Northern Ireland’s draft Programme for Government revealed all of the signs of a power-sharing government on the brink of collapse


In the months leading up to Martin McGuinness’s resignation as Deputy First Minister and refusal to immediately nominate a replacement calling to a halt power-sharing in Northern Ireland, and the triggering of Assembly elections there was growing skepticism and concern as to why it was taking so long to clarify, publish and sign off on all of the necessary components needed to pursue the Assembly’s mandate - a final draft Programme, a budget, an economic strategy, and a social strategy. However, looking back, it is clear that skepticism was well-founded with failure to sign off on the Programme for Government nine months after the forming of a new Executive revealing all of the signs of a power-sharing Government on the brink of collapse.

In the coming weeks of negotiations, the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, aside from the inevitable focus on Brexit, and the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, need to concentrate on policies and the delivery of Government. As whilst the draft Programme for Government published for consultation in the weeks following the Assembly elections and the forming of a new Northern Assembly in May of 2016 showed that the political parties can agree on a common purpose of Government, it also made clear that the nuts and bolts of this - agreement on joint delivery and collective responsibility - is more difficult. Thus, whilst a Mom and apple pie approach to Government was agreed, there was no clarity in terms of political responsibility or accountability for delivery and implementation. In current negotiations, however, delivery and responsibility are the crunch factors, and so there needs to be genuine thought given as to how the main political parties can deliver together and take responsibility together on policy. This will necessarily involve a recognition that policy is political, and both parties come from two ideologically opposing positions - Sinn Fein being a left-wing socialist party, DUP being right-wing socially conservative. 

This is no mean feat. Northern Ireland has a history of a lack of coordination, joined-up policy making and delivery deriving from structures that were established as part of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing agreement, and instituted in the Good Friday Agreement. In this way, although the principle of power-sharing has been accepted, this could be described as a ‘coalition of the unwilling’ with parties within this ‘forced’ coalition tending to hold differing positions on policy, the role of government and Northern Irelands constitutional future (OECD, 2016). Thus, the fact that the previous Executive agreed on a draft Programme for Government based on the premise of a shared vision to improve the wellbeing of all Northern Irish citizens, together with a number of high-level strategic outcomes required to achieve this vision deserves some merit. And indeed, responses to the initial consultation on the draft Programme for Government ‘overwhelmingly’ endorsed the idea of building a more joined-up and outcomes-based approach to governance (Northern Ireland Executive, 2016).

However, once one began to sift through the draft Programme for Government the lack of detail in regards to how the new approach described in the draft document was going to be mobilised and who was responsible was unambiguous. The lack of any targets or commitment to achieving interim outcomes (short-, medium-, long-term outcomes) led critics to question how we might truly judge whether government was making improvements through their interventions. Further to this the lack of an investment strategy, an economic strategy or a social strategy led to widespread skepticism amongst eagle-eyed viewers on whether the Programme for Government was ever going to be deliverable. Nevertheless, despite widespread criticism on these issues political leaders remained mute giving no indication of how they intended to implement the wellbeing framework or deliver improvements across each of the outcomes.

Rather, the proposed framework for delivery was one which would see a senior responsible officer ‘personally responsible and accountable’ for identifying the actions to be taken and for delivering improvements to each outcome. Improvements to outcomes would be assessed by between 3-5 indicators which the senior responsible officer would use to measure the extent to which the outcome is being achieved, and adapt strategies for delivery on this basis. We might take issue with this on two counts. Firstly, by assigning responsibility and accountability for delivery with a civil servant an attempt was made to depoliticize policy delivery and the entire Programme for Government. However, this raised many questions amongst critics who asked - if improvements to wellbeing do not occur, who is accountable? Is it the senior responsible officer? Is it respondents to the consultation who contributed to or made suggestions for the delivery plan? Or is it the politicians who agreed on the Programme for Government?

Secondly, through proposing that progress towards each outcome can be made through assessments of scientifically robust key indicators an attempt was made to reduce policy-making to a technical and rational problem-solving exercise. There was little recognition that indicators are inevitably value-laden and so can be used by politically to justify or manipulate policy discourses. In this way, irrespective of whether an indicator is ‘scientifically robust’, the political context will determine the legitimacy and relevancy of ‘facts’. Illustrating the risk of this in the current context Donnelly (2016) picks apart an indicator proposed to assess reconciliation in the draft Programme for Government - the % of the population who believe their cultural identity is respected by society. He argues that this indicator is inherently political as it is the only indicator that an ‘explicit breakdown of circumstances or attitudes on a religious basis is employed by the DUP/SF authors of the document’.

In term of what’s next for Northern Ireland politics, some of the most prudent advice I have heard has come from Alex Kane who has argued in support of the need for a quick “heads of agreement” approach to get the basics of government in place to solve immediate problems, but that once this is done we should stop pretending that we have reached agreement on issues when we clearly have not.


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Dr Lisa Wilson

Lisa Wilson is a Senior Economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute and is based in the Belfast office. Her main research interests lie in the areas of labour markets, income distribution, poverty, public expenditure, living standards and well-being. 

Since taking up her position in the NERI Lisa has been among other things carrying out work concerned with job quality and its economic and social importance, the future of work, the gendered nature of employment, and housing and its impact for living standards in Northern Ireland.

Lisa is a native of Donegal, and a graduate of Ulster University and Queens University, Belfast. Lisa completed her PhD in Queen’s University, Belfast focusing on income inequality and well-being.

Contact: [email protected] or 00 44 28 9024 6214.