chapter  8
16 Pages

Consociational government: inside the Northern Ireland Executive


The restoration of devolution inMay 2007 prompted some in Northern Ireland to identify with the queen in Alice in Wonderland who believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. The image of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sitting in angular proximity and, thereafter, recurring photographs of the chucklesome First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Dr Paisley and Martin McGuinness, seemed like the stuff of dreams – or, perhaps, nightmares. Either way, it was a remarkable turn of events, seized upon avidly by both consociationalists, whether revisionists or purists, to celebrate the verities of the model, and by politicians of all stripes to hail Northern Ireland as an exemplar of how to design the means of governing divided societies. When devolution day, May 8, arrived, the United Kingdom and Irish

premiers, together with other “luminaries” – including the IRA’s army council – assembled at Parliament Buildings to witness the proceedings and to wish the new administration well: at least, up to a point. The ensuing honeymoon period, shaped by the vows taken at St Andrews, boded well. Even before powers were formally transferred, the four leading parties agreed on both the allocation of the departmental dowries and the chairmanships and deputy chairmanships of the Assembly’s committees. The fact that such prenuptial details were agreed in advance of devolution contrasted sharply with the first interrupted phase of self-government that began in 1999. On that occasion, there were no inclusive negotiations over either the distribution of the departments or the leaderships of the committees. Instead, via the d’Hondt procedure, ministers, chairs, and deputy chairs, were nominated in a process akin to the pulling of political straws. Moreover, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), then the third largest party, while claiming the two “cabinet” seats to which it was entitled, shunned meetings of both the 12-member Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council, and in retaliation was prevented from participating in the British-Irish Council by the other ministers. Against that background, the restoration of devolution in 2007 undeniably

got off to a more auspicious start, one further aided by enabling the

ministers-in-waiting to be briefed during the six-week gap between the election and the formal transfer of powers. Thus, rather than being parachuted into office, the nascent ministers had a much more leisurely introduction to their respective portfolios. Indeed, if one includes the meetings of the Preparation for Government committee, established by the Secretary of State in May 2006 and which met until the following November, and its near successor, the Programme for Government committee, which met between November 2006 and May 2007, the parties were in theory much better prepared for the resumption of devolution than they were when powers were first transferred at the end of 1999. Before commenting on the operation of the current Executive, which is still in its infancy, I want to reflect on the dynamics of its predecessor: more particularly, to explore the extent to which it sought to promote and practise joined-up government (JUG). This is not to imply that had there been a more joined-up approach

between and among the devolved departments and, more broadly, across the three institutional strands, their demise would have been averted. Nor am I suggesting that JUG is, or can be, a panacea for our considerable ills, or that one should be complacent about the ease with which it can be implemented: JUG is difficult in even the most conducive of contexts, including the presence in office of a single-party government with a significant majority. I want to examine whether consociationalism or, more properly, Northern Ireland’s grand coalition and JUG are compatible, or whether they are necessarily incompatible in the context of a divided society. At the outset and just to be clear, I am not suggesting that JUG should

displace the requirement for a power-sharing government: far from it. Instead, my proposition is that if the focus of negotiations is fixed on the institutional architecture of Executive design, as was the case in 1998, then the prospect of achieving an effective and efficient set of policy outcomes – of making a substantive difference to the lives of the plain people in Northern Ireland – is jeopardized. But then policy deficits are the price of a confected, inclusionary consociation. This is not to imply that an agreed, voluntary coalition is sufficient to improve the lot of the wider community, more that it is a necessary step in that direction. Of course, there could be just such a coalition under the terms of the

Belfast and St Andrews Agreements: parties are not compelled to exercise the option of taking the seats to which, on the basis of their electoral performance, they are nominally entitled: it is a matter of choice. Given that the four major parties chose to enter the Executive in 1999 (and again in 2007), they were confronted with the task of trying to devise a programme for government, a difficult task made more so by the DUP’s stance of Executive semi-detachment: the “ministers-in-opposition” tactic as its deputy leader Peter Robinson defined it. And, while David Trimble envisaged the emergence of an Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)/Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) coalition within a coalition, to provide the stable centre of a rich political strain

and mutual personal antipathy to which both he and the then Deputy First Minister, Séamus Mallon, contributed and to which they were subjected. Indeed, the physical spaces that they occupied, with offices at either wing of Parliament Buildings, swiftly became a metaphor for the increasing political and policy distance between them – and it was a decidedly chilly space. While Séamus Mallon’s successor, Mark Durkan, initially strove to bridge that gap, he too eventually succumbed, withdrawing to his side of the communal divide, thereby perpetuating the inherent stresses of the co-premiership. How then did the first Executive work? Indeed, could it work, given the

lack of provision for collective responsibility and the textual warrant provided by the Belfast Agreement that enabled ministers to go on solo policy runs? Could there be joined-upness in a coalition that enticed its four parties into an ill-formed consociational tent and left them to make things up as they jostled along? The short answer to that is “No.” More to the point, have lessons, both positive and negative, been drawn by the 2007 Executive that will enable ministers to operate in a more cohesive and collective manner? It is too early to tell as yet, but there is already evidence that some of the stays in the consociational corset are beginning to pop with the immanent strain. Let me return, briefly, to JUG. What first set me thinking about JUG and

Executive performance was that the pursuit of the former at national level by Tony Blair as part of his wider modernizing government agenda coincidedwith the devolution project within the UK: there was, in short, a by no means accidental convergence between the two grand designs. Second, and more specifically, in structural terms joined-upness dovetailed with the 1998 Agreement’s institutional architecture. After all, its three strands were (and are) intended to interweave: pull at one, and the others would unravel – or so we were told. This interlocking pattern appeared, on paper at least, as an exemplary expres-

sion of joined-up inter-institutional and intergovernmental design, while the power-sharing philosophy of the Agreement was intended to promote a sense of common, joined-up, ownership of its institutions. In that respect, the Agreement was not confined to the letter of institutional design: it also addressed the spirit in which the institutions were to be animated, since its text is peppered with concepts such as “consent,” “pluralism,” and “agreement.”1 Taken together, structural design and behavioural spirit were meant to imbue the institutions with an explicit model of inclusiveness and, potentially, of joined-upness. My focus is on the extent to which that potential was realized in the first Executive and, more to the point, whether it can be in the new one established in 2007.

The exact origins of the concept of JUG and, indeed, the phrase itself is contested, but it leapt to prominence when it was employed by Tony Blair at

the launch of its first tangible expression, the Social Exclusion Unit, in December 1997. Although it was a novel form of words, it addressed a venerable problem and, in that respect, is a new name for an old administrative doctrine: namely, how to achieve integration and coordination within central government on both a vertical and a horizontal axis – and it is the latter dimension that I wish to consider. That is, whether its ministers coordinated departments to tackle policy problems in an integrated and cross-cutting way, including those problems dubbed as “wicked issues.” The wickedness of such issues, which can encompass homelessness, drugs

misuse, social exclusion, truancy, and alcohol abuse – and, in the context of Northern Ireland’s divided society, community relations – arises in part because they defy simple definition and as such are likely to defeat even the best efforts of a single dedicated department to resolve them because their underlying causes and the symptoms they present straddle traditional, functionally organized departmental boundaries. In short, joined-up problems require joined-up, cross-cutting solutions: JUG in that sense was intended to tackle a besetting sin of central government (and not only in the UK) – departmentalism. The broad diagnosis by the exponents of JUG is that there is an inherent tendency within departments to be insular, narrow-visioned and turf conscious.2 To capture that seemingly innate characteristic, a new set of metaphors began to be applied to departments: they were said to be “chimneys,” “silos,” or “locked boxes,” related to but separate from their administrative and policy-making neighbours, and thereby promoting inefficient patterns of expenditure and ineffective policy making. As Christopher Hood has observed, there was something old, something

new, something borrowed, and something blue about Blair’s zeal for JUG.3

Efforts to coordinate and integrate departments are far from original, they have a lengthy ancestry: Blair was, in that sense, revisiting an old problem. However, his modernizing zeal, including the shift towards a more holistic understanding of complex problems, together with the scope of his joined-up ambition, provided the novel elements. The borrowed aspects included the heavy reliance placed on information technology by, among others, the next man not to be president, Al Gore, in the early 1990s, to “break down organizational boundaries and speed service delivery,”4 while

the blue dimension was supplied by John Major’s belief in the integrating potential of e-government. According to its advocates, in order to be effective, JUG needs a hands-on

political champion: a committed prime minister (and an equally committed head of the civil service), equipped with a redesigned and strengthened strategic centre – which was swiftly and explicitly defined by the first Blair government as embracing No. 10, the Treasury, and the Cabinet Office. Besides dedicated leadership at the top or, rather, the centre, among the other conditions necessary to get ministers and officials thinking and acting laterally are the dismantling of barriers to joined-up thinking and action, new incentives to reward group work across departmental boundaries, clear strategic purpose and policy direction, and, not least, the underpinning convention of collective responsibility. This prescription did not entail a wholesale assault on departments, of course. The answer to departmentalism was not that everything should be lumped together into a misshapen conglomerate but, rather, that specialists both from within and outside government would be enabled to bring their expertise to the same, shared table so that joined-up, cross-cutting objectives could be pursued in mutually reinforcing ways.