Northern Ireland 14th January 2019

NI Open Government Network Blog – New Year, New Chance?

by Connor McLean

Written by Colm Burns

On the 9th January 2017 the Executive and Assembly collapsed. Whilst there are many reasons for the collapse, it doesn’t look like our political representatives will be back any time soon.

Before the collapse we had more than a year of deadlock and failed attempts to resolve differences over issues such as an Irish language act, same sex marriage and dealing with the past. Looking back, collapse was inevitable. But very few commentators thought we would be without a devolved government for over two years. And not many saw Brexit coming.

We know Brexit has changed the political landscape, but we don’t know what 2019 will bring: hard brexit, soft brexit, second referendum or something else. Whilst everything changes, the local problems remain the same.

The status of Northern Ireland has risen to the top of political discussion, because any Brexit deal must solve the problem of the Irish Border. Claim and counterclaim about the impact of Brexit swirl; nobody wants to see the return of a hard border; but nobody can come up with a solution that’s acceptable to the stakeholders involved.

The EU wants the UK Government to agree to a ‘backstop’. They believe a hard border can be avoided and the Good Friday Agreement upheld if Northern Ireland remains fully aligned with the EU’s customs union and part of the single market. This means matching the rules north and south of the Border for customs, energy, environmental regulations and laws covering agriculture and fisheries. Northern Ireland would stick to EU rules covering state aid and would fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in applying those rules. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier initially insisted that this backstop should apply only to Northern Ireland.

While the Scottish Government and Parliament and their Welsh counterparts debate Brexit and its possible impacts, the only changes we see in the political landscape here are new parties forming and possible mergers of others. There has been no movement on restoring government.  There has been no hunger for change. We have given up on the pretence that talks to restore the NI Institutions might work and have begun to doubt whether they will even happen.

In reality, Northern Ireland has already been under the de facto control of the UK Government for some time. Civil servants have been acting as caretakers, managing finances and resources in line with the existing priorities of the outgoing executive. For the time being, the UK Government seems likely to resist any formal return to direct rule, and persist with its current strategy – passing budgets to be administered by civil servants – for as long as possible.

In October Parliament passed the ‘The Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Bill’. This allows for greater clarity and certainty for civil servants who can continue to take decisions in Northern Ireland in the public interest, to ensure the continued delivery of public services.

The Bill also provides for a 5-month period during which an Executive may be formed at any point without further primary legislation or an Assembly election; and it removes the duty to propose a date for an election during that period, providing a further opportunity to re-establish political dialogue and restore the Executive as soon as possible. The process feels like ‘The less people know about this, the better’.

However, the UK Government will have to take a stand on one issue, ‘Brexit’.  Without a Northern Ireland Executive, it could face the task of directly administering a hard Brexit to a part of the country that voted to remain and that could do much more to endanger the future of devolved government than legalising equal marriage or liberalising abortion law.

Some commentators are surmising that the parties do not want a return of devolved government before brexit, that is for the parties to answer but if it was true it would be a staggering dereliction of duty.

RHI may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back and it will be interesting  to see what recommendations flow from the Inquiry. But RHI is a symptom not the cause of the dysfunctional government in Northern Ireland. The much awaited report from Sir Patrick Coghlin is expected to address Ministerial Responsibility and a reform of the ministerial code, the role of Special Advisers and the importance of civil service record-keeping. But will the parties accept the recommendations and possible criticisms?

Although maybe things are changing? It seems that all the major parties here agree that we can’t go back to the status quo. In her DUP Conference speech, Arlene Foster pointed to lessons about openness and transparency, indicating that “proper records must be kept and we must recognise that greater transparency will add value to public debate.”

Yet all party talks, if successful, will lead to all party solutions or in previous incarnations a two party solution, which in the past has led to a pitched up government that will again collapse. We must recognise that our previous Executive didn’t have a great track-record when it came to passing significant legislation or building on the peace process.

Even if we have an Executive tomorrow and Assembly up and running soon, will governance have changed?

Will we see wholistic change, or minor changes in the margins? We know about the parties’ ‘Red Lines’ but what are citizens’ red lines? In a previous post I was flippant about the #wedeservebetter campaign – I compared it to a scene from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.  And I still believe that the campaign was badly thought out but I  agree that we deserve better or more importantly we deserve different.

The issue I have with the campaign and their subsequent petition calling on the UK Government “to appoint an independent facilitator to engage MLAs in talks to resolve the impasse” is that it ignores the role of the citizen and places all the responsibility on the political parties to just work together.

Is the Good Friday Agreement sacrosanct? On 5 September 2008, the then leader of the SDLP, Mark Durkan gave a speech at the British Irish Association Conference in New College, Oxford which addressed the future of the Good Friday agreement:

“I remember, at the time, saying that the system of designation was necessary because of what we were coming from but should not be necessary where we were going. I argued that such measures with their arguably sectarian or sectional undertones should be bio-degradable, dissolving in the future as the environment changed. Most, if not all of us, had such future adjustments in mind when we wrote the review mechanisms into the Agreement.

As we move towards a fully sealed and settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice.”

That speech was over 10 years ago, and whilst the Good Friday Agreement has been an important part of the peace in Northern Ireland, it is clear that community designation is sectarian and sectional. Surely it is time to be bold again?

Is it time to review the Good Friday Agreement? By creating a deliberative dialogue process for citizens, can we reform the structures of how we are governed? Is it time for citizens to have a direct say in how we move forward? If not, will we be back to square one in a couple of years time?