Northern Ireland nears 1,000 days without ministers in charge

As Northern Ireland approaches 1,000 days since the collapse of the power-sharing executive, a new report finds important areas of domestic reform – such as public service reform, legislation on domestic violence and compensation for victims of historical abuse – have stalled.

Published today, Governing without ministers looks at how Northern Ireland has functioned since 2017 and its reliance on civil servants to make critical decisions, and finds that the current situation should be unacceptable and is unsustainable. 

The lack of ministers and a sitting Assembly has created an “accountability gap” alongside the rising list of issues civil servants cannot address as they are forced to work to out-of-date policy directions from their former ministers.

The lack of an executive has been particularly noticeable on Brexit. Despite being more acutely affected than any other part of the UK, the report says Northern Ireland has lacked proper political representation in the process.

So far UK ministers have held out against introducing direct rule. Such a move would be highly controversial, but the authors argue that a no-deal Brexit will force Westminster to make decisions that Northern Ireland civil servants cannot. 

The report also makes recommendations for how a future executive could be supported once restored. These include developing new buttressing institutions to aid effective long-term decision making, developing more external policy capacity in Northern Ireland and improving Northern Ireland literacy in Westminster and Whitehall.

Jess Sargeant, Institute for Government, researcher, said:

“The lack of a functioning Northern Ireland government is having a real effect on citizens. The of the lack of new policy on public services reform will mean that the consequence of decision making during the period will be felt well into the future. Bigger picture, power-sharing was designed to foster co-operation in a divided society – without it there is a long-term risk of a deterioration of community relations.”

Jill Rutter, Institute for Government programme director, said:

“Two decades of peace have allowed Whitehall and Westminster to overlook Northern Ireland, but leaving part of the UK ungoverned for so long is a gross dereliction of duty to the citizens. Northern Ireland not only needs devolved government restored – it needs changes to make it easier for ministers to tackle difficult decisions and ensure Northern Ireland is not just governed locally, but governed well.” 

ENDS

Notes to editor

  • Full report can be found on our website.
  • The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  • For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact press@instituteforgovernment.org.uk / 0785 031 3791.
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