Newton Emerson has written a thoughtful piece on that neglected topic, now blindingly exposed by the RHI inquiry, of how Northern Ireland is administered. He had already decided that the region is too small to sustain a comprehensive health service.
The inquiry’s verdict on specific blame could be years away. In the meantime, the first overarching theme to emerge has been something of a surprise – namely, that Northern Ireland is too small to have a separate administrative existence.
A key motivation when adapting policies, as explained by inquiry witnesses, is a cargo cult-like focus on getting more money into Northern Ireland no matter how wasteful this is overall. In one instance, officials knowingly cost the British taxpayer £300 million to save Stormont £3.5 million because that was rational from their standalone perspective.
Suddenly, the jaw-dropping mistakes of RHI look like an inevitable feature of how Northern Ireland is run.
As the constitutional question cancels out and cutting services down to an efficient size is unthinkable, there is a chance for the RHI inquiry to provoke more practical ideas.
A sustainable administration in Northern Ireland would need to do less on its own, while looking to east-west and north-south partnerships for delivery.
And yet… in the bad old days of monopoly unionism, Northern Ireland adopted the step by step approach to introducing the welfare state – the NHS, expanding income support and universal secondary education – by adapting the GB precedents. The flaws were political rather than essentially administrative. A welfare state can only be based on universal principles which were bound to clash with institutional discrimination. UK civil servants often came over on secondment to head up NI departments or take up full jobs. This was not always welcome but it seemed to work. Sue Gray’s appointment may be the latest example. I hope she shakes the place up. We cannot wait for the inquiry to report . The appalling practice of burning off unspent revenue on any old thing before the end of the financial year must end.
There is a recognised problem of what experts in government call “capacity” as a result of expanding UK devolution but it doesn’t seem unmanageable if the devolved governments are not at loggerheads with Whitehall and Westminster. Higher and higher tech and ever growing public demand may be creating a wholly new situation but I doubt it.
The bigger problem is surely the absence of effective collective responsibility at the political level and occasional warfare between rival minsters in the Executive . This is reflected in the conduct and role of civil servants even more than we might have feared. The lack of coordination is alarming. The RHI seems to have revealed that no one was actually responsible, everyone passed the buck and political special advisers were over dominant and seldom if ever challenged.
I would particularly identify the lack of a strong cabinet secretary on the Whitehall model to coordinate the working of administration and the full observance of the ministerial code. No doubt successive heads of the service will make their excuses . All the same their spinelessness in office is as deplorable as their continued silence in retirement. I wouldn’t expect any of them to go quite as far as Bob Kerslake but they should say something.
Civil servants are in a odd position. Convention says they advise and not decide but are increasingly required to manage. These functions can easily clash. Whitehall is tackling this by seconding civil servants to acquire project management skills in industry and recruiting outsiders on limited term contracts. As the NI civil service is separate from the UK service, the pressure on them to upskill may be less.
But the political problems of the Executive – where even minsters of the same party can be at loggerheads – is also fundamental.
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