RPP 18 1 M Paula J Kilbane Issues and debates: devolution in Northern Ireland – its impact

Research Policy and Planning: The journal of the Social Services Research Group – Vol 18 (1) 2000

Issues and debates: devolution in Northern Ireland – its impact

Dr M Paula J Kilbane, Chief Executive, Eastern Health and Social Services Board, Belfast

Editorial comment: ‘Issues and Debates’ is the RPP section designed to bring readers informed comment and opinion on a wide range of topics from those who have their finger on the ‘policy pulse’. Following on from our article in 17(2) on the National Assembly of Wales, in this issue we focus on the new Northern Ireland Assembly and its approach to policy development in health and social care services. Although the article was written whilst the Assembly was suspended its content remains relevant. Indeed, as we go to press, we are glad to note that the Assembly was restored as from midnight on Sunday 28th May, 2000.


On 11 February 2000 the Northern Ireland Secretary suspended the Assembly for reasons relating to the progress with the peace processes. The Assembly had been in existence for only nine weeks. Sadly as I write this paper the Northern Ireland Assembly remains suspended. The future appears very uncertain. Who knows where we might be at the point of publication. It is therefore my aim in this article to shed light on the structure and processes of the new Assembly and the powers and responsibilities of the Belfast Agreement. I will comment on certain other aspects of the Agreement, notably the Equality legislation which has a major impact on the future of policy making, and share the experience of working with the Assembly in its early days.

The Belfast Agreement

The Agreement has a number of strands. Northern Ireland has 18 Westminster MPs. The Assembly added 108 representatives or MLAs (Members of the Local Assembly). The Agreement also provided for a Civic Forum to provide balance and scrutiny from non-elected citizens. Its second strand involved the establishment of six North-South bodies designed to enable co-operation on areas of interest. These relate to trade, aquaculture and water ways, food safety, EU programmes and language. Their work will be overseen by a North-South Ministerial Council. Finally there is an East-West body in the form of a British Irish Inter Governmental Conference including the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

Some might argue that this complexity of structure is somewhat busy for a region of the size of Northern Ireland with a population of just 1.6 million people. The latest estimate of devolution expenditure for 1999/2000 is over £33 million of which £19 million relates to the Assembly.

Complexity of structure, however, is a feature of Northern Ireland which also has 26 District Councils, 4 Education and Library Boards, 4 Health and Social Services Boards, 19 Trusts and several Agencies. Moreover, the nature of the peace process was such as to require the involvement, not just of differing political interests and organisations within Northern Ireland, but also of the Governments of both the Republic and the United Kingdom. This has led to the creation of frameworks which are designed to demonstrate inclusiveness and provide opportunities to develop working relationships both on and between the islands.

The Assembly

Focusing on the Assembly itself there are offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, held by Mr David Trimble, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Mr Seamus Mallon, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) respectively. The Assembly’s responsibilities include economic policy, equality, liaison with the various bodies outlined above, European and International matters. Community relations, victims’ and women’s issues also lie within its purview. The Assembly has 10 Ministers (which is an increase from the former six). Two portfolios are important in relation to social care and well-being – the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Social Development. This latter includes responsibility for housing, urban renewal, social security, child support agency and the community sector. The bringing together of functions must be helpful in developing a holistic approach towards targeting social need and addressing inequalities. It should be noted, however, that the respective Ministers appointed through the D’hont system are from Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party. These parties could not be further apart in their political aims. Each Department has an Assembly Committee constituted on a power sharing basis according to the D’hont principle. Their role is to scrutinise legislation and assist Ministers in the development of policy. The Minister has the right to take decisions without the agreement of the Committee if they relate to existing policy.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has primary and secondary legislative powers over many areas similar to Scotland. However, broadcasting, the National Lottery, defence and economic policy remain with Westminster. There are no powers in Northern Ireland to vary tax rates. Whilst responsibility remains in London for foreign affairs, the Assembly can enter into agreements on North-South co-operation. Within Health, certain powers remain with the Department of Health in London for example, genetics, surrogacy, medicine safety and oversight of the medical professions. In the controversial Home Affairs area Westminster and the Northern Ireland Secretary retain control of policing and the legal system. The Assembly is responsible for Social Security and Social Services. Part of the programme for Government agreed before suspension was a proposal to introduce the Health and Personal Social Services (Amendment) bill in May or June. The purpose was to establish the Northern Ireland Social Care Council for regulation of the profession akin to other parts of the UK.

The policy agenda

It will be readily evident from the foregoing that much of the early energy in Northern Ireland, as in Wales and Scotland, has been diverted to establishing structures rather than developing policy. This has important implications, given a period of 28 years of direct rule when politicians were concentrating, not on the policy agenda, but rather on sectarian politics and the survival of their parties. There were no prizes to be won in elections for the development of policy. This led to an era when Westminster policy and legislation was fine tuned to reflect the province. Where that policy was unpalatable, for example, in closure of beloved institutions such as local hospitals, Northern Ireland MPs could dissociate themselves from the national position. In fairness, of course, there was little influence wielded at Westminster unless votes were needed to keep a Government in power. These were most likely to be traded against specific investment in certain areas or industry rather than to influence policy. The delay in implementation caused by enacting secondary legislation, however, meant that Northern Ireland benefited from early learning about the impact of policy and thus avoided, where possible, mistakes.

Under the D’hont system which allows majority parties to form government on a proportional basis in cabinet, the exercise of good governance is likely to be difficult, particularly in a policy vacuum. It has, in effect, given rise to Cabinet Government through a coalition, not built on consensus, but involving different parties with widely differing ideologies and a paucity of defined or articulated policy. If Northern Ireland is to succeed in this democratic development it will have to deliver a programme for Government which the parties can agree. This is all the more important because the region is heavily dependent on the public sector and needs to emulate its Celtic Tiger neighbour in developing and nurturing a vibrant economy. The Barnett Formula from whence funding is derived will tend to decrease per capita spend to converge to the UK average and funds such as those from Europe which maintained much community development are decreasing fast.

Health and Social Services

How has the Assembly worked in its first few months with regard to Health and Social Services? Those who work in the service whether they are at commissioner or provider level welcomed the existence of a local Minister and Committee. Gone were the days of the absentee Minister with at least one, if not two, other portfolios. In the run up to the Assembly formation, which took some fifteen months longer than anticipated, there had been opportunities to meet the representatives from each party and begin to develop relationships. This proved useful in briefing the new members about particular local issues. The volume of questions and speed of required responses increased. The Health and Social Services Committee was the first to invite attendees from the sector for briefings, although not in public. From this it was evident that their interests were wide ranging, covering not just the usual high profile hospital issues but also profound concerns for the needs of children, awareness of community services investment for elderly and concern about relative lack of funding for mental health services.

The Health and Social Services portfolio has the highest budget after Social Security. However, per capita spending has fallen below Scotland and Wales and the burdens of ill health, social exclusion and the legacy of the Troubles are considerable in many communities. The long term effects of these problems are now emerging. None of the solutions is predicated on a response from a single department and a mechanism for joined up Government is badly needed to make the right policy and finance decisions. This needs to be captured through a programme for Government that supports initiatives through education, job attainment, social inclusion, relief of poverty and building integrated communities. There is no history in Northern Ireland of politicisation of health care provision but there have been worrying signs of MLAs making statements which introduce the notion of ghettoisation of certain institutions and of voting on sectarian lines. Hopefully this represents inexperience or a tension between the pressures for local votes.

On the balancing side of these concerns is the legislation put in place by the Agreement to further strengthen the equality agenda. An Equality Commission has been established with a remit to ensure and monitor the implementation of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This will require every public body to screen all existing and future policies for evidence of discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, race, physical disability, dependency, religion and political pressures. It will also embrace the need for extensive consultation. While extremely onerous and expensive to introduce, it will build on the existing policy appraisal and fair treatment mechanisms and maintain awareness and lead to action on these important matters. The Agreement also provides for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission which is consulting on a Bill of Rights. These measures should enable the voices of the excluded and marginalised to be heard regardless of the future of the Assembly itself.


In conclusion, Northern Ireland has taken its first tentative steps into the democratic process. The structures are designed to be inclusive but do not really facilitate working together. The learning curve is much steeper than in other parts of the United Kingdom because previous politics were almost exclusively sectarian. Ministers and Assembly Members have shown an enthusiasm and willingness to run their own affairs and the people have been supportive of the Assembly. There is no reason to think that it cannot work in the long term. Difficult choices will need to be made and for that a holistic approach will need to be taken. Encouraging a programme of Government to give a lead in that way would be the single step most likely to help the frail and socially excluded.