Good Friday (without) Agreement: The Implications

The official government website of the Canadian province of British Columbia has a section on ‘Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery’. It’s comprehensive. In true light-hearted Canadian style, it even has a section on ‘Zombie Preparedness’ (I kid you not).

It lists a series of important tips and even offers a day-by-day guide to survival. Tip #1: “Ensure your gas tank is always half full.” Tip #2: “Have emergency kits for your home, office and car.” Tip #3: “Have a plan!” It goes on.

It’s all very tongue-in-cheek.

But perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss so easily the distinctly non-fictional threat posed by a zombie takeover. In Northern Ireland, at this very moment, we are essentially being run by a zombie government. The civil service is in charge.

This is in no way intended as a slur against the civil service. It is actually a compliment to its commitment to professionalism. As any civil servant will tell you, civil servants are not politicians. They advise government ministers and execute their decisions, but they do not decide.

Why not? In the first instance, democracies are governed by politicians who are accountable to voters; civil servants are, in turn, accountable to politicians. In other words, civil servants are not directly accountable to the electorate. Politicians fill that democratic gap.

In the second instance, civil servants are instinctively cautious. This is no accident, but by professional design. This ensures that there is continuity of expertise over time, and it also reflects the need for elected politicians from different parties to be able to trust their civil servants and not see them as rivals to their authority.

As it stands, Northern Ireland’s finances are in the hands of David Sterling, the permanent secretary of the Department of Finance. In the first four months of the arrangement, Sterling has the power to spend up to 75% of last year’s budget total and 95% thereafter.

This is, by all accounts, an emergency, interim arrangement. It is not sustainable. Regardless of the competence or expertise of Sterling as an individual, it is not his role to make major political decisions. He does not have the authority to provide anything but a period of zombie administration.

In the meantime, schools are experiencing budget shortfalls, hospitals and GP surgeries are experiencing the most challenging circumstances in living memory, and the voluntary sector faces great uncertainty.

Negotiations to form a government have now ‘paused’ for the Easter break. Presumably the optics of negotiating on Good Friday without being able to reach agreement would have been so bad that it was worth extending the ‘deadline’ for a deal even further down the line.

The question must be asked, however: if negotiations haven’t yielded much progress over the course of five weeks, is the likelihood of success really anything to do with the length of time spent talking?

As long as Stormont remains idle, vital decisions cannot be taken. Neither a fresh election or direct rule will solve any of the fundamental problems facing Northern Ireland. We need a real government. However imperfect, we at least need decision-makers in place who can take decisions.

The only way to move beyond a zombie government is to overcome the zombified nature of these talks. Many signs are disheartening, yet there are some encouraging glimmers of hope. Yesterday Arlene Foster pledged to engage with Irish language ‘enthusiasts’. We will soon learn whether this is a genuine move towards making real progress, or whether it is simply an effort to cover the DUP’s back in the event that the talks ultimately fail.

It is appropriate that Easter commemorates the Resurrection. Political leaders would do well to do some serious reflecting during this ‘pause’. Once these negotiations re-convene, we will all be looking to see whether or not they show vital signs of life.

 

About Jamie Pow

Jamie is Deputy Editor of Northern Slant and a PhD student at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast. His interests include elections, peace building, and making democracy work better. All views expressed are his own, not those of the University.