Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland: dealing with the deficit
It is widely acknowledged that the absence of a functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland is having major impacts on communities, organisations, public services and businesses here. This is especially worrying at a time when Brexit has the potential to have major constitutional implications and Northern Ireland is essentially without a voice in these negotiations.
The democratic deficit is causing a deeply concerning drift in terms of politics and political relationships here with party positions apparently hardening and becoming more polarized, impacting the likelihood of reaching a sustainable agreement. We are concerned that this drift will cause increased political apathy amongst civic society and the public in general. The longer that locally elected democratic structures appear unable to deliver for the public in Northern Ireland on key issues of concern such as health and education, the greater the likelihood that the public will become disillusioned with devolved government and lose faith in the viability of a Northern Ireland Assembly.
There are also concerns about the impact on the ongoing peace process here as political parties seem increasingly divergent in their stances. The peace process and political stability is also being put under additional pressure by the decision by the UK to leave the EU and the resultant uncertainty around how this will impact on society and the economy in Northern Ireland, on future North-South (NI/ROI) and East-West (NI/GB, ROI/UK) relations, border controls, citizens’ and citizenship rights which are inextricably linked with the rights and arrangements agreed in the Good Friday Peace Agreement. The resultant drift has the potential to result in a step backwards for politics and political progress here.
The democratic deficit also poses a threat to public services here as no budget has been passed and there are no Ministers in place to make important decisions about how these services should best be funded in future. We need only look to the budgetary outlook for Northern Ireland 2018-20 to see that the continuation of spending in the way we currently are is unsustainable and the money available will decrease in real terms over the next two years. To remedy this requires Ministers in place taking strategic decisions about our economy, health, education and the many areas across government which are in need of leadership and transformation.
NICVA emphasises the need to embrace creative solutions to the current democratic deficit. The best scenario would see a devolved assembly established on the basis of a long-term and sustainable agreement delivering for people in Northern Ireland, however, all options for restoring accountability and democracy in Northern Ireland should be explored. Until a sustainable agreement is reached there is a need for some form of functioning government here with Ministers in place able to take strategic decisions and in the absence of Ministers or an Executive, there should at least be a mechanism for scrutiny and debate at policy level.
Consideration should be given to formalizing the role of social partners and the role of a citizens' assembly or civic forum mechanism to afford Northern Ireland a public voice on different platforms. These methods, along with input from the local political parties would be useful in a scenario where Direct Rule from Westminster is implemented to enable scrutiny of emerging policies. Attention should also be given to areas in Northern Ireland where democracy is still operating such as at Council level.
NICVA also highlight concerns around way in which talks to re-establish an Assembly have been progressing over the past year. There is a risk that any agreement reached may be unsustainable if other political parties in Northern Ireland are not involved and consulted with. Other formats and strategies for Stormont talks should be explored to increase the likelihood of reaching a sustainable resolution.
Brexit adds greater pressure to the current deficit as there is no united voice coming from Northern Ireland, leaving us in a vulnerable position, unable to provide insight and scrutiny to negotiations and the creation of new UK frameworks to replace EU legislation. There are widespread concerns that any return to border enforcement or monitoring on the island of Ireland could have a potentially de-stabilising effect, and this is not adequately addressed or represented locally or nationally in the current situation and the gap in Northern Ireland political representation and leadership is becoming ever-more problematic.
The voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland is set to be amongst the worst affected sectors in Northern Ireland due to the democratic deficit. Lack of certainty and late decisions around funding have become a given for most voluntary and community organisations who frequently lurch from year to year with no ability to plan long term, having to place staff on notice of potential redundancy again and again. Cuts to funding, driven by short-term, year-on-year budgetary management by officials, rather than by long-term outcomes-based strategic budgetary decisions made by politicians, seem only likely to continue or increase as the democratic deficit continues and there is less money available in the Northern Ireland budget. The voluntary and community sector is hugely valued by the community in Northern Ireland with 90% of the population here having used a charitable or voluntary service in the past 12 months, any downturn in funding for this sector will greatly impact communities here and impact those people that rely on these services as pressure increases on statutory public services. There is also concern that if Direct Rule were to be implemented here, it would be more difficult for this sector to engage effectively with and help inform policy, political decision-making and public debate.
To read the full consultation response from NICVA, see attached.