England. They will reimburse the £2.4m public money cost of the refurbishment.
  • The working of the arrangements will be reviewed from 1 April 2021. During this period, the Prince of Wales will continue their funding of £2.3m a year until they become self-sufficient.
  • No constitutional changes are involved, but some possible secondary implications of reducing the size of the active royal family are considered below.

Not settled in the statement are:

  • The Canadian immigration, residential and tax status of the couple – Canada’s leading daily newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, raised some sharp questions on whether they should be allowed to live in Canada and advised that the Canadian government’s response should be a simple and succinct ‘No’. Although the Canadian government has so far been silent, it is expected to have a more welcoming, if cautious, attitude.
  • Meghan’s application for British citizenship – still under consideration, where length of residence outside the UK will be one of the criteria in the balance.
  • How financial self-sufficiency is to be achieved – the reference to upholding ‘the values of Her Majesty’ shows some anxieties about the means that the couple may choose. 
  • The arrangements for police protection – British police officers have no police powers in Canada, nor may they carry firearms. The nature of protection and defraying the considerable costs of providing it remain to be settled.

Immediate effects

While some changes (resigning the post of Captain General of the Royal Marines) will happen immediately from 1 April, withdrawal will be a process rather than an event. It will also be conditional on the progress made. That is, the settlement implies that permission to keep but not use the HRH title can be withdrawn if the Queen is, say, dissatisfied with the way the Sussexes embark on commercial ventures which capitalise on their royal status (HRH status was withdrawn from the wives of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York following their divorces). Similarly, establishing a review mechanism not only leaves open the possibility of the Sussexes’ return to UK public life, but also a possibility that the settlement’s terms might be tightened if developments are not to the Queen’s satisfaction. Continue reading

Light and shadows: the RHI scandal and the temptations of secrecy

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The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.

Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then adviser Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a select committee in 2012 concluded that there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. Continue reading

Dramas at Westminster: select committees and the quest for accountability

iOpQqpWl_400x400.jpgNow that the government has a secure majority in the Commons, the role of select committees in scrutinising its work will be crucial. But how do select committees operate, what makes them tick and how effective are they? Drawing on the findings of his new book, Marc Geddes argues that if we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

How do MPs make sense of their scrutiny work? Accountability is one of three core functions of legislatures (the other two being law-making and representation), yet we know remarkably little about how MPs interpret, or seek to carry out, scrutiny work. Those MPs that do take it seriously often join select committees. They are seen as the main vehicles of accountability in the House of Commons, made up of a small group of MPs to consider policy questions. Traditionally, there is one committee per ministerial department, as well as additional cross-cutting ones (such as on public administration and constitutional affairs). Committees normally consider policy issues through an evidence gathering process that may include written, as well as oral, evidence, before then publishing a report with recommendations for action (very often these reports are published consensually, with agreement from all the committee’s MPs). Select committees are seen to be influential and have been widely celebrated, especially in 2019, which marked the 40th anniversary since their present-day incarnation. While they are seen as fundamental to good scrutiny and we know that they can be influential, I wanted to examine select committees from a different vantage point, asking why MPs join committees and how they make sense of their role. This culminated in a book, Dramas at Westminster. What did I find? 

The core argument of my book is that there is no easy answer or unifying theme to understand what ‘scrutiny’ actually means. Rather, MPs’ interpretations of the concept are wide-ranging and, while MPs’ beliefs often blend well together to create effective means to hold the executive to account, their ideas about select committee work can also contrast and diverge from what others might consider to be ‘good scrutiny’ – or, in fact, ‘scrutiny’ at all. For example, for some, scrutiny is about holding the government’s feet to the fire and they would only regard scrutiny as being successful if they have blown a minister off-course; for others, scrutiny is about transparency, i.e. better understanding why a minister might have taken a particular decision. I argue that these different interpretations create different ‘performance styles’; behaviours that MPs can adopt when they enact their scrutiny role – much like in a theatre or play. To illustrate this point, I identify six styles: specialists, who often form the core of committee business and attempt to analyse aspects of the policy area; lone wolves, who take their passions so far that they make their case irrespective of other committee members or the committee’s remit; constituency champions, who look at scrutiny through the prism of how it can benefit local causes; party helpers, who seek to protect their party interests on the committee; learners, who use their membership to better understand a policy issue; and absentees, who – as their name suggests – are largely absent from substantive committee work.

These styles are not fixed, with many MPs changing the role they adopt based on particular circumstances. For example, it might be the case that an MP is a specialist in one aspect of a committee’s work but not another, and so acts as specialist or learner accordingly; in other areas of a committee’s work, it might directly touch on their constituency while in a hearing with the secretary of state, or they cannot help themselves and use their party allegiance to poke fun at the government. It is worth thinking about performance styles to understand the wider dynamics of committee hearings and evidence processes. Doing this detailed analysis will help us to better understand why a committee will come to certain conclusions but might avoid other recommendations. Most importantly, the performance styles that I have identified here are designed to be illustrative rather than definitive, drawing on the most recurring themes and behaviours that I found during my fieldwork.  Continue reading

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: why half in, half out just isn’t an option for royals

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Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to step back from royal duties has been described as a crisis for the monarchy, but they are the ones who are most likely to suffer the damage, as Robert Hazell and Bob Morris explain.

Members of the royal family are in a conflicted position. They lead lives of great privilege, but they also lack fundamental freedoms. They aren’t free to choose a career, they cannot speak freely and they have limited freedom to privacy and family life, which the rest of us take for granted.

Harry and Meghan are not alone in finding that frustrating, Prince Laurent of Belgium is another who is visibly unhappy in the role.

The harsh reality is that younger sons are spares who are ultimately dispensable from a hereditary monarchy: it is only those in direct line of succession who count. As spares they are subject to the same personal restrictions as the immediate heirs, without either the prospect of succession or the freedom to develop truly independent careers of their own.

Other European monarchies (encouraged by parsimonious governments and legislatures) have learned to keep the core team as small as possible. It can be just four people – in Norway and Spain it is the king and queen, the heir and their spouse. In 2019, the King of Sweden removed five grandchildren from the royal family, under parliamentary pressure to reduce its size and its cost.

The UK has a larger population – over ten times the size of Norway – and it could therefore be contended that it makes sense for its royal family to be larger to carry out necessary duties. A bigger team is also required given the realms: the queen is head of state of 15 countries other than the UK, and Prince Charles and his sons make regular visits to countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In total, 15 members of the British royal family conducted almost 4,000 royal engagements in 2019 alone.

Cutting the spares

Prince Charles is said to want a smaller, streamlined monarchy, perhaps just the core team of the queen, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate: but with a smaller team they could accept fewer royal patronages and fulfil far fewer engagements. It is not clear how far Prince Charles has thought through such consequences any more than Harry and Meghan have thought through the consequences for others of what they want. Continue reading

Do we need a written constitution?

image1.000.jpgPrior to the general election, several of the parties’ manifestos called for the creation of a codified constitution for the UK. In December, the Constitution Unit hosted an event to debate the merits and downsides of such an exercise. Harrison Shaylor summarises the discussion.

What did the 2019 Liberal Democrat election manifesto and the Brexit Party’s ‘Contract with the People’ (from the same election) have in common? Both advocate the need for a written constitution in the UK. So too did the Green Party manifesto, and that of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Meg Russell took part in a discussion on a written constitution in The Briefing Room on Radio 4 in September, and on 28 November, the Constitution Unit held its own event entitled ‘Do we need a written constitution?’. Two distinguished law professors – Sionaidh Douglas-Scott of Queen Mary University of London and Nicholas Barber of the University of Oxford – set out the case for and against a written constitution, in a debate chaired by a former Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell. What follows is a summary of the presentations made by each participant. 

The argument for a written constitution: Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

‘Someone, I haven’t been able to trace whom, once said: Constitution building is a bit like dentistry: there’s never a good time for it; no one does it for fun; but it’s sometimes necessary and, when it’s done right, it prevents greater pain in the future.’

Professor Douglas-Scott explained that a constitution delineates the relationships between the major institutions of state, such as the executive and the legislature, as well as between the state and its citizens. More abstractly, a constitution says something about legitimacy and power. How does the state exercise power? And when is it legitimate for it do so?

The UK is unusual in not having a written constitution, in the sense of not having the fundamental rules of the constitution codified in a single document. It is one of only a few democracies in the world which lacks one, alongside Israel and New Zealand. The reason for this is historical. Since 1688, Britain has not experienced a revolution or regime change – a ‘constitutional moment’ – like the American or the French Revolution, or the withdrawal of colonial rule. Rather, Britain’s constitution has evolved slowly over time under relative stability; it has never been deemed necessary to list the fundamental laws and principles underpinning the country’s polity. As the Constitution Unit website states: ‘What Britain has instead is an accumulation of various statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution.’

This arrangement, Professor Douglas-Scott argued, is no longer adequate. The current constitution is deficient for three reasons: its lack of clarity; its failure to properly protect fundamental rights; and the inadequacy of the current devolution settlement. Continue reading