No decisions but discussion and debate continue

10 August 2018 - by Claire Flynn

For over 19 months Northern Ireland has been without a working Assembly and Executive, meaning no decisions have been made nor legislation introduced.

That said, in spite of the lack of decision making, politicians at all levels of government are continuing to connect with individuals and organisations attempting to keep key topics on the agenda.

Many people continue to roll their eyes at the idea of MLAs receiving full salaries while the devolved legislature lies dormant but there are many examples of discussion, debate and engagement taking place. Branded "talking shops" by some, others have used these outlets to push policies to the fore.

Since the Assembly collapsed in January 2017, we have seen 23 all-party groups hold over 60 meetings at Parliament Buildings. These gatherings bring together MLAs to consider a variety of issues, from social enterprise to cancer and housing, and are often the only occasions that they have to meet.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee met in Stormont this year as part of its inquiry into the democratic deficit, hearing from a number of witnesses, while others have made the reverse trip to Westminster to give oral evidence on the same subject. The Committee has since put out a further call for evidence with regards to budget spending for health and education. It is seeking to assess whether the levels of funding allocated in those sectors are sufficient to meet the challenges they both face. 

We can’t then forget the other fora available: the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (which talks east-west matters), the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and, now, the recently formed Regional Local Government Forum. The latter replaces what was known as the Political Panel. This brought ministers into regular contact with local councillors but it had not met since devolution stalled in 2017. The Forum will hold its first formal meeting later in August and, despite it having no powers, it will address the governance vacuum in Northern Ireland and no doubt look at crucial areas like Brexit. 

There has been a definite shift in focus to where decisions are being made, be that in local government or at Westminster. NILGA, the councils' umbrella body, stepped in as convener of this latest initiative, which has garnered agreement from all parties. It will feature councillors and senior civil servants, including permanent secretaries. 

Elsewhere, a number of festivals have provided platforms for some much needed discourse, from the Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics in March to last week's west Belfast Féile and Breastival in south Belfast. These have enabled members of the public to debate with the political class. In some instances they have even seen participant politicians make commitments to take things forward at Westminster and, when they return, in the Assembly and the Executive.

So, has the Stormont impasse encouraged more civic participation? Over the last 12 months, work has been ongoing on the establishment of a Citizens' Assembly. This does not purport to be a replacement for the power-sharing institutions, rather it is something that could sit alongside them when they are functioning as they should. The first of its kind in Northern Ireland, the Citizens' Assembly (comprised of people picked randomly from the electoral roll and reflective of the composition of society) will help break the deadlock on the issue in question. In the absence of an Assembly and Executive, it perhaps afford space for new ideas, the power passing, temporarily, to the public so that it may work through one of our many sticky issues. 

There will, however, be one parliament in Belfast sitting this autumn. The Northern Ireland Pensioner’s Parliament, now in its eighth year, should see around 200 older people from across Northern Ireland come together to hear from experts and party representatives, and debate and vote on a slate of motions.

While we wait to see whether the Executive will return this autumn, or maybe early next year, many groups are maintaining the pressure and keeping discussions going so that when minister return to their desks, they can hit the ground running.