Queen's Policy Engagement

Policy, vision and good government: the case for a Northern Ireland think tank

Next week, a new think tank will launch in Northern Ireland, focused on economic, social and good government issues. Called Pivotal, it is independent, but supported by a broad coalition of interests, and an academic partnership with both Queen’s University and Ulster University. Here guest contributor Alan Whysall, who has been working on the idea for the last three years, outlines the analysis on which Pivotal has been established.

Policy, vision and good government: the case for a Northern Ireland think tank

The decision to establish a new think tank stemmed from an analysis, based on experience under devolution, of Northern Ireland’s public policy needs and the ways they were met. It concluded that

  • A change in the approach to policy-making is needed in order to contribute to future prosperity and well-being, and to the stability of power-sharing government; and that
  • one first step towards this might be the establishment of a think tank, independent of government, working across the economic and social policy fields. Such institutions are widespread elsewhere; we largely do not have them in Northern Ireland, but given our government arrangements we have a particular need of them.

These conclusions are set out in a report on Policy, Vision and Good Government in Northern Ireland . The work was largely undertaken three years ago, but is published here for the first time. Many people have contributed to the final design for Pivotal, but the thinking here has in general been followed.


Public policy performance in Northern Ireland

The first part of the report analyses public policy making performance in Northern Ireland. Our system of politics and government had, over the years that it operated, remarkable successes in helping resolve conflict: the key immediate priority.

But at times the system operated in a way that made good government especially difficult to achieve. New ways are needed to support it. There are severe long-term challenges to prosperity and well-being in Northern Ireland that demand a fuller policy response, for example economic under-performance, struggling public services, and social pressures.

One problem is that often in our politics, and public dialogue more widely, there has been a shortfall in ambition and aspiration about the longterm: a lack of vision. So far as politics has focused on the long-term it has been in terms of constitutional status.

But we have many problems that, whatever our constitutional position, will be similar in nature, and similar in the responses needed.

Failure to develop public policy properly, the report suggested, imperilled the stability of devolved government – and the Renewable Heat Incentive affair points up these risks.

And we have seen particular constraints on public policy development: a political debate that too often crowded out economic and social policy; and an institutional structure that often got in the way of active resolution of problems, with an inbuilt bias towards inaction. The last Executive indeed recognised the need to do things differently, and a range of developments was set in train with the potential to improve the way future Executives tackled policy formation.

The report makes clear that it was not an attack on the model of devolution we had, nor on the performance of politicians – only a suggestion that their efforts needed to be supplemented. Many within politics might welcome that.

To date, the contribution to public policy from outside government has been limited. There have been several pioneering think tank projects in the past, but they were ultimately limited in scale, impact and duration. There are individuals and organisations contributing to the policy debate, but their efforts are fragmented – although there has certainly been a greater contribution from business and civil society organisations, and from academia, since the Executive fell.

But these efforts were limited under devolution, because of lack of demand: the Executive was not always encouraging to outsiders with new ideas; indeed there were signs that at times heads were kept down for fear of political hostility.

And young people may have felt even more disengaged from the political debate here than in the rest of the Western world.

The result of all this is that outside commentators on political policy have rarely been able to change the weather: they were not able to achieve recognition, and political traction for their ideas; they lacked critical mass, and the capacity to communicate widely and effectively.

Elsewhere, the contribution of external sources to public policy is an accepted, even indispensable, element: there are many think tanks in London, and significant players in Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Some think tanks of course are pure advocacy organisations, or have a distinct political agenda. But others have developed a reputation for impartiality and rigour, and are often influential, a reflection of the growing belief that it is not healthy for public policy making to be the preserve of government alone.

However UK-based think tanks, though they often ostensibly include Northern Ireland in their remit, rarely gave it much attention; Dublin ones more on occasion.

So Northern Ireland, the analysis section of the report concludes, needs new public policy ideas. It needs more debate focused on the economic and social realities, drawing in a wider public.

And it needs to find the ideas and leadership itself: they will not come from outside. The British and Irish governments, heavily involved in shaping Northern Ireland’s destiny before, are increasingly preoccupied, indeed at odds, over Brexit. Northern Ireland’s future is more than ever in its own hands.


A think tank to meet Northern Ireland’s needs

The second part of the report goes on to outline the parameters of a possible Northern Ireland public policy think tank that is independent, evidence-based, future-focused and inclusive. These ideas have been much developed in the course of establishing Pivotal, but the key principles outlined here still underpin the design.

This is of course nothing like a complete answer to our political problems. But it could be a catalyst for beneficial change; ultimately for helping influence the political culture and debate in Northern Ireland in a more forward-looking and reflective direction.

It would have a key role under devolution, but would be at least as valuable if that did not immediately resume. There are big ambitions here, so this is a substantial project and needs resourcing accordingly.

The report suggested the think tank must be independent, in particular, of political and community allegiances: insulated from short-term political pressure, and not the captive of any particular interest. But it must work sensitively and supportively with the machinery of politics.

It must be highly competent technically: mastering the large volume of complex policy thinking that goes on across the world, adapting it to our conditions.

But just as importantly, it needs to be an effective communicator and facilitator of public debate, engaging widely in both directions, with conventional media and public audiences, but also those who feel disengaged.

It must be staffed by a competent team; but it also needs, in a place as small as this, to draw in others from outside its core and give them a platform.

And in particular the academic contribution would be crucial. As would effective partnerships with similar institutions elsewhere, London, Dublin, but potentially elsewhere in these islands, Europe and the US. And its governance, and its finances, would need to be structured to bolster independence.


In conclusion

Pivotal has made significant progress towards these goals, with widespread support across different sectors of the community and politics. And it will benefit from a unique academic partnership with Queen’s University and Ulster University, engaging expertise within those institutions while maintaining independence. Resources so far are limited: it is therefore some way from being able to achieve the impact the report seeks. But the support received suggests a wide recognition that something new and different is needed in the field.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Alan Whysall
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Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The UCL Constitution Unit and is a founding member of Pivotal, Public Policy Forum.



Would you let me have a contact email address for this initiative, which RCPsych NI really welcome and would like to engage with in terms of the mental health agenda in ni – if that is something on your radar going forward.

    Kevin Fearon

    Hi Thomas, absolutely. We’ll email you.

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