Summary: Governing without ministers


Northern Ireland is a divided post-conflict society; it faces unique governance challenges. The 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement brought an end to decades of violence, and introduced bespoke political institutions based on mandatory power-sharing between communities.

These arrangements are arguably necessary for the very existence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, but the stability of such a government is heavily reliant on good relationships between political parties and leaders. These are not always present.

The history of power-sharing since 1999 has been rocky. The executive has collapsed several times, with the longest period lasting for five years between 2002 and 2007. Previously, during these periods the UK government has suspended devolution and imposed direct rule from Westminster, but following the most recent collapse, in 2017, it has not done so, preferring to maintain the pressure on the Northern Ireland parties to return to government. But that has not proved a sufficient incentive. As a result, Northern Ireland has been stuck in limbo – by mid-October 2019 it will have been without ministers for 1,000 days.

In the absence of an executive, the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) has been responsible for the day-to-day running of the country, without ministerial direction. Senior officials have continued to carry out departmental functions and run public services, operating within the scope of the policy direction set by ministers before the collapse. They have also had to manage preparations for Brexit, working closely with the UK government, providing advice and information on the implications for Northern Ireland.

Westminster has legislated occasionally in devolved areas, but only when unavoidable – to pass budgets, set essential rates and extend the period for executive formation – and often at the last minute. More substantive policy changes, namely those on same-sex marriage and abortion, have been the result of backbench amendments rather than UK government strategy.

Everyone we spoke to in the process of researching this report agreed that the current situation was both unacceptable and unsustainable. This report highlights some of the consequences of such a prolonged period of governing without ministers:

  • With the NI Assembly unable, and the UK Parliament unwilling, to legislate in devolved areas, progress on certain issues – such as domestic violence, judicial reform and compensation for victims of historical abuse – has stalled, even where there is political agreement.
  • As civil servants are unable to develop new policy and change policy direction, no progress can be made on the long-term public service reforms necessary to run Northern Ireland efficiently. David Sterling, head of the NICS, warned of the risk of “stagnation and decay”.
  • The North South Ministerial Council is not able to meet, meaning that opportunities for cross-border working, particularly on Brexit, have been missed.
  • In the absence of ministers and a sitting Assembly, there are few mechanisms in place to hold civil servants to account and scrutinise decision making. The UK’s Parliament in Westminster is not well-placed to fill this accountability gap.
  • Northern Ireland lacks proper political representation in the Brexit process, despite being more acutely affected by the outcome than any other part of the UK. There are no NI ministers to sit alongside their Scottish and Welsh counterparts in ministerial discussions. The unbalanced representation at Westminster, where Sinn Féin pursues its policy of ‘abstentionism’ (the party refuses to take its seats) means the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is in effect the voice of Northern Ireland, even though it represents only one perspective.
  • Power-sharing was designed to foster co-operation in a divided society; without it there is a long-term risk of deterioration of community relations.

Given the unique challenges of governing Northern Ireland, there are questions as to how effectively the issues raised above would have been dealt with had the executive remained intact throughout this period. This we cannot know, but one thing we do know is that without any ministers there have been no opportunities to address them at all. The UK government must make restoring durable and sustainable government in Northern Ireland a priority. But restoration alone does not guarantee effective government. Chapters 4 and 5 of this report explore some of the challenges a restored power-sharing executive will face and makes recommendations as to how it could be supported to overcome them.

We repeatedly heard Northern Ireland described as an ‘immature’ political system, with ministers focusing on short-term political point-scoring rather than making difficult long-term choices. Developing more ‘buttressing’ institutions could improve ministerial decision making.

Northern Ireland lacks a vibrant policy community – although as a consequence of Brexit, civil society groups have become increasingly vocal. Future government and civil society should build on this to reinvigorate wider policy engagement across Northern Ireland and facilitate greater interchange with other parts of the UK. Governance in Northern Ireland is more centralised than other parts of the UK, and its small scale means ministers tend to micro-manage; a wider review of the governance landscape would be welcome.

Scrutiny in the Assembly is also underdeveloped. The creation in 2016 of an official opposition is a new feature that requires further development; committees have done some great work but are often not taken seriously by ministers. To effectively hold the executive to account, the Assembly needs to develop its own identity, distinct from government, and ensure it has the appropriate resources to effectively scrutinise it.

The NICS should be applauded for how it has handled the absence of ministers, but as the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry into the ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal is expected to outline in its report due in November 2019, there are areas – such as transparency, collaboration across departments and capability – where there is room for improvement. Reform is needed.

In Westminster and Whitehall, the NI-specific implications of policies or issues are rarely considered, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) is marginalised, and there is a poor general understanding of local issues. Greater clarification of the role of the NIO and steps to improve Northern Ireland literacy are necessary.