Report published on Northern Ireland's democratic deficit

25 May 2018 - by Claire Flynn

Six months after it began its inquiry into our local democratic deficit the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee published its findings this week.

While care and maintenance may have been appropriate in the short term, the Committee noted that allowing departments to operate without ministerial direction for well over a year is unacceptable.

Frustration has grown for over 16 months as (most) ministerial decisions have not be taken, budgets have not been set and, as a result, policy, legislation and transformation have not progressed.

The Committee stated that in the absence of devolution, and following the recent High Court judgement on the Department for Infrastructure’s approval of planning permission with respect to the Arc21 incinerator in north Belfast, important decisions must now be taken.

It called for the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, to bring forward proposals, in advance of the summer recess, as to how she will pursue such a course. The report also suggested that Bradley be more proactive in facilitating talks between the parties so that MLAs can get back to work. 

Other recommendations for government include:

  • Continuing to implement, consult or legislate on policies and areas marked within the draft Programme for Government, in partnership with representative bodies and political representatives;

  • Setting out the intentions for the £100m funding allocated under the Bengoa report, taking all necessary steps to implement, consult or legislate on the recommendations made in partnership with stakeholder organisations and political representatives;

  • Establishing a Brexit Minister to be given specific responsibility for Northern Ireland’s voice on Brexit;

  • Legislating to enact the Hart report’s recommendations on compensating victims of historical institutional abuse;

  • Reconstituting the Policing Board so it can resume appointing senior staff and signing off on plans;

  • Taking action on MLA pay as soon as possible, following the conclusion of the Secretary of State’s consultation with the parties; 

  • Reforming the petition of concern process should be agreed as part of negotiations to reform the Assembly. This should be brought into force as soon as possible once the Stormont institutions reconvene.

The Committee also endorsed a citizens’ assembly as an option to increase civic engagement, especially at a time when the public is increasingly dissatisfied with the political landscape. Indeed, the report welcomed the Citizens' Assembly for Northern Ireland pilot, which is being taken forward by the public participation charity, Involve.

In its concluding remarks, the Committee stated that if the Executive is restored, it should launch a consultation within six months about a review of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. If the Executive is not restored before the autumn, the Committee continued, the Secretary of State should consult with the parties, as well as with the Irish government, on how a review mechanism could be progressed and what the scope of that review should be.

After some self-reflection, the Committee also committed to exploring how its own role may change in light of the current impasse, acknowledging the absence of nationalist MPs within its own ranks – a consideration in relation to any enhanced function.

What was clear from the recommendations, however, was that there exists a resounding ‘No’, from all those who gave evidence, to the idea of holding another election. The Committee said that little would be achieved as a result of rolling the electoral dice once again.