Governing without government: the consequences

Governing without government: the consequences

The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in February 2022. Ministers remained in post as caretakers until the end of October. In the ten months since then, civil servants have been left as the only decision makers.

For the last two years, each Northern Ireland department has been set a budget by the Secretary of State and told to provide public services on that basis. However, senior officials face twin challenges, each compounding the other.  While their remit has been extended, their extra powers remain both limited and uncertain. At the same time, the amount of funding available is shrinking while the need for public services increases.

Senior civil servants have been told to stay within their funding allocations without making major decisions, yet it is impossible for them to do so without making choices that would normally be taken by a minister. There is a “governance gap”, with no one taking many decisions that are needed.

As a result, Northern Ireland faces an escalating crisis. Public services have been pared back to reduce spending, increasing the social and economic challenges for local people. Despite this, spending this year is likely to be over budget, creating further deficits that could be taken from funding allocations for future years.

The absence of decision–making by politicians impacts now and into the future, through deteriorating public services. The biggest effects are suffered by the most disadvantaged individuals and communities. Moreover, there continues to be a lack of action to deal with Northern Ireland’s longer term policy challenges, many of which have been neglected for years.

As an independent think tank, Pivotal does not take a view on the politics of the current situation. This Briefing does not discuss post–Brexit trading arrangements. Instead, it considers the impact of the ongoing absence of proper government on public services here and looks at some of the effects this has on individuals, communities, businesses and other organisations.

This paper includes information about the current rules around decision–making, an assessment of the Budget position, examples of decisions that have and have not been made, and an analysis of the impact on public services. It finishes with recommendations for the best way forward, regardless of how the political dynamics play out.

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