Stumbling backwards into the future
It was Harold Wilson who introduced the term ‘governance’ into modern parlance, after his voluntary retirement as Prime Minister in 1976.
‘The Governance of Britain’ 1976, was his post-PM memoir, in which Wilson deployed the term to mean something beyond ‘government’, the institutions of the state. He drew the discourse more broadly to encompass the values behind it, the modalities of doing it, and the outcomes from having done it. Over the subsequent decades governance has become the generic term by which we describe the how and why of what organisations achieve, not just their decisions.
Now, turning homewards, what can we say about the governance of Northern Ireland?
I left my job as Director of NICVA to commit to securing a YES vote in the Belfast Agreement Referendum in May 1998, only six weeks after that snowy, exciting and prescient moment on Good Friday when agreement was reached between the NI participating parties, the two governments and soon, the people in polls on each side of the border, acting as the third element of what PM John Major had described as the reassuring ‘triple lock’ for the cautious citizens who feared possible sell-out over their heads.
But what form of governance has it ushered in? At Stratagem, the political consultancy I helped set up after the referendum, we often explain that the checks and balances, the vetoes and petitions of concern threaded throughout the complex arrangements, legislated by the NI Act of 1998, are ‘good for the peace process, but rotten for good governance’. It served us well for 15 years, binding everyone in, marginalising dissenters on both sides and offering a beacon around the world of what can be achieved from conflict.
Is it really a surprise that radioactive issues like the Maze-Long Kesh prison site, reforming local councils, planning, land use, contested housing, use of the Irish language, abortion rights, gay marriage, National Crime Agency, Desertcreat Police College, reforming education, shared schooling, dismantling peace walls and so many more have been bridges too far for the five-party coalition? One could argue that the checks and balances have worked brilliantly, only collapsing the structures for a single extended period (2002-2007). Just look at Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sri Lanka or Pakistan to glimpse a vision of the dystopia to which we might have slumped?
Meanwhile the police have been reformed, roads have been built, schools repaired and health demands met; tourism has even reached a high point, inward investment is enjoying a spurt and our creative industries are flourishing.
Mark Durkan, once deputy First Minister, famously described ‘the ugly scaffolding’ around the architecture of the institutions, and asked when it might be dismantled? Well, now is certainly the time.
In a hundred years we will look back on this interim moment between war and peace; it feels frustratingly and grindingly slow as we live through it, but in the scale of things, it hardly registers! We have settled key issues of consent, power-sharing, devolution, policing and justice, cross-border bodies and east-west arrangements. We must now complete the residual matters of flags, parades and the past, alongside current matters of welfare reform, budgets, election of a Speaker and other irritants that have been thrown into the agenda pot!
But, as to governance in its richer sense, we have indeed reached the end of a cul-de-sac, as we stumble backwards into the future; the way in which decisions are made leaves much to be desired; transparency is opaque; openness seems closed; accountability undeliverable; confidence is shattered; hope is dimmed.
So, what is to be done?
First, a Talks process that involves more than just the politicians, however talented – and I believe they are uniquely so. Second, a more intense and meaningful process of participatory democracy, deploying the skills and interests of society; third, an engagement process that looks to the future, not the past; and fourth, a vision for a better, shared, prosperous and inclusive place that draws people back, rather than pushing them away.
What makes good governance, asked Harold Wilson? He suggested good leadership – of which we have enjoyed much, as we have moved from conflict to an accommodation of sorts. But Wilson’s last act of governance was to resign in 1976, in full health and without political pressure from opposition or internally in the Labour Party, incidentally, the first leader so to do, since Diocletian resigned as Emperor of Rome in 305 AD; he also introduced the ‘tetrarchy’, rule by four partners.
So, who is to lead us as the new architects of our future?
Join the Conversation...
We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.
Join Our Newsletter
Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.