The rudderless ship heading for the rocks

16 Feb 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 16 Feb 2018

No one at the wheel Pic: Unsplash

Most pundits are concerned about the political fall-out from the failed talks process. But what does it mean for government itself, and civil society?

For the past 13 months Northern Ireland has been run without elected politicians. What difference has this made, how long can it continue and what are the implications, in practical terms, of having a government with no executive?

It is not difficult to see how tempting it must be for the Westminster government to keep things exactly as they are in the face of the impasse. At first glance it looks the least-worst option.

We do have a form of government. It is a bit like a ship with no captain. It will continue on its set course and could do so indefinitely.

Without politicians we have no executive and no assembly. The executive is the body which exercises authority over Northern Ireland. Its members are the Ministers who are responsible for the running of the department.

The assembly scrutinises the executive, holds it to account and is responsible for legislation by which we are governed.

Ministers are, generally speaking, appointed to office because of their standing in their party and because of their political skills. It is comparatively rare for them to have working experience or any special expertise in their brief.

This may be unfortunate but it does not necessarily matter. This is because it is the role of the civil service to advise them on policy and to put government policy into action. An effective department would therefore be a marriage of expertise and implementation skills, provided by public servants and the political/presentational skills of the minister.

So therefore the absence of Ministers does not mean the absence of government. Where policy exists it can be implemented and policy development, devised under the framework provided by the agreed Programme for Government can continue. This is what has been happening for the past 13 months.

The budgetary issue is also straightforward. Ours is a devolved government with no tax-raising powers. Its finances are provided by the Treasury according to the Barnet formula. So therefore the absence of an executive means that the issue to be resolved is not whether we get the money but how it is to be spent. The Secretary of State will step in and monies will be allocated, presumably on the advice of the same people who would have made recommendations to a Finance Minister, if we had one in place.

We have existed like this for more than a year and can last longer. Given that there do not seem to be any solutions to the governance that would currently enjoy sufficient political or public support  it seems likely that the current system will remain in place for a while yet.

However running a government without politicians can only be a short term solution and we are already beginning to see signs of its unsustainability.

The trouble is that although the ship keeps on going, there is no way to alter its course and there are icebergs ahead, the largest and most dangerous of which is the health crisis.

We can function but we cannot change anything. And there is much that needs to be changed. That, at least is one issue on which everyone in civil society can agree upon. Yet our zombie ship cannot. We, the people, should be steering it through our political representatives. But they have jumped overboard.

Policy papers are piling up in empty ministerial offices, they cannot be further progressed, let alone enacted.

Government may still be functioning, but there is no one to speak for it, to explain actions, to be accountable. This is also dangerous because it can give the impression that nothing is happening in some areas and makes government remote and unaccountable. 

The lack of an Assembly means there is no scrutiny of executive activity and no legislation being passed. Bills that were worked up and ready for progress are on hold. At Stormont the lights are all on but there is no one at home.

With no ministers in place Permanent Secretaries are de facto running departments. They will inevitably take different views about the limits of their powers in the absence of ministers – these are untested waters.

Earlier this week the UK government failed to provide any information on how Irish and Ulster-Scots are being promoted and protected to the Council of Europe.

Under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages it is meant to provide information every four years.

It transpired that the Department for Communities felt unable to provide this in the absence of an executive.

And the Belfast High Court is currently hearing a legal challenge to the Department for Infrastructure’s decision to grant planning permission for the Arc21 waste disposal plant at Glengormley in the absence of ministers.

We can expect more legal challenges and in that context there is little or no incentive for making bold, courageous decisions.

There is no simple solution. The point is that the civil service has taken us as far as it can without an executive or assembly, it might be able to last a little longer in this mode, but not much. There is no room for complacency on this issue: rule by civil servants was always a temporary fix, not a medium term solution.

If politicians are unable to reach a deal then we will be faced with the prospect of some form of direct rule which may or may not involve consultation with the Irish government.

The problem with that is that whilst direct rule is capable of replacing the executive function, it cannot replace the Assembly. Ministers will not have been elected here and nor will they be scrutinised by anyone who is. Direct rule, plain and simple, is a recipe for trouble. If it is introduced it is likely to be designed not to rock the boat, and therefore will shy away from critically important areas for reform. The Westminster government is weak and divided, dependent for survival on one of our own parties. It is consumed by the problem of Brexit. It is hard to see it having the appetite to take on the challenge of change.

Traditionally Northern Ireland has relied in times of crisis on the time-honoured political fudge. A way is found of muddling through. Doubtless there will be many who believe that keeping Northern Ireland running in maintenance mode is the best way of buying time. They may be correct.

However time is short. There is no alternative to a democratically accountable executive and elected assembly.  




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