Effectiveness of Belfast / Good Friday Agreement institutions

The Belfast / Good Friday Agreement institutions represent a huge achievement in moving Northern Ireland from a situation of conflict to one of relative peace. Establishing a cross–community power–sharing government in a deeply divided society represented enormous progress from what had gone before. Unfortunately, however, the institutions have not produced government that has been either stable or effective, with the Executive not functioning for more than 40% of the time since 1999. This is perhaps unsurprising given the big differences in the parties’ views on many issues.

The stability and effectiveness of the Executive is heavily reliant on strong leadership and relationships of trust between the parties, together with a constructive and business–like commitment to making the institutions work. While the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement relied on such a spirit of partnership and good faith, unfortunately it has often been lacking in practice.

The Executive operates under an almost constant threat of collapse, and such fragility is not conducive to effective government. Moreover, political disagreements dominate debate, to the exclusion of a focus on addressing day–to–day policy challenges. Features of how the Executive works include: a lack of common purpose and shared vision for improving real world outcomes for people; ministers operating separately rather than collectively; a failure to take difficult decisions and an absence of prioritisation; little longer term or strategic policy making; and a lack of focus on delivering improvements to public services. Unfortunately we see the impact of this ineffective government in persistently poor outcomes across many economic, health and social indicators.

Northern Ireland needs institutions that have the resilience to withstand political disagreements without collapse. It needs an Executive that works with common purpose and that has the time, space and commitment to do proper policy development and delivery.

Pivotal’s view is that the current institutions could work effectively if there was sufficient political commitment to them, particularly from the two largest parties. A commitment to behaviours that make the institutions work is more important than reforms to the structures and mechanisms.

Practical suggestions for improving the effectiveness of government, which would not involve reform, include: political agreement to a programme for government before parties enter an Executive; proper plans to address long–term policy problems; an enhanced role for the Assembly and Committees; and greater involvement of organisations outside government in policy development.

As co–guarantors of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, there is a strong onus on the UK and Irish governments to ensure that the institutions function, including prioritising their restoration. More attention is also needed on providing adequate governance when the institutions are not in place.

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