Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland – dealing with the deficit Contents


1.At the point of publication of this Report, Northern Ireland has had neither an Executive nor a functioning Assembly at Stormont for well over a year. This has had an impact on communities, public services and businesses and delayed legislative and budgetary timetables. It has also meant that Northern Ireland, unlike Scotland and Wales, has not been represented by its Ministers during the UK’s Brexit negotiations.

Our inquiry

2.The Northern Ireland Executive (the Executive) collapsed in January 2017. By October, there had been no devolved government for 10 months and three rounds of talks between the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, had failed. Giving evidence to this Committee, James Brokenshire MP, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that “without an agreement, we are on a glide path to greater and greater UK government intervention in the day-to-day affairs of Northern Ireland.”1 No agreement came and, in November, an emergency budget for Northern Ireland was passed in Westminster. We launched our inquiry on 24 November 2017.2

3.The aim of our inquiry was not to conduct a post-mortem investigation into how and why the Executive collapsed or to assign blame. Our aim has been to suggest new ways forward and to find routes back to functioning devolved government. Our inquiry has examined three key areas: what immediate action is required for the governance of Northern Ireland following the collapse; how such actions could be scrutinised in the absence of normal Assembly mechanisms; and what reforms are necessary to reduce the risk and mitigate the effect of a similar collapse in the future.

4.In March 2018, the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley MP said:

I would welcome the views and proposals of the Northern Ireland parties and others on how such arrangements—providing for local decision-making and scrutiny, on a cross-community basis—might be achieved in the continued absence of an Executive. And how any such arrangements might work alongside the other institutions of the [Belfast/Good Friday] Agreement.3

We embrace this invitation. This Report sets out our evidenced views in three chapters. First, it addresses the possibility of increasing the intervention of the UK Government in Northern Ireland in order to make necessary ministerial decisions. Second, it considers how best to scrutinise any such intervention. Finally, it proposes steps to be taken to mitigate the consequences, and chances, of future collapses. In doing so, our report examines the impact that the lack of the Executive has had on communities, public services and businesses. It also considers reforms which we consider are required to make Northern Ireland governance more robust.

5.Over the course of our inquiry, the Committee took oral evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. This included representatives from the public and private sectors, voluntary and charitable groups, political parties, the Northern Ireland Civil Service, academics, a previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the current Secretary of State. We invited Sinn Féin to give oral evidence or written evidence to our inquiry but the party declined. The recommendations in this Report are based on evidence submitted to this inquiry, both written and oral, and informed by an engagement event held in Derry/Londonderry with members of the public. We would like to thank everyone who engaged with this inquiry.

The collapse of the Executive

6.Scheduled NI Assembly elections were held on 5 May 2016. An Executive was appointed on 25 May with all the D’Hondt ministerial positions taken for the first time by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, with Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA as First Minister and Martin McGuinness MLA as deputy First Minister. A draft Programme for Government was announced on 26 May 2016. The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017 when the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned.4 Mr McGuinness said this was because of the role of the First Minister, Arlene Foster, in the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (RHI) and her refusal to step aside.5 Under the power-sharing terms of Northern Ireland’s government, if either the First Minister or the deputy First Minister resigns, the other shall also cease to hold office.6 Within a period of seven days from the resignation, the two largest parties—the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin—were required to nominate an Assembly member to the positions.7 Sinn Féin declined to nominate a replacement deputy First Minister, triggering an election in March.8

7.Of 90 seats available in the Northern Ireland Assembly (the Assembly),9 the DUP won 28 whilst Sinn Féin won 27, returning them as the two largest parties.10 The parties failed to form an Executive within the statutory deadline of 14 days after the election.11 This deadline was later extended to 108 days by Parliament to enable power-sharing talks between the two largest parties to be held.12 This deadline also passed. For a detailed timeline see Figure 113.

Attempts to reach agreement

8.Since the collapse of the Executive there have been five talks processes, two predating the General Election and three afterwards. These talks, involving the main Northern Ireland parties, have been chaired by the UK and Irish governments in line with the three-strand approach.14 All five processes have so far failed to achieve agreement. Faced with no success in the Autumn talks process, the then Secretary of State set a budget as a “necessary measure, taken at the latest possible point, to secure public finances in Northern Ireland”.15 The Budget Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 13 November 2017 and completed all stages in both Houses over two days. It received Royal Assent on 16 November, becoming the Northern Ireland Budget Act 2017. The Act authorised NI departments to incur expenditure and use resources for the financial year ending on 31 March 2018.

9.Not long after taking office, Mr Brokenshire’s successor, Karen Bradley MP, announced that “a short, intense set of political talks” would be held on 24 January 2018 between the UK and Irish Governments and five political parties in Northern Ireland.16 The Secretary of State updated the House of Commons on the progress of the talks on 7 February. She said, “I firmly believe that an agreement in the coming days, while not certain, is achievable.”17 On 14 February, however, these discussions also broke down, with no imminent plans to restart Government-facilitated talks.18 Simon Hamilton MLA, a representative of the DUP, who had been involved in the process, told us:

I do not think the prospects of talks in the short term are good. By the short term, I do not mean just in the next week or the next couple of weeks. At this stage, in the next months, certainly this year and maybe even beyond, I do not think the prospects are good.19

Following the breakdown, the Secretary of State acknowledged that challenging decisions and steps to provide certainty and stability in Northern Ireland would now need to be taken.20

Current status

10.There are currently no Executive Ministers in place to take decisions in Northern Ireland. Stakeholders have described this situation as “unacceptable”,21 “a shambles”,22 “urgent”,23 and “a crisis”.24 Representatives from the public, private and third sectors agreed that they would be “pleased if we get a devolved Government; relieved if we get some sort of Government.”25 Members of the public concurred, expressing frustration at the lack of decision-making and legislation and a sense of worry regarding the future.26 Professor Jonathan Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool suggested that the current status of governance “is the worst option.”27

11.In the absence of Ministers, the Northern Ireland Civil Service has been responsible for the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland. The budgetary legislation taken through the UK Parliament in November 2017, allowed the Civil Service to “keep things ticking over … so that it can maintain public services and funds can go to education, the health service and other public services.”28 In March 2018, the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act was passed to provide for a vote on account. This enables the Civil Service to spend around 45% of the expenditure anticipated for 2018–19 although it does not constitute a 2018–19 budget.29 The NI Civil Service is limited in its actions and cannot take strategic policy decisions.30 David Sterling, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, commented:

I think the position we find ourselves in is unacceptable. It does not become any more acceptable with the passage of time. I never thought we could survive this long.31

12.At the time of writing, the UK Government’s interventions have been mainly limited to:

13.Since the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, Northern Ireland has had sustained periods without devolved government. However, since the St Andrews Agreement there has been a decade of sustained devolution so its collapse for well over a year is a profound backward step. A gross political failure, it cannot be sustained much longer without serious consequences for the people of Northern Ireland. The situation has been unfair on residents, the Northern Ireland Civil Service, public services and businesses. It has been particularly unfortunate since it has meant the voice of Northern Ireland has not been heard in London and Brussels as loudly as that of Scotland and Wales during the Brexit process. We are deeply disappointed that successive rounds of talks between those parties that were involved have failed to reach agreement. We note the recent response to a written question by the Secretary of State which said she had met Northern Ireland’s five largest political parties on Thursday 26 April, had reviewed the current position with them and explored how they might achieve the restoration of devolution while ensuring the good governance of Northern Ireland in the interim. We urge the political parties to restart talks to restore good governance in Northern Ireland immediately. Locally elected politicians should be making decisions on behalf of the people that they represent. The recommendations we make in this report do not detract from the Committee’s view that power-sharing devolution is the best governance structure for Northern Ireland and ought to be restored as soon as possible.

1 Q1 [Rt Hon. James Brokenshire MP], Oral Evidence taken on Work of the Secretary of State, 18 October 2017, James Brokenshire MP, HCWS 185, 19 October 2017

2 Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland: dealing with the deficit, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, 24 November 2017

3 Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Oral Statement: Northern Ireland Finances, 12 March 2018

4 Northern Ireland since May 2016: developments, Briefing Paper CBP08231, House of Commons Library 15 February 2018

5 This is currently the subject of an independent judicial inquiry, which is due to report in the Autumn. Northern Ireland since May 2016: developments, Briefing Paper CBP08231, House of Commons Library 15 February 2018

6 Northern Ireland Act 1998. section 16B(2) (as amended by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2007

10 Statistics, Northern Ireland Assembly, 2016

13 Page 3

14 Dealing with the three strands of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement: the devolved institutions, North-South arrangements, and East-West institutions.

15 Secretary of State’s Oral Statement on the NI Budget Bill, 13 November 2017

16 Secretary of State. Press Statement, 18 January 2018

17 HC Debs, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, 7 February 2018 vol 635

18 Q405 [Rt Hon. Karen Bradley MP]

19 Q663 [Simon Hamilton MLA]

20 Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Oral Statement: Political Situation in Northern Ireland, 20 February 2018

21 Q37 [David Sterling]

22 Q587 [Jim Allister]

23 Q161 [Anne Connolly], Q166 [Gavin Boyd]

24 Q90 [Seamus McAleavey] Q297 [Ruth Taillon]

25 Q108 [Colin Neill]

26 Members of the public at Derry-Londonderry outreach and engagement event (DDD0040)

27 Q276 [Professor Jonathan Tonge]

28 Q26 [Hugh Widdis]

30 Q129 [Seamus McAleavey] Q26 [James Brokenshire], Oral Evidence taken on Work of the Secretary of State, 18 October 2017

31 Q77 [David Sterling]

Published: 22 May 2018