Northern Ireland is being governed on a “limited and piecemeal basis” which is causing the ongoing deterioration of public services, according to a report published on Tuesday.
It states it is “not clear who – if anyone – is responsible for making significant decisions” and warns that the continued lack of a functioning Executive or Assembly risks undermining the credibility of, and public support for, the North’s devolved institutions.
The report called for the “urgent restoration” of the Assembly and Executive so as to “enable important decisions to be made in a way that is timely, planned and democratically accountable”.
The briefing document by the independent Northern Ireland-based think tank Pivotal, entitled Who is Governing Northern Ireland?, examines the current decision-making process and its impact on public services.
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Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning Executive or Assembly for a year, when the DUP resigned from the role of first minister as part of its protest against the Northern Ireland protocol and subsequently refused to re-enter the Assembly after elections in May.
The latest deadline for the formation of an Executive passed in January without resolution, and the northern secretary must decide within a month if he is to call a fresh election – to be held no later than April 13th – or pass legislation to extend the time limit further.
In the absence of an Executive or Assembly, the northern secretary has stepped in on certain major issues, such as the setting of a budget and has given civil servants the power to take some limited decisions.
In practice, the report states, “most decisions that are new, significant, cross-cutting or controversial are not being made” and in time, this lack of decision-making will become “increasingly problematic and risks further deterioration in public services, most obviously in the health system”.
It states there is “no legislative basis for many significant decisions to be taken by anyone at the present time” and this has left civil servants “being pulled in two directions at once” facing choices that would normally be taken by Ministers.
“This leaves them approaching issues with caution, wary of over-reaching their remit and alert to the risk of legal challenge,” it said.
The situation is compounded by a “dire” budgetary position – which could see a £1 billion “black hole” next year – and the longer-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of government in Northern Ireland from 2017-2020.
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There is also, the report states, little transparency and scrutiny in decision-making, and the lack of an Executive or ministers has left Northern Ireland without political leadership and representation on issues affecting the North at Westminster and beyond.
Ann Watt, a former senior civil servant and the director of Pivotal, said Northern Ireland had been without “proper government for four of the last six years, and we are seeing a real deterioration in public services as a result”.
“People are feeling the effects of this in their day-to-day lives,” she said.
The “limited and piecemeal” way in which Northern Ireland was being governed, she said, “puts severe constraints on what progress can be made to tackle Northern Ireland’s many challenges in health, education and the cost of living”.
Ms Watt was also critical of the situation faced by civil servants, saying that “while there are significant limits on what civil servants can do, they are also being asked to make choices that are inappropriate in a democracy”.
The report makes a number of recommendations, including that if the Assembly and Executive are not restored, the UK government should consider legislating from Westminster to “ensure that important decisions can be taken to prevent the further deterioration of public services”. It also says Northern Ireland “urgently” needs multi-year budgets to allow for longer-term planning, investment and reform in public services.