Northern Ireland: The State of the State
Northern Ireland has now been without Ministers for more than a thousand days. That in itself should be cause for concern. But some of those thousand days may turn out to be the most pivotal in its modern history – throughout which the region’s Executive and Assembly have been absent.
From the frontline professional perspective, the absence of devolved government has made little difference to their approach to serving the public. Participants in our crowdsourcing conversation from Northern Ireland were just as motivated and committed to a public sector career as their peers in England, Scotland and Wales. They aired the same views that austerity has left them with more demand and fewer resources, and they shared similar views on their workplaces, often describing out-of-date computers and old office buildings.
From the citizen perspective, our survey found that attitudes in Northern Ireland stand out from the rest of the UK in two principal ways. Most strikingly of all, people in Northern Ireland are unique in their optimism for the next generation: it is the only part of the UK where people believe today’s young people will have a better life than their parents. This may have been driven by adult experiences of growing up in the Troubles along with faith in a more peaceful future for Northern Ireland. The chart below shows the differences across the UK.
Another difference in Northern Ireland attitudes is on local control of public services. Some 76 per cent of people in Northern Ireland told us that people should have more control over local services, compared to a UK average of 60 per cent. That could well have been driven by concerns over the absence of an Executive and a desire to return to devolved government.
Our interviews with public sector leaders in Northern Ireland cast a spotlight on why the absence of the Executive matters. In the three years since devolved government collapsed, the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) has followed the directions set by Ministers at that time to push forward on reform agendas. While civil servants told us that operating without Ministers feels like a ‘new normal’, sensitive and important Executive decisions are now needed on significant areas of transformation in public services. Permanent Secretaries of NICS departments have been bold and pushed the envelope of their powers in the public interest, but elected representatives mandated by the public are now needed to make some difficult choices and adapt to new circumstances. As one civil servant said, ‘the world spins fast’.
Inevitably, Brexit is preoccupying leaders across Northern Ireland’s public sector. Their assessments of a no deal departure make for stark reading in terms of the region’s economy, politics and society with worst-case scenarios including an erosion of the ‘culture of lawfulness’ in Northern Ireland. Senior civil servants believe that a no deal Brexit would urgently require a return to some form of politically-led governance, which could mean a return to some form of direct rule from Westminster.
Our interviewees were unambiguous that a return to fully devolved government would be the best political outcome for Northern Ireland. However, some observed the real challenges that would await new Ministers. One senior civil servant observed that a new Executive would need a ‘sackful of cash’ to tackle problems in public services stemming from heightened demand, subdued budgets and stagnated reform programmes. Others described changes needed within the civil service itself to ensure it is fit for the future – not least in attracting more young people to its ranks and reshaping its estate to create a more productive and modern environment.
In the words of public sector leaders
"We haven’t had a cliff-edge moment in the absence of an Executive, but we have seen decay and stagnation in our public services." – Permanent Secretary
"The big decisions aren’t being taken. We’re working within the boundaries set by previous Ministers, but the world spins fast. There are half a dozen areas where transformation is needed and the big one would be the rationalisation of emergency departments." – Senior Civil Servant
"The assessment is that ‘no deal’ would be grave for Northern Ireland – politically, economically and at a societal level. It’s unconscionable to leave the civil service running this place in the event of ‘no deal’". – Senior Civil Servant
"God help the Minister that lands back here without a sack full of cash." – Senior Civil Servant
"The DUP confidence and supply monies helped short term pressures and with transformation, but overall we’re still limping along." – Senior Civil Servant
"We’ve had five one-year budgets in a row and our expectation was a Spending Review, but now we’re expecting our sixth one-year budget and settlements have been pretty close to flat cash". – Permanent Secretary
"The Northern Ireland Civil Service can keep the lights on but we can’t fundamentally reconfigure services to meet needs or channel resources elsewhere. It’s like driving a car but staying in first gear." – Senior Civil Servant