Governing without ministers

This report from the UK think tank Institute for Government takes a look at Northern Ireland since the fall of the power-sharing executive.

As Northern Ireland approaches 1,000 days since the collapse of the power-sharing executive, this report finds important areas of domestic reform – such as public service reform, legislation on domestic violence and compensation for victims of historical abuse – have stalled. Governing without ministers looks at how Northern Ireland has functioned since 2017 and its reliance on civil servants to make critical decisions, and finds that the current situation should be unacceptable and is unsustainable. The lack of ministers and a sitting Assembly has created an “accountability gap” alongside the rising list of issues civil servants cannot address as they are forced to work to out-of-date policy directions from their former ministers. The lack of an executive has been particularly noticeable on Brexit.

Despite being more acutely affected than any other part of the UK, the report says Northern Ireland has lacked proper political representation in the process. So far UK ministers have held out against introducing direct rule. Such a move would be highly controversial, but the authors argue that a no-deal Brexit will force Westminster to make decisions that Northern Ireland civil servants cannot. The report also makes recommendations for how a future executive could be supported once restored. These include developing new buttressing institutions to aid effective long-term decision making, developing more external policy capacity in Northern Ireland and improving Northern Ireland literacy in Westminster and Whitehall.

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