Big politics is dominating debate again, with the existence of the devolved institutions apparently under threat. In such circumstances, all considerations of economic and social policy, and performance of the public services, tend to get swept from the headlines. But we ought not to neglect them.

When the public are polled, they usually express a strong wish to see the devolved institutions survive and thrive; but a much dimmer view is taken of the performance of the institutions. This article considers why, and what can be done.

The weaknesses

We have a seriously underperforming economy, continuing social fractures and struggling public services. The think tank Pivotal has drawn attention to some of the key weaknesses that merit attention as the Assembly returns in its Tracker report this month. The most painfully obvious one is the state of the health service. In the medium term, the generally low levels of skills and productivity in our economy risk holding us back gravely. We fail almost completely to look at the long-term, as in the field of climate change.

There are many other such weaknesses. They flow from a long-standing neglect of public policy, outside the traditional areas of contentious public debate: that is much of the economic, social and public service domain. Our politics were long shaped by the community and cultural divide, and dominated by security and constitutional issues. Economic, social and public service questions did not figure largely in the founding document of our present political arrangements, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Those arrangements were not designed with any close eye on administrative efficacy.

In its context, that was understandable: the Agreement was focused on bridging the community divide and embodying the result in political institutions. But there was probably too easy an assumption among those negotiating it that once the institutions were functioning, other things would come right automatically.

Other factors have at times turned the public off the institutions as well. Lapses in standards – the whiff of corruption, favours done by ministers and special advisers for friends – profoundly tarnish public impressions. So too do doubts about competence. All of this was in evidence in the RHI affair – which might have had significant consequences had Covid not seized public attention. Many also despair of the institutions precisely because they are dominated by the traditional divisive debate that displaces these other considerations.

This is not to point fingers at politicians generally. The devolved institutions have had some significant successes: they have attracted large amounts of foreign direct investment, and some parts of the economy like cyber security and the creative industries have thrived with official backing, at least until threatened by Covid.

There are constructive and competent figures in all parties. To some extent the deficiencies here are the product of the political culture we find ourselves in. We need to support the constructive forces. And the great majority of politicians are not corrupt. But it is important to do better. Good government and sound public policy are evidently valid objectives. The areas where we fall down are ones that carry significant human consequences, and the failure to address impending public policy challenges risks future peace and prosperity.

But there is a broader significance in Northern Ireland: because successful devolved institutions underpin political stability. If they are delivering, the public, and the people within them, will be more resistant to seeing them overturned.

Why have we not done better?

In a system with effectively no alternative government, unpopular decisions necessary in the longer term interest might be easier. But this does not appear to be so with us. Because our politics remain fraught, it has been thought important not to offend some interests, and provision of sweeteners has been regularly considered necessary. And as Westminster has realised the frailty of the arrangements, it has often provided more money. So the classic response from Stormont to social or economic problems has been to seek extra funds from the Treasury. Northern Ireland has the highest rate of public spending per head in the UK.

But alleviating the symptoms of underlying problems with more money has at times made putting right the causes less of an imperative. For example, recurrent reports about the need to restructure the health service, in order better to meet future need – potentially involving the closure of hospital departments and other difficult measures – have been shelved.

Finally, more than in most government systems in the world, the participants in a Northern Ireland Executive arrive in their posts notably lacking in any sense of common purpose. A single party government will typically have detailed manifesto commitments. In coalitions a joint programme is often forged from the participants’ manifestoes. But with disparate parties brought together in a forced coalition such as ours establishing direction is more difficult.

It is not that we lack the processes for addressing public policy issues. There are elaborate systems of consultation, and the generation of much paper, in devising Programmes for Government. The New Decade, New Approach agreement by which the institutions returned at the beginning of 2020, provided for a substantial list of strategies. As a wag has said, Belfast once launched ships, and now it launches strategies.

The trouble is that these processes seriously lack political, media and public buy-in. The institutions elected in 2017 (though admittedly in suspension for three years after that) have never managed to agree a Programme for Government at all. Even when there have been Programmes for Government in place, there has been no serious monitoring of compliance and little political sanction for failure.

The strategies mandated last year have made slow progress, and that is not much talked about. Strategies only have meaning if they are resolutely put into effect, and no one oversees that. Covid of course offers some excuse, but the weaknesses here have a long history.

There is a substantial absence of vision for what Northern Ireland might become – economically and socially, irrespective of constitutional destiny – on a longer timescale. This is a necessity for effective government. Whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK or joins a united Ireland, most of the same problems in its economy, society and public services are liable to persist, and the same solutions are likely to be appropriate for whatever the constitutional framework.

Changing the culture

So what is to be done to change the culture and improve performance? Across the Western world, times are not particularly propitious for evidence-based policy-making, avowing uncomfortable truths or practising painful compromise politics. And at present, in the debates over the Protocol, we are seeing a marked reluctance to deal with realities.

But it is worth noting that good government can be popular. During the Covid outbreak, the institutions were obliged to focus on public policy, and much of the time to maintain public unity. The high standing accorded in opinion polls to the Health Minister, far greater than that of any of his colleagues (or the ratings of the institutions as a whole), suggests the public do respect honest attempts to get to grips with public policy problems, and to talk about them without making party political points. Pre-Covid problems in the health service in late 2019 were part of the political context that obliged politicians to reach agreement on restoring the institutions. There are political opportunities in doing policy well.

Something is needed to give greater public attention to the public policy issues, and to ventilate the difficult decisions that it is hard for politicians, however constructively minded, to be the first to introduce into debate.

This is the rationale of Pivotal, Northern Ireland’s only current public policy think tank, though Democratic Dialogue, a decade or so ago tried to fill this role. It seeks to inform the debate, and not merely with analysis, but also with practical policy options. Its two initial reports on economic and social issues, and on good governance in the context of RHI, were well received. More recently it has been focused on retaining and regaining talent – reducing the brain drain – and addressing the skills gap in younger people.

It has plans for a major project to develop a public policy vision for Northern Ireland (whatever constitutional destiny we face) with a horizon of 2040. The fact that think tanks are so thin on the ground may reflect the fact that until recently, neither politicians nor the bureaucracy have welcomed outside views. Northern Ireland has less in the way of such independent policy infrastructure, as compared to London, but also than Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Other jurisdictions often have bodies with significant public funding but also some independence from government operating in this field. Dublin has the Economic and Social Research Institute. We at one stage had the Economic Research Institute for Northern Ireland, but it was wound up, in part because it displeased ministers with its advice. The Economic Policy Centre at Ulster University now makes a contribution here.

One new standing body in the public policy field is on its way to being established: a Fiscal Council, pressed on Stormont by London first in the Fresh Start agreement of 2015, then in New Decade, New Approach last year. It has similar functions to the Office of Budget Responsibility in London, and the Scottish Fiscal Commission. It will provide independent scrutiny and advice on fiscal and budgetary matters. But confusingly, there is also a Fiscal Commission, with a limited life, looking at the possibility of increasing the Assembly’s power to raise taxes.

This is useful, but does not fill all the key gaps. It is extremely important that we have an effective Programme for Government for the next Executive. This needs new thinking. The elaborate paper chase, and the large amount of outside work put in by outside responders to consultations, are of limited use without political traction.

The Fiscal Council seems unlikely to be the answer. The response to any governmental problem in Northern Ireland has too often been the creation of a new institution. Is there not also room for a counterpart to the Fiscal Council that would research economic, social and public service issues, seek to make them accessible to public debate, and make proposals to the Executive and Assembly? It could produce draft Programmes for Government. And it could start the debate on a longer-term vision. It would need to be publicly funded; but as with the Fiscal Council, insulation from political pressures and proper resourcing would be important, though not easy to secure. This would not remove the need for independent think tanks like Pivotal: to the contrary, there needs to be a marketplace of ideas, even in a place as small as we are. And that needs public encouragement in order to develop.

Another part of the system from which more might be expected is Assembly Committees. Select Committees in London occasionally produce reports of real value, that set off new lines of policy thinking. This is rarely been the case with Assembly Committees in Northern Ireland, which (with a few distinguished exceptions) have appeared to be merely fora for playing out the traditional political game. But such a development might require some loosening of the party discipline that for much of the time stifles debate.

The media also have a role in making things better. Like other parts of the system, they have a long tradition of reporting the political game. This has a certain (if small) audience, and is in journalistic terms straightforward. Coverage of difficult policy issues has less often been tried, and it may at times be resource hungry. But it has an important role in changing the political culture. With more attention from the Assembly and the media, an effective landscape of independent public policy organisations could significantly invigorate public discussion.

What of the other poisoners of the public perception of Stormont – standards and competence? There has been no great enthusiasm to reform. The parties may have emerged from RHI and other affairs a little chastened about politicians’ and special advisers’ use of the system to favour themselves or associates. New Decade New Approachenvisaged a range of new safeguards, on some of which work continues. But the longer-term impacts of scandal on the stability of the system if not on the standing of the parties associated with it is serious.

Similarly, there has been little public attention to the competence issues raised by RHI. The Civil Service has taken a range of measures to avoid a repeat of that affair. It is looking to reform itself further. An engineer with a background in innovation has been appointed Head of the Civil Service, apparently reflecting the wishes of the First and Deputy First Ministers that there should be some thoroughgoing reform – though what the nature of it is supposed to be has never fully emerged. The issues that shape our future are not being looked at: they are not the stuff of headlines, but they are surely something that an independent minded Assembly Committee could usefully consider.

A political imperative

It may have been excusable that the issues discussed above were not a primary concern of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. But going forward, they have to be – not least for the sake of the settlement and the institutions the Agreement established. We should not forget this as debate rages over the Protocol or other totemic political issues; and if those issues propel us into a crisis, we should ensure that delivery and good government feature prominently in any agreement on moving forward.