Northern Ireland deserves better

Jenny Muir looks at the problems of governance that have dogged attempts to run a power sharing government at Stormont – and the consequent failure to get to grips with the real problems faced by the people of Northern Ireland

Chartist poster demanding democracy, 1840s

Eight months after the last election, the Assembly will be dissolved on 26 January and new elections held on 2 March. Although the still unfolding Renewable Heat Incentive scandal was the catalyst, it was clear that the two main parties of government did not enjoy a happy working relationship. The introduction of an official Opposition, currently the UUP and the SDLP, was a laudable move towards the longer term goal of a freely negotiated system of government. However, it has had the unintended consequence of exposing faultlines between the DUP and Sinn Féin. In addition, the Opposition parties have taken a while to work their way into their new role and have not made the most of their opportunities to hold Ministers to account.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the Executive is struggling, given the continued existence of the Petition of Concern, which has prevented agreement on issues such as equal marriage, abortion reform and censure of individual MLAs. A new voluntary protocol on its use as part of the Stormont House Agreement has made no difference. When one Executive party can veto a proposal of the other in the Assembly, there remains a substantial obstacle to true shared responsibility in coalition government.

But Northern Ireland’s governance problems run deeper. Our Assembly has only been in place since the end of 1999, with several suspensions including one between October 2002 and May 2007, (although government departments did continue to operate under Direct Rule in the interim periods). Thus our MLAs have a maximum of just over eleven years’ experience of the institution, although many of them have substantially less. Some have previous experience as local councillors, however local government in Northern Ireland has a more restricted range of responsibilities than in the rest of the UK – even after the 2015 reforms which reduced the number of councils and slightly increased their powers.

Therefore we have inexperienced politicians with a tendency to resort to clientelism rather than keeping a strategic focus; and a civil service that has had to adjust to a more interventionist approach from local politicians than they had under direct rule. The RHI scandal tells us that the working relationship between politicians, political adviser and civil servant leaves much to be desired.

The fall of the Assembly leaves Northern Ireland without a final Programme for Government; and without the ability to move forward on a plan to reform our health service. Legislation on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality will be delayed. A new anti-poverty strategy will have to wait. And no doubt there is much more. Although all Ministers except the First and deputy First Ministers continue to have responsibility for their departments until the election, senior civil servants will have more power over spending. And of course we don’t know what will happen after the election, in the subsequent weeks of negotiation to form a new government.

Under the circumstances it is not surprisingly that public confidence is waning. The NI Life and Times Survey has asked How much has the N Ireland Assembly achieved? over many years. In 2002, 26 per cent said ‘a lot’ and 51 per cent ‘a little’. In 2015 the equivalent responses were received from 11 per cent and 48 per cent of the population. In 2002 only 18 per cent thought the Assembly had achieved ‘nothing at all’, even though it had only had two years of meaningful operation. In 2015 this figure was 31 per cent.

Disillusion is also evident in reduced voter turnout. In June 1998, 70 per cent voted in the first Assembly elections, dropping to 63 per cent in November 2003, 62 per cent in March 2007, 56 per cent in May 2011 and 54 per cent in May 2016.

Northern Ireland deserves better. We need good governance to ensure public confidence in our institutions as we continue the slow emergence from conflict. We need politicians and civil servants who will do their utmost to make a difference to the sort of problems mentioned in the previous post, which include:

But we also need good governance because it is the essence of democracy. The public deserves to have confidence in its elected representatives. Society is less secure if that confidence is absent. A good start would be to remind our representatives to reflect occasionally on the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life (no, not that one, although sometimes it does seem as if he is the only one holding powerful people to account). The Nolan Principles are incorporated into the codes of conduct for MLAs and for local councillors. To conclude, they are worth repeating here in full:

  1. Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends;
  2. Integrity: Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties;
  3. Objectivity: In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit;
  4. Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office;
  5. Openness: Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it;
  6. Honesty: Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest; and
  7. Leadership: Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

Some of our politicians have fallen very far short of these exemplary principles. We should bear this in mind when we vote on 2 March. We should not stay at home and hope the problem will go away – it will not. We should vote differently, in order to get a different outcome.

Jenny Muir

22 January 2017

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