Boris and the Northern Ireland problem

13 Dec 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 13 Dec 2019

Pic: Chatham House, Wiki Commons

Now that the General Election is over we can only hope that Boris Johnson’s new government is better than the last one. But at least there will be one, which is more than can be said for Northern Ireland.

Helping to fix that has to be a major priority. The fact that he has a significant majority and no longer needs the support of the DUP may make that a little easier than it was a few weeks ago.

Next month will see the third anniversary of the collapse of the Executive and Assembly.  The fact that the public sector continues to function is very much to the civil service’s credit. But to imagine that this can continue for much longer is to dangerously misunderstand what is happening.

The inability of civil servants to create new policy means that we face stagnation and decay in public services and are unable to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, which in turn means that Northern Ireland is falling further and further behind other economies.

That is why it is imperative that resolving the current impasse should be a top priority for the incoming government. To do this it will need to seriously up its game not just in terms of brokering a deal between local parties, but to achieve even a basic understanding of the unique challenges we face.

Rising to that  involves examining ways in which we can improve governance arrangements for Northern Ireland to help make the political institutions more stable, how the civil service might be reformed and what other steps might be taken in order to help politicians enact the policies we so desperately need to move on from the current malaise.

In October the British Think Tank the Institute for Government made a rare but important excursion into NI governance with its report Governing without Ministers.  

It’s a compelling document and Scope will analysis some of its other proposals but its central thrust concerns how the British government has performed during the interregnum.

Its starkest finding is: “the key message of this report is that the current generation of Westminster politicians need to care as much about what is happening in Northern Ireland, and take their responsibilities with regards to it as seriously, as they do for  the rest of the UK.”

It adds: “Too often there is a tendency to put Northern Ireland’s problems in a “too difficult” box and turn a blind eye to what is happening there.”

There is bucketloads of evidence for this assertion.

One vital area to which this applies is the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, the part of the UK most affected by it.

In the absence of  Northern Ireland ministers civil servants attend the joint-ministerial committee meetings at which the UK  and devolved governments discuss Brexit. They are allowed to speak but ministers from Scotland and Wales take precedent – and obviously, as civil servants, they can’t raise any political objections.

The report states that relations between officials has been good but that Northern Ireland-specific issues are not being adequately considered in UK preparations. It states: “This is in part because UK officials have been reluctant to force their ministers to confront the issues associated with managing the land border and north–south relations after Brexit.”

It also appeared to be partly down to straight-forward ignorance.

Per the report: “The NIO can recruit people with policy skills but has difficulties recruiting people with an understanding of the politics of Northern Ireland, particularly when recruiting for its London office.

Beyond the NIO, officials may forget the special circumstances of Northern Ireland – from basics like the shared geography (which means, for example, that a distinction between domestic and international rail systems makes little sense, and that people cross the border on a daily basis) to the sensitivities of appearing to align with one community or another.

“This was shown when a UK government communications campaign on Brexit assumed people crossed a border with the EU only by plane or ferry when going on holiday, rather than on a daily basis on foot or by car. Government advice also stated that after Brexit, UK drivers in the Republic of Ireland would be required to display a GB sticker, prompting backlash in Northern Ireland – which is not part of Great Britain.”

There really is no excuse for this level of ignorance, but sadly it gets worse.

Ignorance at Whitehall and Westminster may not have mattered quite so much if there had been a Secretary of State who had the knowledge, authority and enjoyed the respect of a person who is supposed to be representing the interest of Northern Ireland.

In the past the position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was regarded as important enough to require post holders of the highest calibre – and the NIO was able to attract high quality staff.

Since 2010 there have been five secretaries of state. Karen Bradley starkly demonstrated that even the most rudimentary knowledge is not a requirement for the post. Her basic ignorance was compounded by her absence – the fragility of the government meant that she was constantly required to vote in the Commons and was reported as saying she hoped to be able to be in Northern Ireland for one day a week.

This was not good enough, and is a situation which cannot be allowed to happen again.

All, this of course was undermined by the confidence and supply agreement struck between the Conservatives and the DUP which undermined the British government’s supposed role as an even-handed broker between the unionist and nationalist communities.

It did not help when, on taking office Boris Johnson took on the title of “Minister for the Union” which does not sit easily with the Downing Street Declaration which spoke of Britain having  no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. It would be wise for him to quietly drop that moniker.

Finally, the report concludes that the undermining of the government’s standing as even handed when coupled with: “the lack of understanding of Northern Ireland and of local sensitivities put the UK government at a big disadvantage – not just when dealing with the parties in Northern Ireland, but also with the Republic, where senior officials and politicians are much more politically attuned to the history of the island of Ireland.”

Restoring the Executive and Assembly is an urgent necessity. And there is much that can be done to buttress political institutions, through citizens assemblies and the introduction of new bodies to produce reports on difficult policy problems, for example. But the British government needs to step up to the plate as well.



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