Pivotal: Northern Ireland's new think tank

27 Sep 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 27 Sep 2019

Pic: Wikimedia commons

Northern Ireland had the dubious distinction of being the only part of the UK without a think tank, until this week.


Pivotal was launched on Wednesday and will be headed up by Ann Watt, former head of the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland.

It is exciting because it has the potential to fill a massive void at the heart of policy development in Northern Ireland.

Think tanks have been valued globally for more than a century – because whilst politicians and governments deal with the many pressing matters of the day a think tank provides the time and space to examine more long term economic, social and other challenges. Their proposed solutions stimulate public debate and can then help shape political and governmental agendas.

There are estimated to be 320 in the UK and there are 16 in the Republic. Remits vary widely from international affairs (Chatham House) to social policy (Demos) to health (the King’s Fund). Some have specific ideological agendas others set out to be cross-party. All help to deepen thinking on matters that affect us all an their research helps inform public discourse.

The need in Northern Ireland for a think tank is arguably greater than anywhere.  This is a region emerging from conflict and political debate is, quite naturally, dominated by two related issues – the legacy of conflict and the question of national identity and political sovereignty, and all the divisions that spring from that.

Political parties are organised according to their stances on these issues and attract votes on that basis.

This is inevitable and it is critical for these issues to be discussed and resolved.

However notwithstanding their importance this leaves a massive void.

Northern Ireland faces many economic and social challenges. All of these require policy solutions, regardless of our future constitutional status.

These range from a health and social care system which is collapsing in slow motion, to an economy which is heavily dependent on funding from the Westminster economy, to challenges relating to the environment and climate change to a range of severe social problems many of which are linked to deeply entrenched inequality.

They are all pressing problems that need a policy response and they will not be solved simply by the return of the Executive and Assembly.

This is not to be critical of either politicians or civil servants and those behind Pivotal are keen to stress this. It is more to point out that they need help to shape policy – and a properly resourced think tank with access to the appropriate expertise (economists, academics, experts in relevant policy areas) is in a position to help.

To bring this alive let’s take a looming crisis which is complex, emotive and politically sensitive: the provision of adult social care.

People are living longer which is good news. However this also means that the demands for health and social care are rising faster than the funds available to support them. Falling fertility rates means that the numbers of tax payers to meet this demand is diminishing. In 2016, there were an estimated 308 people of pensionable age for every 1,000 working-age people. By 2037, this is projected to increase to 365 people.

The fundamental problem in addressing this is that most people don’t understand the gravity of the problem – it is widely assumed that social care, like health, is free at the point of delivery and they only find out this is not the case when they or a family member needs it.

There are solutions but because of the widespread misunderstanding they all seem unpalatable and so the policy response is inertia. However kicking the can down the road is only going to widen the funding gap and make the problem worse.

Telling people they have to pay more for something they think is paid for through National Insurance contributions – on a national level both major parties have paid a very heavy price for trying to address this – Labour through its “Death Tax” and the Conservatives through the “Dementia Tax.”

Tackling the lack of public knowledge, researching means of funding and promoting debate about the most palatable options is a good example of how think tanks can help to foster informed policy discourse, pulling together the public, government, politicians, experts in the field and wider civic society.

There may be little appetite either for an insurance system, as introduced in Japan and Germany or a dedicated social care tax which some have promoted but we do need to have clear-sighted insights into the problem and the solutions and we need that to happen in Northern Ireland. This is not currently happening.

There are similar complex and currently intractable problems in every policy area. Pivotal has yet to state which ones it plans to address in depth. However next month will see it publishing an analysis of the key economic and social issues that Northern Ireland faces. It will go on to work on a vision for Northern Ireland in 2040.

Pivotal has stressed its commitment to being both independent of government and political parties. It has partnered with both the Queens University, Belfast and the University of Ulster.

Further details are available on Pivotal’s website which also contains details on how people can get involved.

The organisation has funding in place for its first two years.



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