Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Why, until the dysfunction in both branches of government is sorted out, there's no point in bringing back the Executive

First RHI and now the Social Investment Fund ... politicians and civil servants each have questions to answer before we can contemplate the return of power-sharing, writes Alex Kane

There’s much to be ironed out before a Stormont Executive can successfully return
There’s much to be ironed out before a Stormont Executive can successfully return

When the last talks process broke down in February there was a general feeling that the relationships between the parties couldn't get any worse. Well, judging by the reaction after Karen Bradley gathered them together a couple of weeks ago we were all wrong. The relationships have got worse. Much worse.

Even the Alliance Party, which can usually be relied upon to find a silver lining in any storm, couldn't find one this time. And that's why it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to get a deal done at any point in the near future.

This problem - this toxicity, if you like - goes far beyond Brexit, an Irish Language Act or even the RHI saga. The very fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein now account for almost two-thirds of the votes cast at elections (a growth fuelled by ex-UUP and SDLP voters), and that both parties continue to harden their positions rather than suggest compromises, tells you everything you need to know.

And it's a brutal and inescapable reality. A substantial majority of unionists and nationalists - from the softest to the hardest in each community - don't actually want to share power with each other. If they did, then compromises would have been reached and a deal would have been cut long before now.

They will blame each other: that's always their go-to response. Foster and O'Neill will tell you they will enter an Executive without preconditions, yet they haven't and probably won't. And from what I can gather there is no particular pressure upon them from their own grassroots. Indeed, it seems to be the grassroots who are warning them not to do a deal.

The willingness of the electorate to take risks and offer the benefit of the doubt to the 'other side' has gone. Voters are deserting the so-called moderate options of unionism and nationalism precisely because they didn't want the 'soft-all-together-now' approaches which seemed to be on offer from them. Meanwhile, Alliance is more or less standing still.

I don't know what it is going to take to dilute or dissolve the toxicity. To be honest, I'm no longer sure that it is even possible. People tell me that a soft or much better than expected deal on Brexit (which is what I've always thought was likely anyway) will help to ease the tensions.

Hmm. Those tensions were obvious before the referendum, and I was writing about them in this newspaper. To hear some people talking now you would think that politics before the referendum represented some sort of utopia. It didn't. The problems were huge, major decisions were avoided, one set of crisis talks followed another, the DUP/SF relationship was growing more fractious by the month and the SDLP/UUP vote was in a downward spiral.

Given that background I don't see how any new talks process - which Mrs Bradley isn't even planning to convene until at least January - could deliver a collectively responsible, collectively accountable, genuinely power-sharing Executive working in common purpose and with the same end goals in mind. How could it?

And the notion that bringing in some sort of 'outsider' to chair the process is just risible. George Mitchell did his best, but his best didn't prevent the present mess or the collapse of hope. Richard Haass came and went. Gary Hart came and went. Prime Ministers and Taoisigh have popped in and out, usually to be treated like a whack-a-mole. A succession of Secretaries of State have smiled, shaken their heads and moved on. To the 'dreary steeples' let's add the 'weary crises': always there and always clouded in fog.

My personal view is that Mrs Bradley shouldn't bother convening a talks process unless and until the parties come to her with a clear agenda of what they want to discuss, along with very clear evidence of a willingness to see the process through to the end.

A few months ago Naomi Long managed to get the parties together for a conversation rather than a talks process. That's an idea that needs to be built upon. In other words, not a pressure cooker environment, but a more relaxed atmosphere, and one in which there are no formal negotiations as such, just a chance, without the leaders, for a general chat. See if there is common ground. See if there are issues on which progress is possible. And maybe, just maybe, reach a point at which there are issues on which agreement can be banked. Then move into the formal talks process. In other words, start with positives and build from there.

The other thing that needs to be done is a thorough review of the entire system of governance. If we assume that the dysfunction uncovered during the RHI Inquiry isn't restricted to a 'rogue' department - and the NI Audit Office report on the Social Investment Fund (SIF) would suggest that it isn't - then a way has to be found of addressing what seem to be the very bad practices and habits which have developed since 1998. What we had 20 years ago was a whole generation of politicians and civil servants who had no experience of anything other than direct rule.

New departments were set up. New permanent secretaries appointed. Later, came the new ministers and special advisers, along with a new Executive committee and Assembly committees. It was a learning curve for everyone. The relationships between ministers, civil servants and advisers were developed as they went along. Some practices and habits which probably wouldn't be regarded as normal elsewhere seem to have become commonplace here.

All of that needs to be assessed and resolved, particularly the very specific role of the Civil Service. it is there to advise, assist and implement. It is not its role to bend itself to suit the whims of ministers and political advisers. My own sense, having talked to a number of civil servants, is that their confidence has taken a major blow. That confidence needs to be restored.

Section 35 of the Good Friday Agreement made provision for a review of the structures after a couple of years of functioning, the purpose being to learn from experience, identify problems, suggest improvement and efficiency and stamp out the nurturing of any bad habits and practices that may have developed. That review needs to begin right now. Whether we've a rebooted Executive or direct rule, it is essential we have a confident, impartial Civil Service at the core of governance.

The very worst outcome would be the return of an Executive which hasn't resolved the issues of responsibility, accountability and trust; along with a Civil Service still shackled by the problems we've seen exposed by both RHI and SIF. Both problems need tackled and resolved. Dysfunction on the present scale should never have been tolerated in the first place.

Belfast Telegraph


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