Queen's Policy Engagement

Public Policy-making in the Contested Context of Northern Ireland

This blog, by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Ka Ka Katie Tsang, is part of an IPPO series looking at how policymaking across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland has been shaped by devolution since 1999.

Public Policy-making in the Contested Context of Northern Ireland

Although NI elected representatives can often be heard urging their political opponents to park constitutional matters and cooperate on policy development, in practice most significant policy areas in Northern Ireland are not divorced from constitutional aspirations. With a nod to another area of historical political conflict, ‘Balkanisation’ is the metaphor often used to describe the carve up of Departments (of which there are nine since 2010) between the major parties after Assembly elections.

And so while the Assembly rules are designed to try and foster cooperation across the political divide on policy development, in practice highly controversial issues tend to be avoided, and where there is agreement, it can often be on matters of mutual electoral benefit and that serves the lowest common denominator. Indeed the smaller unionist and nationalist parties (generally the UUP and SDLP respectively) have often castigated the two larger parties (generally the DUP and Sinn Féin) for using their electoral strength to ‘carve up’ resources and opportunities between them.

The institutions do not yet adequately accommodate the growing number of ‘other’ or non-nationalist or unionist members, reflected in an increased share of the vote (16% in the 2022 Assembly elections) and the increased political presence of the non-aligned Alliance Party.

Capacity and competence

The Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) is legally distinct from that of the British ‘Home’ Civil Service. In the routine absence of political leadership, its occasional decision-making role has often come in for particular attention.

A seminal issue in the devolved administration’s history was the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal in which a scheme designed to reduce fossil fuel use ended up incentivising the wasteful burning of wood pellets at enormous cost to the taxpayer. In protest at the mishandling of the scheme – which became known as ‘cash for ash’ – under a DUP Minister, Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness resigned from his post as deputy-First Minister in Jan 2017 which resulted in the suspension of the Executive for three years and significantly eroded trust in the Assembly’s ability to govern responsibly and safeguard taxpayer interests.

The subsequent official inquiry found evidence of mismanagement and wholly inadequate competency in relation to the development and management of the scheme, but also pointed to wider failings concerning record-keeping, regulation of the role of special advisers, legislative accountability and ministerial attention to policy matters within their brief.

Responsibility for monitoring the implementation of a long list of reforms was handed over to the office of the NI Comptroller and Auditor General and associated Audit Office. Its report in 2022 found that while improvements had been made in relation to such issues as clarifying the responsibilities of ministers and special advisors, financial controls and record-keeping, less progress had been made in relation to skills and capacity development across the 23,000-strong civil service. Nonetheless the sense was that a process of improvement was underway. This belief was, however, severely damaged by the findings of another inquiry, into COVID-19.

COVID-19 and the Northern Ireland Administration 

At time of writing, and despite the RHI findings, the evidence being presented at the UK COVID-19 inquiry’s hearing in Belfast provide more stark evidence that political priorities trump administrative coherence even in the most difficult of situations in Northern Ireland.

As noted in another IPPO blog, political divisions over whether to follow Dublin or London’s advice during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic followed constitutional lines and delayed decision-making.

Early evidence at the official UK COVID-19 inquiry hearings in Belfast laid bare the dysfunction at the heart of the multi-party administration, including an inability to collaborate across party lines, leaking of executive discussions, disappearance of electronic devices and records and woefully inadequate preparations for the pandemic.

Devolved power-sharing government has been a vital ingredient in ensuring the absence of political violence in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years. But constitutional lines remain ever-present, and the engagement in politics by other means lies at the root of many of the crises experienced by the administrative system as it has sought to provide public services in difficult and still-contested circumstances.


About the Authors

Dr Ka Ka Katie Tsang is a Research Fellow in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queeen’s University Belfast. Her research interests in relation to the policy priorities for the International Public Policy Observatory 2023-2024 calendar years focus on the cross-cutting challenges of pandemic recovery, net zero, place and spatial inequality as well as socio-economic inequality.

Prof Muiris MacCarthaigh is Professor of Politics and Public Policy and Head of Politics and International Relations in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.


Article first appeared on the IPPO website. 


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

Professor Muiris MacCarthaigh
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Muiris MacCarthaigh is Professor of Politics and Public Policy in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. He is Co-Investigator with the Irish State Administration Database project (www.isad.ie) and the Northern Ireland lead on the International Public Policy Observatory - a £2m Economic and Social Research Council collaboration with University College London, Cardiff University, the University of Oxford, the University of Auckland and a number of think-tanks.

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