Pivotal

Author

Dr Andrew McCormick

Dr Andrew McCormick

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Elections change things – obviously – or sometimes they confirm trends that have been known but maybe not fully acknowledged. And, quite often, something unforeseen happens that shifts events out of all proportion. Most strikingly, the 2017 General Election, which seriously weakened the May administration, and the 2019 European Parliament Elections, when the Brexit Party’s success moved the Conservative Party in its direction, were both significant gamechangers in the Brexit process.

There have only been a few UK General Elections that happened with a functioning devolved power–sharing administration in place in Northern Ireland – 2001, 2010, 2015 and…1974. And events related to three of those four Elections set in train consequences that undermined devolution – they were followed, sooner or later by collapses – very quickly in 1974, but also in 2002 and 2017. Hopefully, 2024 will not follow that pattern!

Both 1974 and 2001 were the first contests after new agreements on power sharing – one key difference was that in 1974, a majority of those voting supported parties that opposed the Sunningdale Agreement, whereas in 2001 there was a clear majority of those voting in favour of candidates who supported the 1998 Agreement. But the results of the 2001 Election perhaps suggested that a UUP/SDLP led administration was not likely to prevail and stabilise. That was a factor which led in 2002, as in 1974, to power sharing collapsing.

Following the elections of 2001, 2010 and 2015, the UK governments did not see any great need to give immediate attention to issues affecting Northern Ireland. The change of government in 2010 happened just after the resolution of the devolution of policing and justice, so it was understandable – though, on a long term view, deeply unfortunate – that the new government did not need to focus on working with the Northern Ireland Executive and was pre–occupied with the novel consequences of the coalition’s modus operandi. In 2015, the surprise of the Conservatives’ overall majority was the unforeseen event that inexorably started the UK on the road to Brexit: however, as in 2010, there was no strong focus on the Northern Ireland issues, with consequences that are all too relevant in the 2024 campaign.

The business of governing

How do UK General Election campaigns affect the business of government in Northern Ireland? On the whole, the work of government here continues, but with heightened sensitivities about actions that could have party political impacts. The Cabinet Office pre–election guidance makes it clear that most of its provisions do not apply to civil servants in the three devolved administrations. However, it says that they need to be “…aware of the need to avoid any action that is, or could be construed as being, party political or likely to have a direct bearing on the general election”. The restrictions on political activity by individual civil servants (Section E of the guidance) apply in full. Guidance to the Northern Ireland Civil Service emphasises that they should not undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality.

The main difference that affects day–to–day work in the civil service in Northern Ireland is that it is even more important to avoid, if at all possible, the use of Departmental resources (including buildings and official cars) for party political purposes.

In practice it is not possible to separate the politics of the devolved administrations and the General Election campaign. That is most clear in Scotland, where a large swing from the SNP to Labour could be a very important factor in the arithmetic on 5 July, and hence any major presentational successes by the Scottish Government during the campaign period could affect the result. The outcome in 2017, while not likely to be repeated, shows that Northern Irish seats can be of critical importance at UK level.

Meanwhile, all the business of the devolved administration has to go on, and it is inherently impossible to secure a complete separation of party and Ministerial statements and publicity. Ideally, any announcements by Departments should not compete with the campaign, and care is needed in relation to the conduct of Ministerial visits so as not to be seen as promoting one particular party.

Health and Budget issues matter in this Campaign

But the present context is uniquely complicated, because the election has come so quickly after the restoration of the institutions, and hence some very central aspects of its work have barely begun. We already have the anomaly that the Budget has been passed, but the Programme for Government appears to be deferred, despite the fact that the founders in 1998 saw these as inextricably linked. At the same time, a debate on the draft legislative programme is due to go ahead on 11 June.

And the controversy over health funding creates a fault line between the UUP and the DUP (and indeed with Sinn Fein and Alliance). Health officials have in the past commented controversially on the impact of budgets on the health service (notably in 2011). But the current controversy is more acute, because the risk to services is much more severe, and the case for health is extremely strong. It is one thing for a Minister to vote against a Budget in the Executive and in an Assembly division on the relevant legislation. But overspending – by a Minister failing to authorise action necessary to contain expenditure within the limits on expenditure set in statute by the Assembly – would be an extraordinary development, and could have repercussions for political relationships both here and with the UK government.

It is fortunate that the oral hearings of the Covid Public Inquiry here were completed before the Election was called, as the issues it was addressing could easily have been presented and interpreted by candidates as relevant to current political controversies, not least the resourcing and management of the health and social care service, or indeed the broader effectiveness of the Executive as a government here.

The unpredictability of election campaigns is part of their fascination. It will be very surprising if there is not some twist or turn in the next few weeks that affects either the outcome or the operation of the Northern Ireland Executive. After the dust settles, it will be vital that the new UK government takes seriously the issues affecting Northern Ireland, and acts to secure stability and a viable way forward.

Dr Andrew McCormick is a retired Northern Ireland Civil Service Permanent Secretary and a trustee of Pivotal.

 

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