What next for our Assembly and Executive?

06 July 2020 - by Anna Mercer

As we approach the six month anniversary of the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, it is fair to say that the value of our devolved institutions and the ability of our elected representatives to work together has been demonstrated daily, despite difference of opinions and approaches at times.

And whilst the Executive had demonstrated strong leadership at a time of unprecedented challenge, the fallout from the deputy First Minister’s attendance at the funeral of Bobby Storey undermines the spirit of cooperation that has emerged between the governing parties. Will this week’s Assembly motion provide an opportunity to put this episode behind us? Let’s see.

As the shutters come up on the lockdown, everyone will want political focus to return to how and what the Executive can deliver for the remainder of the mandate, and how the COVID-19 rebuild gives way to an opportunity to “build back better”.

With New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) setting out the basis for going forward, and with less than two years until another election is due, there isn’t much time to get things done, but perhaps there is a bigger, more long-term opportunity to change the way we do things. The incredible transformation of our health service is evidence of the potential for change, and it is this type of radical reform that we need across our public services.

There is broad agreement on the need for change, but the challenge is how this happens without the dramatic catalyst of a global pandemic. On a review of the recent Northern Ireland Affairs Committee submissions to their inquiry on NDNA, many responses talk about the need for cultural change, which is hard to dispute.

However, when dealing with such complex institutions which necessitate power sharing, and the politics that shape each of our Executive parties, it is entirely conceivable that this vague concept is parked in the “too difficult” box. And to be fair to our politicians, this is an almost impossible ask as it is subject to individual interpretation and creates more headaches and problems in what is an already challenging task.

But this doesn’t preclude our politicians from achieving this outcome; the missing piece of the jigsaw is how they move, in the short-term, to a position which gives confidence to long-term decision making; if we were talking about a business, this would be the operational plan. This needs to have the reach to enable agencies across our public service to transform how they operate, and align with the agreed need to move towards a cross-departmental, outcomes-based approach that places wellbeing at its core.

The remainder of the electoral term might therefore be best used to put in place the institutional infrastructure to build transformed and resilient public services, and the key to achieving this is developing legislation to underpin the Programme for Government and install a duty to collaborate across public services. Indeed this is something that the Carnegie UK Trust has identified and is promoting.

From health bodies, transport, to watchdogs, housing, arts and local government, our public sector needs institutional support to enable cultural change, and show the potential of this way of working to inspire our politicians to plan a long term vision for Northern Ireland, removing the silos and politics that has coloured previous administrations, and giving confidence to all parts of the process that a collective, cross-cutting approach is here to stay.