The end of summer arrived with a bang for Northern Ireland politics with dramatic statements in the Commons and the resumption of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme’s Inquiry.
Secretary of State, Karen Bradley announced that she will finally be implementing cutting MLAs pay. An independent review recommended she do it nine months ago…
From November their salaries will be cut, first by £7,425 per annum, and three months later by £6,187. Constituency workers’ pay is to be unaffected.
Ms Bradley also ruled out a new election but said she will be introducing legislation to allow civil servants to take decisions and move forward on key strategies.
In May, a court ruled that civil servants did not have the power to approve a regionally-significant planning application for a waste facility in the absence of a minister. Since then, our departments have been virtually paralysed.
This has meant indeterminate delays to vital projects across our nine departments – including our regional suicide strategy, health reform and many others.
Also among these is the £200m Belfast Transport Hub plan, a vital part of our future transport infrastructure. After being ‘called-in’ as one of former Infrastructure Minister (now MP for South Down) Chris Hazzard’s last acts in charge, the application has languished in the Department for Infrastructure’s inbox for over a year.
At the time when Ms Bradley was making her Commons statement the RHI inquiry was resuming with evidence from former minister Jonathan Bell, the whistle blower who claimed the scheme had been extended beyond what it should have, and that was set to have spiralling costs.
Amid lurid accounts of alleged violence and unnamed politicians’ ‘sexual misbehaviour’ the entire issue of Special Advisors (SpAds) role in Northern Ireland’s executive came into sharp focus, with claims of their influence.
Fractious relations between Mr Bell and his own SpAd are just the tip of the iceberg so far.
What has been clear in evidence so far is that not only was the Executive dysfunctional – minutes, for example, were not taken at key meetings – but that the governance and transparency needed for schemes such as RHI and others was all but absent. And, that includes decisions that senior civil servants were party to.
That’s the same senior civil servants who are now likely to be empowered to do as they please, with no indication of who will have oversight…
For those seeking to influence government in Northern Ireland, Bradley’s announcement this week is good news.
Since the collapse of the Executive last year, Northern Ireland has been like a ship with a dead hand at the tiller. While, obviously, this hasn’t changed, at least there’s a bit more wind in the sails!
For, while we obviously do need policymakers back in post, it’s at least looking likely that the civil service will be able to push forward on some of the major projects that have stalled. And, while it’s not yet clear precisely what decisions civil servants will be empowered to take, it’s at least looking likely that campaigners will once again be able to influence policy in Northern Ireland to some degree.
It’s not what we want and it’s not what we in Northern Ireland need. But at least it’s a start.
by Will Chambré, Managing Director
Chambré Public Affairs LLP is a Belfast-based integrated communications agency, with a focus on government relations and public policy. We support public, voluntary and private sector organisations seeking to build relationships, influence the policy agenda and navigate the complexity of government. We ensure good ideas are heard and implemented.