1989: Civil service chief: Alliance’s “usefulness as a party has been as a catalyst rather than a main player” #20YearRule

CENT/3/221A (selective scans) is a very battered orange film, three inches thick and marked as Political Developments. Political anoraks interested in the twists and turns of the talks in the late eighties and early nineties will be fascinated by some of the detail in this file which has been released today under the 20 Year Rule. You can view the file at the Public Records Office in Titanic Quarter.

One bundle of papers outlines Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s August 1989 proposals for ‘a model of consensus government’. While the “prospects of achieving full devolution of legislative and executive powers still seem remote”, over the course of a five page document, the then head of the NI Civil Service pondered the creation of a system which would be “unboycottable … stable … capable of experimental introduction and capable of development”.

The proffered model would have been piloted with the introduction of “more local elected influence into … the management of one or more Northern Ireland Departments”. The new “management committee” (deliberately avoiding the use of the word “consultative”) would be chaired by the direct rule NIO minister and included MPs, the MEP or nominated alternatives (district councillors or members of the party).

The new management committees would take decisions about the “development of departmental policy” through a system of cross-system consensus, but would not have power to take not individual “case decisions”.

“It might begin with one or two departments and be applied in time to all the spending departments (but not, I think, pending actual devolution, to the Department of Finance & Personnel or Central Secretariat) … In time one might consider movement to a system in which a local politician rather than a junior Northern Ireland Office Minister would chair the departmental management committee. This would be a clear move towards devolution.”

Bloomfield noted the limits to the model’s inclusivity with a damning assessment of the Alliance Party’s role in

“It will be observed at once that such a system would not (while they remain unwilling to take the Parliamentary oath) bring Sinn Féin into any positions of influence. It would also at present exclude the Alliance Party; this would be a pity in many ways, but their usefulness as a party has been as a catalyst rather than a main player … I believe, the DUP and SDLP could work it, even if DUP decided initially to stay out. Failure to reach agreement once the system was in place would not mean a collapse of the system; simply a reversion to decision-making by the Secretary of State himself in instances where broad local agreement could not be found.” [emphasis added]

The comments about Alliance don’t seem to have been repeated to their leader’s face over the coming months when the Secretary of State Peter Brooke repeatedly met John Alderdice in Stormont Castle to discuss political development!

The Northern Ireland Office took the opportunity to critique the proposals. One suggested that the allocation of places on the committee should he shared between the parties on the basis of “electorate support … at the district council elections” rather than ratios at Westminster.

If the today’s parties fail to compromise (or resolve their differences) and the Executive remains dormant for much of 2018, perhaps a reworked model of Assembly committees will be called upon to advise the small team of NIO ministers and departmental permanent secretaries currently running NI?

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Well nothing seems to have changed since way back then, the Alliance Party still as useful as a fart in a spacesuit today ?

  • tmitch57

    And which, pray tell us all, are the useful parties?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Seems to be the DUP and Sinn Fein they seem to be the only useful parties that can bring devolved government back to NI ? The Alliance Party are going to chip into that Nationalist Vote West of the Bann, isn’t that what the Ginja Ninja said ? Reminds me of the poor sod receiving a hammer and chisel and told to strip off all the wall plaster in the Europa Hotel. The Foreman giving the instructions just walked across the street to Robinsons Bar and stated to the punters I will see that mug in another 50 years ?

  • Ryan A

    Aye, it’s the Alliance party’s Irish Language proposals currently on the table between the DUP chiefs who are desperate to get back into power and their members who don’t share the same vested interest.

    Where’s the PUP’s influence at? What date you take down the Welders club Christmas decorations doesn’t count as influence by the way 😛

  • T.E.Lawrence

    How many bottles of the vino stuff have you had Rysn over the festive period ? My advice would be son, keep off this forum when you have had too much and stop making s c— of yourself ps Nite Nite !

  • Ryan A

    Sorry friend, only arabicas for me today! Happy New Year to you and yours!