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Northern Ireland now ruled by a civil service that appears to be completely dysfunctional

Newton Emerson: Civil service mechanism that governed North for 33 of last 50 years is back – with all its flaws

Northern Ireland’s de facto new ruler has introduced herself in a BBC interview and expressed regret for not being “elected and accountable”.

Jayne Brady, head of the North’s civil service, has been forced into a role roughly analogous to first minister by the absence of devolution and direct rule. The top civil servants in each Stormont department, the permanent secretaries, have effectively become her cabinet. They must govern Northern Ireland from a template of leftover executive policies, “guidance” from the northern secretary and limited decision-making powers conferred through emergency Westminster legislation. A programme for government and a budget would help but Stormont collapsed last month before devising either.

The latest emergency legislation will enable Assembly members to lobby on guidance to civil servants. Prof Colin Murray of the University of Newcastle has described this as formalising a technocracy. Although the Bill has a sunset clause, requiring renewal every six months, it already represents a more rapid evolution of “indirect rule” than occurred during Stormont’s three-year collapse from 2017.

Preserving democratic accountability is everyone’s stated concern but much of this piety rings hollow. The British government is only avoiding direct rule because nationalists insist it would be unacceptable without enhanced Dublin input. The SDLP and Sinn Féin have even demanded “joint authority”. As the Irish Government is unaccountable to Northern Ireland’s electorate, it appears nationalism is fine with an administrative dictatorship as long as somebody sticks a Tricolour on it.


Dry mechanism

Naturally, few unionists have a fundamental objection to direct rule. Nor has it been considered particularly outrageous in the past. People fought and argued over sovereignty, not the dry mechanism that actually governed Northern Ireland for 33 of the last 50 years. This acquiescence is relevant because direct rule was always a technocracy. In principle, the northern secretary was a de facto first minister, with a “cabinet” of two or three junior ministers at the Northern Ireland Office, each assigned two or three Stormont departments. In reality, senior civil servants ran the system to an unusual degree and everybody knew it.

Unsurprisingly, thoughts of a more formal technocracy have been entertained on and off for decades. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement gave up on devolution in favour of a consultative conference of British and Irish officials. In 1990, John Hume’s initial proposal of the peace process was for Northern Ireland to be governed by a six-person committee, with three elected members plus one each appointed by London, Dublin and Brussels.

The “rolling devolution” experiment of the mid-1980s elected an assembly to scrutinise direct-rule ministers and officials, with the hope it would evolve towards appointing its own executive. It lasted four years, having never secured the support of the SDLP. The new Bill at Westminster points to a similar model emerging if the current Stormont deadlock drags on. Many parties might find a scrutiny chamber a comfortable refuge from the risks and responsibilities of office. An assembly reconvened on this basis could trundle along in a powerless rut for years.

‘Fraud and incompetence’

There would certainly be plenty to scrutinise. The renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal revealed a completely dysfunctional civil service, with issues that have since barely been addressed. It makes little difference whether there is devolution, direct rule or indirect rule. During the last period of direct rule, from 2002 to 2007, the deputy chair of Westminster’s public accounts committee – the only democratic oversight body for Stormont departments at the time – said he assumed every report he received from Northern Ireland would be “full of fraud and incompetence”.

The North is unique in the UK in having its own self-contained civil service, set up after partition as a miniature copy of Whitehall. In Scotland and Wales, civil servants serve the devolved administrations but remain employees of the so-called “home” civil service, covering Britain.

The RHI brutally exposed the shortcomings of duplicating a national administration on a tiny regional scale: waste, confusion, conflict and perverse incentives. The 2020 New Decade, New Approach deal to restore Stormont included requirements for civil service reform. A tentative debate began on integration with the home civil service, or at least better co-operation, until the pandemic seized all attention.

Tellingly, Northern Ireland’s few successes with technocracy have involved taking big tasks away from both politicians and civil servants and transferring them to boards of experts – true technocrats. This happened with public housing in 1945 and again in 1971, and with the regeneration of Derry in the early 1970s. Experts are now pleading for the same thing to be done with the health service.

While there is a strong public preference for devolution to return, it is no more of a democratic imperative for Northern Ireland than for Yorkshire or Munster. The real concern with leaving civil servants in charge is that they are no good at it.