We don’t officially have direct rule from Westminster, but we certainly remain on the ‘glidepath’ towards it. This comes at precisely the time when we should be demanding greater devolution of powers not only to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but also to our local authorities.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster has just launched an inquiry into ‘Devolution and Democracy in Northern Ireland: Dealing with the Deficit’. It will examine ways to address the democratic deficit in the absence of the locally elected Assembly and Executive.
It was also from Westminster that the UK Industrial Strategy was recently launched – with specific measures for Northern Ireland in some key sectors, including in training and skills, and in research and development. The budget, delivered by the Chancellor Phillip Hammond, included some £660m for Northern Ireland, and set the ball rolling on a possible city deal for Belfast, with maybe more to come for Derry/Londonderry.
One would almost be forgiven for feeling optimistic, given these raft of new policy measures, until we begin to question what happened to our own industrial strategy. On what shelf is it currently gathering dust? And the money set aside in the budget for Northern Ireland? Well, it can’t be spent paying public service workers more – in line with the rest of the UK – because that needs ministerial sign-off. And what of the city deals? Their development will be preconditioned on the restoration of the Executive.
When that much potential progress has been made in a week in Westminster, only to be thwarted by the absence of Ministers, it’s is not unreasonable to demand that the Executive be restored immediately. Except, what has the Executive actually delivered for the people of Northern Ireland?
Since the beginning of the 2011 mandate, the Executive has been on the brink of collapse almost once per year. That isn’t exactly sound footing on which to build democratic structures to deliver policy. In that mandate, major legislation brought forward from the Executive included the Local Government Act (2014), Departments Act (2016), Assembly Numbers Act (2016) and the Carrier Bag Act (2014).
When you consider that two of those cut the number of MLAs in the Assembly and Departments in the Executive; one cut the number of Local Government areas (and gave them some more powers, only for the Executive to then renege on giving them as much as promised); and one charged people to use plastic bags in shops; it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the delivery of policy for the benefit of all citizens.
MLAs from the ‘naughty corner’ managed to get a few pieces through: Jim Alister’s SpAd Act (2013); Steven Agnew’s Children’s Services Cooperation Act (2015); and the Act allowing for an official Opposition, brought by John McAllister, but these were passed despite the Executive, rather than due to it.
One striking statistic is that the Departments set up in 2016 have now been running without Ministers longer than they were running with Ministers.
The healthcare system has had too many consultations and no surgery – with the latest body of potential reforms left out on a trolley in the corridors of Stormont.
Budgetary issues in schools are causing crisis after crisis in the education system. Northern Ireland has some of the most deprived areas in the UK, which have been steeped in poverty and inequalities for years, a trend which will no doubt be perpetuated.
Even before the cash-for-ash scandal brought the Executive to its knees, the Finance Minister had failed to bring forward a budget.
On the issues that are holding up progress to restoring the Executive – equal marriage and language rights – there were plenty of opportunities to bring forward proper legislative proposals since 2011; nothing was delivered. By anyone. For anyone.
Even when Executive ministers did make decisions, there wasn’t the collective responsibility to deliver them, characterised most acutely when Arlene Foster as Finance Minister brought a judicial review on decisions made by Mark H Durkan as Environment Minister in 2015. Is that any way to run a government?
If it turns out that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s inquiry is merely a landing strip for James Brokenshire’s glider plane carrying direct rule, there will be predictable outcry at the loss of the devolved institutions, for however long they are mothballed. Regardless of the weaknesses of devolution in practice, the inability to make devolution work will be a far more fundamental sign of failure.
It is always better for decisions to be made as close as possible to the citizens affected. The institutions, too, were hard fought for and added stability to a fractured society; this prolonged absence will only cause further division within the main parties, and the communities they represent as we continue with a very public “negotiation” into the future of the Executive and Northern Ireland itself.
Could the Assembly and the Executive have delivered for the people of Northern Ireland? Yes. Did they? No. It will be a question for history whether – with time – ‘normal’ self-governance could have worked in Northern Ireland: coalition partners, rather than counterparts; collective Executive responsibility; a mutual desire to promote shared goals and policy outcomes; a willingness to come together to work for the benefit of Northern Ireland and all its people. We have not had that, we do not have that, and it seems we will not be getting that any time soon.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee may deliberate on ways in which Northern Ireland can be governed from Westminster while retaining some form of democratic legitimacy. I am sure they will deploy the same imaginative and flexible solutions that are currently under consideration in relation to the border question in Brexit negotiations.
For now, the people of Northern Ireland are caught between a future characterised by a democratic deficit, and a past characterised by a deficit of delivery. Neither will be looked back upon particularly fondly.