New Decade, New Approach Agreement Contents

3Reform and working culture

Institutional reform

43.The New Decade, New Approach agreement included a “package of measures” to support devolution in Northern Ireland.91 Those measures were designed to “deliver more sustainable institutions that are more resilient and able to continue to function throughout periods of political difficulty.”92 In a press release announcing the publication of the proposed agreement, the Government highlighted how the deal could give citizens in Northern Ireland confidence in the stability of devolution.93

44.The agreement increased the period of time before the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must call an Assembly election following a breakdown in power-sharing.94 In the agreement, the Government committed itself to amending the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to extend the time for the appointment of a First Minister and deputy First Minister “after the resignation of a First Minister or deputy First Minister or after the first meeting of the Assembly following an Assembly election from 7 and 14 days respectively to 6 weeks in each case”.95 The agreement provided for a maximum of a further 18 weeks for the parties to appoint a First Minister and deputy First Minister if the initial period proves insufficient.96 If the appointments have not been made at the end of this period, the Secretary of State is then “under a duty to propose a date for an Assembly election as soon as is practicable and in any event for a date which is no later than 12 weeks of the duty arising”.97

45.Sir Jonathan Stephens told us that if power-sharing broke down in future, “time is the main provision”.98 He commented:

It is important to recognise that, whereas in 2017, under the legislation, there were only two weeks allowed for the formation of a Government, after which the British Government was under an obligation to call an election, under the reforms of New Decade, New Approach there will be an initial period of six weeks, which can extend up to 24 weeks, before that obligation to call another Assembly election is triggered. As you all well know, in a period of six months, an awful lot in politics can change and happen. So no one could trigger a crisis of this sort in the confident expectation of a particular electoral outcome.99

The New Decade, New Approach agreement made further reforms to the operation of the devolved institutions, such as allowing Executive Ministers to remain in place following a breakdown in power-sharing and changing the role of the Official Opposition.100 Julian Smith, discussed the effect of those reforms:

I think that the pressure, as a result of the longer period, to continue to govern once there has been a breakdown, is a major feature… We have got the UUP, we have got the SDLP, we have got Alliance in the Executive; they can pull out, now, after two years, to then be in opposition.101

46.Academics researching devolution in Northern Ireland told us that the provision of more time before an election must be called would decrease the immediate effect of the resignation of a First Minister or deputy First Minister.102 Dr Haughey stated:

The scenario of a First or deputy First Minister resigning and collapsing the institutions in quick succession is no longer realisable. The effect of this will be to lessen the immediate significance and political gravitas of an Executive Office resignation.103

Dr Clare Rice told us that after the collapse of the institutions in 2017, divisions between parties in Northern Ireland were compounded by both the Assembly election and general election that year.104 She argued that, if power-sharing were to break down in future, “ensuring the divisive pressures that come with an election for the political parties are not as imminent a possibility might create more space for resolutions to be found”.105 However, Dr Rice cautioned that “the most recent period of difficulty far exceeded” the extended time limits set out in the agreement and that New Decade, New Approach “is not clear on what would happen should this timeframe be exceeded”.106

47.Other informed commentators on devolution in Northern Ireland questioned how far the reforms strengthened the sustainability of the devolved institutions. Ann Watt told us that although the reforms may be useful in allowing more time to solve issues between parties,

the changes in themselves cannot counteract a situation where a party or parties decides to bring an Executive to an end. For example, if these new measures had been in place in January 2017, we do not think that they would have prevented the collapse of the institutions or led to their restoration any sooner.107

Dr Kevin McNicholl, a participant in the Political Settlements Research Programme, agreed that “the experience of the last collapse does suggest that time is not necessarily enough for successful negotiations to be completed”.108 Dr Soares told us that

by its [New Decade, New Approach] repeated references to commitments made in previous agreements it also underlines a fundamental reality: that the most intricate and well-designed institutions will not function if those who inhabit them are not fully and actively supportive of all of their constitutive elements and functions and of the Agreement that established them.109 [Emphasis in original]

48.The New Decade, New Approach agreement made other institutional reforms to the functioning of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. These included changes to the operation of the Petition of Concern and of the Official Opposition, and the creation of a Party Leaders’ Forum. Contributors to the inquiry welcomed the inclusion of these reforms in the deal.110111112

49.The institutional reforms in New Decade, New Approach include some safeguards against the future collapse of the devolved institutions. We heard how amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 will be useful in granting more time and space for parties to come together, if power-sharing breaks down in the future. The Government should make the relevant amendments to the Act before the end of 2020. However, it is unclear whether those reforms would have prevented the breakdown that led to the absence of devolved government between 2017 and 2019.

50.We recommend that the UK Government-Northern Ireland Executive bi-annual Cabinet delegation establish a working group to consider additional institutional reforms that might help improve both the stability and function of devolved government.

Working culture at Stormont

51.While discussing the likely benefits of the institutional reforms in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, several witnesses emphasised that the reforms would only be successful if they were accompanied by the development of the political working culture at Stormont.113114 Ann Watt stated:

The main point we would make to the Committee is that government in Northern Ireland needs to operate in much different ways if it is to be effective in the future. There cannot be a return to past ways of working. Examples of the culture change that is needed include: the Executive embracing a common vision; operating effectively across departmental silos; taking rather than avoiding tough decisions; making good policy choices for the long-term; and involving and valuing external experts and the public in policy development. The engagement in these debates of individuals and organisations outside political parties and government also needs to develop, to mirror the change in culture at Stormont.115

The public in Northern Ireland should no longer be expected to accept ‘too difficult’ or ‘too tied up with historical divisions’ as excuses for the non-delivery of public service and governance improvements.

52.Dr Sean Haughey agreed with Ann Watt that “behavioural change on the part of MLAs and their party leaders is key if devolution is to be placed on a more sustainable footing”.116 Dr Birnie told us that “the changes in the institutions may be of lesser significance than whether there is now a new, more co-operative, collegiate culture or spirit between the Executive Parties”.117

53.Ann Watt told us that institutional introspection had been a barrier to the work of previous Executives. She observed that “in the past, Stormont has been very closed to outsiders, with a reluctance to have any real external involvement”.118 Minister Walker informed us that the Government is considering how to encourage UK Government engagement in Belfast:

Work is going on in Government to look at how we can have more substantial Government hubs in each part of the UK. One of the things I am very keen to see out of that is more senior civil servants being based in Northern Ireland. We already have a UK Government hub in Belfast. It is dominated by HMRC and not necessarily the most senior grades. I would like to see more decision-making and stakeholder engagement type roles coming to Northern Ireland.119

54.Dr Haughey pointed out that the Northern Ireland Assembly is the only legislature in the UK not to have an academic fellowship scheme.120 He argued that this lacuna is worth addressing:

These schemes utilise universities and academics to enhance a legislature’s capacity to fulfil its scrutiny, representative, and legislative functions. As well as increasing the use of academic skills and research in the Assembly, such a scheme would promote knowledge and understanding of devolution in Northern Ireland to university and academic audiences throughout the UK.121

55.For devolution in Northern Ireland to succeed, institutional reforms must be accompanied by the development of a more productive political working culture at Stormont.

56.The UK Government should work with the Northern Ireland Executive to support the development of schemes to promote knowledge exchange, best practice and institutional links between the Assembly and other UK legislatures. This support should include:

91 Northern Ireland Office, New Decade, New Approach, 9 January 2020, p 13

92 Northern Ireland Office, New Decade, New Approach, 9 January 2020, p 13

93 Northern Ireland Office, Deal To See Restored Government In Northern Ireland Tomorrow, 9 January 2020

94 Northern Ireland Office, New Decade, New Approach, 9 January 2020, p 24

95 Northern Ireland Office, New Decade, New Approach, 9 January 2020, p 24

96 Northern Ireland Assembly: “New Decade, New Approach”, Insight, House of Commons Library, January 2020

97 Northern Ireland Office, New Decade, New Approach, 9 January 2020, p 24

98 Q16 (Sir Jonathan Stephens KCB, former Permanent Secretary, Northern Ireland Office)

99 Q16 (Sir Jonathan Stephens KCB, former Permanent Secretary, Northern Ireland Office)

100 Northern Ireland Assembly: “New Decade, New Approach”, Insight, House of Commons Library, January 2020

101 Q15 (right hon. Julian Smith MP, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)

102 Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool (NDE0009)

103 Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool (NDE0009)

104 Dr Clare Rice (NDE0006)

105 Dr Clare Rice (NDE0006)

106 Dr Clare Rice (NDE0006)

107 Pivotal Public Policy Forum (NDE0005)

108 University of Edinburgh (NDE0015)

109 Centre for Cross Border Studies (NDE0011)

110 Dr Clare Rice (NDE0006)

113 Pivotal Public Policy Forum (NDE0005)

115 Pivotal Public Policy Forum (NDE0005)

116 Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool (NDE0009)

117 Ulster University Business School (NDE0001)

118 Pivotal Public Policy Forum (NDE0005)

119 Q63 (Robin Walker MP, Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

120 Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool (NDE0009)

121 Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool (NDE0009)

Published: 16 July 2020