Time to give the civil service a bolder hand

At this distance in London, I’m getting mixed messages about the future of the Executive. On the one hand, I sit up and take notice when as seasoned a commentator as Ed Curran fears it may be sinking. On the other, when even Sammy Wilson declares the devolution of policing and justice to be a DUP objective , I’m not exactly comforted – there are plenty of gets-outs in that – but I chalk up a modest positive. The big storms lie some way ahead. Politically, the DUP seem transfixed by the looming threat of Jim Allister in the general election and an Assembly election that could see Sinn Fein break a psychological barrier and become the largest single party. Sinn Fein are in no great shape either as the old slogans ring increasingly hollow. Yet neither party’s dominance seems seriously threatened. In any realistic assessment of electoral chances, I’m not clear how a voluntary coalition could prevent Sinn Fein from cashing in . Designations are surely not the main problem here. Indeed if the powers that be scrapped the party qualification and relied on designations, that perceived problem might be solved. But there’s no way the two Governments are likely to oblige. Instead they will nail the local parties to the floor and tell them to get on with it or suffer the green-tinged, direct rule consequences. Behind the nervous politics lies the equally looming moment of truth over public spending cuts, from next year if the Conservatives win, from 2011 if against all the odds, it’s Labour again. Complementing Richard Barnett’s report on economic development is Derek Birrrell’s on the low impact of devolution on social policy. Lke Barnett, Birrell largely confirms what we already know. From the press release, he has little to say on how to achieve policy making improvements. but he identifies the painfully slow decision making process that has heightened the impression of deadlock. At least the DUP anticipated this when they required the ministerial code to be strengthened to try to improve decision taking. But this has proved inadequate, not least due to their own political responses and evasions over everything from academic selection to water rates and economic development, and Sinn Fein’s largely unsuccessful concentration on identity politics. You simply cannot have coherent policies if every minister sings a different song. It must be a nightmare for the civil service whose job it is as ever to keep the show on the road.

What might help is the sort of co-ordination for coalitions that has evolved in Canada and New Zealand. In these countries parties are pressed to negotiate prior agreements and systems of policy co-ordination as under the NZ rubric of “ good faith and no surprises”. As the custodians of good government, the civil service takes a key role in this. Despite the hopes placed on it, the political mechanism of the FMDFM appears to be malfunctioning. The time has surely come to give the civil service a distinct role and issue public warnings to ministers of the need for key decisions and submit the own programme to ministers. It sounds dull and it is, mercifully. But a strong cabinet secretary on the old Ken Bloomfield or Douglas Harkness model or the Clerk to the Canadian Privy Council might help end the paralysis – or at least set an agenda for long overdue action. . Of course if there is no good faith there can be no co-ordination. But at least an initiative along these lines would put the good faith of all parties to the test.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London