It's not just politics but government itself that's not working

10 Jan 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 Jan 2017

No longer quite so fresh ...

The prime purpose of government is to devise and implement public policy. 

It should be evident to all by now that governance in Northern Ireland is not working and it is hard to see how an election at this point will do anything to fix it.

Party politics is understandably dominating the media at the moment but it is more instructive to examine the current crisis in policy terms.

First our government does not have a budget. One was supposed to have been presented to the Assembly prior to the Christmas break, but that did not happen: instead the Assembly became engulfed by the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme scandal.

We need to have one in place by the end of March. Given that an election is looming and that it will be followed by a two week period of negotiation before a government can be formed it may yet prove to be impossible to agree one in time.

In the meantime government departments will continue to function as normal, but all those bodies who depend upon the public sector for funding and who have contracts up for renewal, many of which are in the voluntary sector, will be plunged into uncertainty. Planning for the next financial year is fraught with risk when you have no idea what the budget will contain.

Of course administrations can continue in the absence of a budget but whether it is one agreed by a future Executive, imposed by the Secretary of State, or implemented on an emergency basis by the civil service is not possible to determine and that cannot be good for the planning and development of vital services. Strategic planning is impossible.

What compounds this is the lack of a Programme for Government (PfG), the very framework on which all public policy is built. The current Executive has adopted a revolutionary new approach to the PfG, one built for the long term based on extensive consultation. Eight months after the new government was formed the consultation continues and although the PfG contains desired outcomes and suggested “indicators” by which those outcomes can be measured it has yet to reach the stage where it is actually saying what will happen.

Critical to this new approach is the need for different departments to work collaboratively together to achieve shared outcomes. This is a radical departure for the civil service which cuts across existing mindsets and cultures. It will require very strong leadership to keep that on track. With political leadership absent, and the SF/DUP coalition in tatters, the omens are not good. Sir Malcolm McKibben, outgoing head of the civil service has agreed to stay in post until the end of March to keep things on track. But this was his brainchild and who knows how the approach will fare once its strongest advocate leaves office.

In any event the PfG is a matter for an incoming Executive, if one can be agreed, and will be up for negotiation post election, thus either further delaying the one currently being formulated, or else replacing it with a more traditional one based on incoming parties’ manifestos. It follows that the budget currently in draft form is based around the PfG and it follows from that that a new administration may not agree with either.

So we can expect a prolonged policy vacuum which will mean that for at least 12 months (from the last Assembly Election) our government will be working without a proper policy programme, and possibly without a budget agreed by those actually elected to public office.

All that is chaotic enough. Sadly it gets worse. The health crisis, predicted for decades, is now upon us. Previous regimes have known about it, have known what to do and have even devised appropriate reforms. These have not been delivered largely because of poor communication of the need for reform, compounded by nimby politicking around acute hospital closures, and a media that has shown a fundamental lack of understanding of what is at stake, perhaps as a result of the poor communication from health authorities.

We have now reached a point where urgent action is required. The last administration but one commissioned a Basque politician to tell us what we already knew had to be done. He reported to Health Minister Michelle O’Neill who issued a preliminary report in the Autumn. Her final report is due around now. O’Neill will shortly leave office and we must now wait for the incoming Health Minister to review work to date and publish either it, or their own views.

This will inevitably significantly delay reform so urgent, that every week wasted is already critical.

Over and above this we have Brexit. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border with the European Union. That alone makes it a special case. We have so much at stake in a successful transition. Up until now Northern Ireland’s response to Brexit negotiations has been incoherent – largely because the two government parties took different positions in the poll.

Now that the big decisions are looming, in this critical period leading up to the triggering of Article 50, our voices will not be heard. Senior politicians will be tramping the streets of their constituencies at the very time their constituents most need them to be standing up for our collective future.

Contrast Scotland where there is a strategy in place and heavy pressure is being exerted on the British negotiating team.

Many commentators have already pointed out the irony that an election also won’t fix the RHI scandal. It means that any investigation or inquiry will be delayed and that in the meantime revenues will continue to be lost.

This in turn brings us back to our governance. The media covers politics very well in Northern Ireland, and scarcely touches policy. And so in personalising the debate around Foster and Bell and their respective SpAds, the ultimate architects and implementers of the scheme have  been neglected.

These were of course civil servants. They devised the policy and rolled it out - the controversy over politicians is around an alleged failure of oversight, and then a failure to heed warnings once issued by the civil service.

Yet for now the politicians are shortly to leave government to fight an election, Northern Ireland will be run by civil servants again, and as to when the politicians will be back, that’s hard to say. The language coming out of Sinn Fein suggests that if they and the DUP are once again the largest parties, brokering a government may well turn out to be a protracted affair with the prospect of governance passing to the Honourable Member for Bexley and Old Sidcup, who whatever his merits has no electoral mandate here.

Wisely he has said that if no government can be formed he will call another election. This may be his best course of action if that were to happen, but it will prolong the interregnum still further.

Martin McGuinness looked very unwell when he made his resignation speech and all people of good will will wish him a speedy recover from whatever condition ails him. Yet it was hard not to see his frail appearance as a metaphor for our institutions, they too are in poor health, and in their case the prognosis is not good.


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