Northern Ireland government: time to fix the system

9 Nov 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 9 Nov 2018

Pic: Wiki Commons

The crisis in Northern Ireland has spread from frustration at the political impasse to disillusionment and anger at the entire system of government.


The auditor general’s report into the Strategic Investment Fund (SIF), following on from the long-running public hearings of the RHI inquiry raise profoundly disturbing questions about how the business of government is run. 

Democratic governments rest on the social contract - the notion that citizens give up individual sovereignty to elected politicians who exercise it on our behalf for the public good. 

For this to work there has to be a consensus that the government is both legitimate and effective.

Even before the collapse of Stormont almost two years ago there were grounds for believing that the legitimacy of our system was being called into question.

At the last General Election one third of those on the electoral register stayed at home. Northern Ireland returned 10 DUP MPs 7 Sinn Fein and one independent. Imagine, for a moment there was such a thing as a Disengaged Party. If there were it would have won all but one seat in Northern Ireland, West Belfast.

Therefore the biggest electoral bloc is neither orange nor green but those who do not vote at all. This represents a gathering crisis for all politicians of all parties and those who suggest that it can be fixed by introducing compulsory voting are seriously deluded.

The system we are now operating under, with enhanced powers for civil servants means that the business of government can continue, which is a good thing. But its democratic legitimacy is quite another matter. A bureaucratic system of government is quite a different thing from a democracy.

And as for direct rule, our Secretary of State is from a party which at the last General Election secured 3,895 votes in Northern Ireland,  0.5% of the total. The figures are not easy to find because statisticians group Conservative votes with all the other fringe parties in the Others category. This is not democratic either.

Perceptions of the efficiency of government is even lower. Before the Assembly fell a Life and Times survey told us that only 11% of people thought that the Assembly had delivered “a lot”.

Since then there has been mounting public anger at the fact that MLAs are still getting paid. It is only this month that their pay will be reduced. This might be expedient, but it is clearly not efficient.

Then we get to RHI and more recently the Strategic Investment Fund affair.

The RHI inquiry has uncovered systemic problems with how politics work, of party hierarchies, of how Special Political Advisors are appointed and the powers they appear to exercise, of alleged cronyism, of ministerial competence and of the difficulty of making politicians accountable.

But it also shed light on a disturbing dysfunctionality within the civil service, between departments and within them; a culture of not taking minutes of important meetings, of contacts with industry and other vested interests which many would see as inappropriate;  a lack of expertise in managing complex problems, a lack of resources in implementing them; a toleration of SpAds and Ministers using private email accounts to communicate on government business and an overall lack of scrutiny of how public money was spent.

The SIF report cites members of steering committee being recipients of funds that committee was responsible for distributing and yet not declaring an interest, of important funding meetings not being minuted and of the responsible department not having audit trails of precisely how and why groups were granted the monies they received.

All this is exacerbated by the knowledge that Northern Ireland political and economic fate, post Brexit is not in the hands of our own non functioning government, but will be shaped by others, in Brussels, London and Dublin.

There is therefore a crisis both in the legitimacy and efficiency of government – that is not just a serious concern, it is an existential threat.

What can be done? Some argue that our system of “mandatory coalition” is to blame.

Yet the Northern Ireland system of government is not some weirdly unique system. It is a tried and tested model based on  consociational power sharing. This form of government is often adopted in societies which have major splits on religious or ethnic lines. The way it works is that the political elites from the different groups get together to form a government. Typically a series of mutual vetoes are in place in order to protect minority rights (we call ours Petitions of Concerns).

The system works when opposing factions decide to cooperate for the good of society because they recognise the danger of not doing so.  The fact that our major parties either don’t recognise the danger or else have other priorities is profoundly worrying ,as is the abuse of veto powers.

Sadly majoritarian systems are not suited to bitterly divided society not least because they open the potential for government to be enacted to the benefit of one community to the detriment of the other. Many argue that that is precisely what happened in the old Stormont regime prior to its collapse in 1972.

Democracy may not be working In Northern Ireland yet we continue to vote for parties on the basis of the national question rather than social and economic policy. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. All this despite the fact that the Assembly is not and will never be responsible for resolving the national question, it is a devolved administration. 

Three of the more obvious consequences are that there is little connection between what people may want and what politicians do.  It makes manifestos pretty much pointless because voting is on tribal, not policy lines. And the electorate has no real incentive to punish poor performance at the ballot box because the price of ousting a bad apple from your own tribe will be the election of one from the other. This erodes accountability.

There is no room for complacency in a system where people vote to keep the “other” out rather than endorse their choice and so many choose not to vote at all. The crisis in disaffection is a real one and the onus is on the parties to reform: ministers need to be appointed for their competence; their communications need to be through official government channels, SpAds need to perform their duties appropriately and most important of all they need to remember why they are there: to cooperate for the good of society because they recognise the danger of not doing so. This threat is growing all the time.

In order to help guide them navigate difficult policy areas a Citizens Assembly should be constituted to allow ordinary people to have a say in how we tackle major challenges, giving decisions greater legitimacy than our current voting patterns allow.

As for the Civil Service it too is on notice. Senior civil servants were embarrassed, perhaps even ashamed at the revelations that came out of the RHI inquiry. It has yet to report but its findings are likely to be coruscating. It is to be hoped that by the time the final report is published the Civil Service will be able to demonstrate that it has already addressed all concerns. Trust and confidence need to be restored.

Finally we all need to realise that developing democratic accountability in post conflict societies is notoriously difficult. New governments tend to be riddled with cronyism and corruption. There are countless UN documents outlining this. In that sense Northern Ireland is in a far better place than other regimes emerging from conflict.

What has happened needs to act as a wake up call to the parties and to the Civil Service. It is imperative that they realise the extent to which their stock has fallen and take the time now to put their houses in order. The stakes are high, the price of failure incalculable.

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