7 September 2018

No wonder the Government’s Northern Ireland strategy isn’t working


On the day that Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley delivered an important statement to the House of Commons designed to unlock the impasse over power-sharing at Stormont, Parliament’s internal magazine, The House, published a startling interview with the Secretary of State.

Mrs Bradley made the staggering confession that, when she started her current job, “I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa.”

If she felt that this comment might be welcomed for its disarming honesty, it was unfortunate that its publication coincided with an announcement that showed how rudderless the government’s policies in Ulster have become. In an attempt to induce the two largest political parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to resume talks and restore an executive, Bradley unveiled a timid plan to reduce MLAs’ salaries and hazy proposals to allow civil servants to take ministerial decisions.

Six hundred days after the Assembly last met, the Secretary of State finally chose to impose a pay cut, albeit one that is delayed and will be implemented in two stages. The decision was welcomed cautiously by representatives of most of Northern Ireland’s political parties, who are aware of rising public disaffection with MLAs who are — not inaccurately — perceived not to be doing their jobs.

The second part of Bradley’s plan, which will equip civil servants with powers usually wielded by ministers, will be more controversial and difficult to implement. Officials had already started to take an increasing number of politically sensitive decisions, before an appeal court ruling earlier this year determined that any matter which “would normally go before a minister for approval lies beyond the competence of a senior civil servant in the absence of a minister.”

The Secretary of State’s proposal to change the law and formalise the civil service’s role in governance raises fundamental questions about democracy in Northern Ireland. It’s a basic principle of our political system that decision-makers should be accountable to an elected chamber. People in Northern Ireland may not elect ministers directly, but they vote members into the House of Commons from which the government is chosen, and local MPs give special scrutiny to decisions affecting the province through the committee system.

The powers of the Stormont Assembly are devolved from Parliament and, if power-sharing cannot be revived, then the only constitutional alternative is direct-rule from Westminster. By contemplating something that looks like rule by civil servant, the government is abrogating responsibility for governing an integral part of the United Kingdom.

The arrangement might be more defensible had Mrs Bradley explained the exact powers and responsibilities that her mooted legislation would give officials. Yesterday, however, she told BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme that she intends to discuss the details of civil servants’ role with the political parties in Northern Ireland. These are, of course, the same parties that have spent 600 days arguing fruitlessly about resuming work together at Stormont.

Many of the most pressing policy issues that the civil service could face concern matters that are contested bitterly by the DUP and Sinn Fein. The two parties have spent years, for instance, wrangling over plans to close unsustainable hospitals and schools, with the result that services are haemorrhaging money. Agreeing the areas in which civil servants can act may not prove any simpler than negotiating the return of devolution.

The underlying problem is that Theresa May’s government is terrified of antagonising nationalists and the Dublin government by exercising its powers in Northern Ireland, particularly against the backdrop of Brexit negotiations on the Irish border. This attitude is relegating the province more and more to a place on the “window-ledge” of the Union.

After all this time, it’s easy to forget that the Northern Ireland executive collapsed because Sinn Fein ministers resigned and Sinn Fein remains the only party declining to restore power-sharing. Ostensibly, republicans took that decision because of Arlene Foster’s refusal to step down from her role as first minister while an inquiry took place into the failed RHI green energy scheme.

Sinn Fein’s original reasoning is now practically forgotten, as the party issues a shape-shifting list of “red line” demands, covering areas like Irish language legislation, abortion laws and Troubles’ inquests aimed at implicating former members of the security forces. This behaviour has been effectively rewarded by Theresa May and her ministers, who have worked hard to avoid demonstrating that republican intransigence has consequences.

Ironically, Sinn Fein’s cynical strategising might yet offer Karen Bradley the most likely way out of the political cul de sac in which she is currently stuck. Ahead of its former minister, Conor Murphy, giving evidence to the RHI inquiry, the party called a press conference to position itself for any uncomfortable questions and unveil a new paper on the heating scheme.

When a reporter asked when Stormont might resume, Mr Murphy claimed that Sinn Fein intends to have ministers back in the executive by the start of the new financial year; i.e. April 1, 2019. “Our intention is not to sit back…. and allow the timetable of drift to be dictated by the British government and the DUP in terms of their own Brexit interests,” he said.

With the prospect of an early election in the Republic of Ireland receding, council elections in Northern Ireland scheduled for next May and the UK by then formally out of the EU, the party may feel that the advantages it can wring from blocking power-sharing are gradually diminishing.

So if Karen Bradley does preside over the restoration of devolution it will probably be by accident. It is fairly extraordinary that, at a time when the province’s future is a central part of Brexit negotiations, Theresa May appointed a Secretary of State who professed her own ignorance of Northern Ireland’s politics.

That decision also raises some sticky questions about the way ministers are appointed. Frequently the most important criterion seems to be political loyalty to the prime minister, rather than suitability for the job.

Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.