Northern Ireland 12th September 2018

NI Open Government Network Blog – Untapped Potential

by Connor McLean

Written by Colm Burns

Having ‘no new ideas’ was the damning verdict from the political parties at Stormont after the latest round of talks with the Secretary of State.

Following the meetings, Karen Bradley said she was “determined to deliver” devolved government.

“Last week I set out the Government’s clear plan to bring that about and today was the first step in that process,” she said in a statement.

“I will continue engagement over the next days and weeks ahead of legislation to support the ongoing delivery of public services in Northern Ireland.”

Over recent weeks citizens have watched the simple functions of government fail. We’ve had Irish Language rights marches, equal marriage demonstrations and anti Brexit protests. But Stormont is still closed for business. It seems we are still in the same place we were 604 days ago. We are now ‘unofficial’ world record-holders for the longest period without a government.

To celebrate this dubious achievement we saw the emergence of the #wedeservebetter campaign: a seemingly simple idea to have 589 people protest our lack of political representation.

But things are never simple here. Almost immediately, cracks began to appear. Watching the fall-out reminded me of this scene from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’:

Brian: People, we should be struggling together.

People’s Front of Judea member: (in a headlock) We are.

Brian: No, we should be rising up against the common enemy.

All: The Judean People’s Front?

Brian: No, the Romans.

As with party politics, things fall apart very easily: and the centre cannot hold.

As Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan said: “The provision of political direction to the machinery of government is a requirement of a functioning democracy. It is not an optional extra.”

In the absence of devolved government here, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland hasn’t exactly sprung into action to fill the political vacuum. Last week she announced a pay-cut for MLAs and promised legislation that would allow Civil Servants to make decisions in the absence of their political masters.

In her statement to Parliament last week the secretary of state told MPs:

“I recognise that there is a need to provide reassurance and clarity to both the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the people of Northern Ireland on the mechanisms for the continued delivery of public services. So, the legislation I intend to introduce after the conference recess will also include provisions to give greater clarity and certainty to enable Northern Ireland departments to continue to take decisions in Northern Ireland in the public interest and to ensure the continued delivery of public services.”

This could mean civil service rule for years.

Is this good for democracy? Probably not, but in a strange way civil servants may be more accountable for the decisions they take and may actually get things done. And, besides, the alternative option of direct rule was never really an option, given the DUP’s influence over Conservative Government decisions.

Is it better to be governed by local unelected bureaucrats, or governed at a distance by non-representative and uninterested conservative ministers? You decide. Or rather you don’t.

On the other hand, do we really want our erstwhile local politicians back? At a crucial time, with Brexit looming, our hospitals at breaking point and our schools under severe pressure they abandoned the common good in favour of narrow party interest.

Besides, they haven’t exactly got a great track-record when it comes to passing significant legislation or building on the peace process. And, as the ongoing RHI Inquiry has confirmed, they’re not the best when it comes to transparency and accountability.

The Good Friday Agreement was bold and brave. It was what we needed at the time to enable us to escape the horrors of the Troubles. But our politicians have been unable unwilling to build on it. Society has changed in the 20 years since its inception, but it doesn’t appear that our politicians have moved on. Citizens don’t trust their elected representatives; and politicians don’t trust each other. Compromise is seen as a sign of weakness.

What we have doesn’t resemble the future we were promised.

If our political representatives have let us down, maybe it’s time to look for a new plan. Maybe it’s time to release the untapped potential of citizens.

Citizens aren’t a harmonious group: the population is split on issues ranging from equal marriage to the need for an Irish Language Act. But with deliberation they can come up with evidence-based solutions for the common good.

A Constitutional Convention involving citizens and political representatives (to focus on reviewing strand one of the Good Friday Agreement) is one way forward. We can learn from Ireland, Canada, Iceland and Scotland, where this method has been tried, and design something that meets our local needs.

Giving citizens a formal role in decision-making will give legitimacy. When people are presented with facts and have an opportunity to question and explore the issue most often they reach an informed opinion and perhaps a new way forward.