Rearranging chairs can’t save North’s sinking bureaucracy
A sustainable administration must look to east-west and north-south partnerships
If Stormont cannot get its act together, the British and Irish governments should consider discussing arrangements regardless. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
The inquiry into Stormont’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal has only sat since last November and only interviewed DUP leader Arlene Foster for the first time last week. Yet already the cloud of detail is a challenge to report.
Cynics might say this is the point of inquiries, but if so it does not always succeed. Damaging perceptions of politicians can still be reinforced through passing glimpses of their testimony. This appears to be happening to Foster, who has defended herself on the grounds that she was not interested in energy policy and her officials should have sorted it out.
The inquiry’s verdict on specific blame could be years away. In the meantime, the first overarching theme to emerge has been something of a surprise – namely, that Northern Ireland is too small to have a separate administrative existence.
Testimony from civil servants revealed they have to copy over complex policies from Britain and adapt them for Northern Ireland despite being able to devote just a few members of staff to the task, in contrast to the hundreds who might have been working on it in London.
A key motivation when adapting policies, as explained by inquiry witnesses, is a cargo cult-like focus on getting more money into Northern Ireland no matter how wasteful this is overall. In one instance, officials knowingly cost the British taxpayer £300 million to save Stormont £3.5 million because that was rational from their standalone perspective.
Suddenly, the jaw-dropping mistakes of RHI look like an inevitable feature of how Northern Ireland is run.
This explanation may have been offered in defence of how administrators were doing their jobs but it is an indictment of the system that employs them.
Northern Ireland replicates the UK’s entire government structure in miniature, in addition to being a self-contained legal jurisdiction.
It has its own civil service, distinct from the UK or so-called home civil service, managing departments in Belfast as if it is all a little copy of Whitehall.
This has been the case since the foundation of the state and has endured through direct rule and devolution. The model was not followed when Scotland and Wales were devolved – all civil servants there remain part of the home service.
The Belfast Agreement doubled the number of departments in Northern Ireland from six to 12, purely to give every party a seat around the executive table. In 2016, Sinn Féin and the DUP reduced this to nine and cut the number of civil servants by 3,000, or over 10 per cent.
Both parties were acting on the near-universal view that Northern Ireland is over-governed for a place of its size – it still has more civil servants than Scotland, which has three times the population. Rather than reversing this view, the RHI inquiry has introduced a contradiction: despite being over-governed, Northern Ireland is also under-governed. It is precisely the wrong size to replicate Whitehall.
Structural reform to address this could go a lot further than cutting departments. Welsh devolution is arranged like a large council, while Scotland has given more thought to how national and regional bureaucracies interact. Stormont has shifted some of its remit down to recently enlarged councils, although not as much as planned.
Fundamental problem of scale
But there are only so many ways you can rearrange the chairs in the office before hitting a fundamental problem of scale. The more that is expected of modern government, the more it looks doomed in Northern Ireland to failure, waste and amateurism.
Perhaps scale is only a problem because in administrative terms the North is pretending to be England, a country 30 times its size.
One solution this points to is a united Ireland, although its simplest implication is a more integrated UK – the mainstream unionist position before the Agreement.
Or perhaps the problem is just pretending to be a country.
Northern Ireland has the same population as Latvia. Nobody is suggesting that Baltic nation is ungovernable but neither is anyone keen on its example, with a public sector share of the economy half of that in Northern Ireland.
As the constitutional question cancels out and cutting services down to an efficient size is unthinkable, there is a chance for the RHI inquiry to provoke more practical ideas.
A sustainable administration in Northern Ireland would need to do less on its own, while looking to east-west and north-south partnerships for delivery.
Back office functions, such as social security administration, might be better handled on a UK-wide basis. Civil servants in London and Belfast should work together when laws and policies are copied over.
Front-line services requiring economies of scale, such as health and third-level education, might be better approached on a cross-Border basis. Dublin could help if EU laws and policies have to be copied over.
If Stormont cannot get its act together, the British and Irish governments should consider discussing arrangements regardless. Tellingly, reforming how Northern Ireland is run might be easier in Stormont’s absence.