Northern Ireland: while we await a breakthrough, 7 ways charities can make their voices heard

By Principle

While Northern Ireland awaits a breakthrough on Rishi Sunak's 'Windsor Framework' from the DUP, Principle Consulting have explored the background of the current impasse, where power currently lies in Northern Ireland and what campaigning charities can do to effect change on key issues.

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Northern Ireland politics has been stuck in statis since last May’s Assembly elections, due to opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to either electing an Assembly Speaker or returning to power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Executive, posing a major challenge for those seeking to bring about social and political change in the country. As it stands, it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new deal with Brussels on the Protocol – the ‘Windsor Framework’ – will pass strict tests set by the DUP in order for party to return to power and support a resumption of the Assembly.

What’s going on?

In the last elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2022, Sinn Féin overtook the DUP as the largest party in the Assembly for the first time in history, meaning Sinn Féin had the right to nominate the First Minister. As the largest unionist party, the DUP was required to provide the Deputy First Minister in order for power-sharing to continue, but has refused to do so in protest over the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the deal Boris Johnson struck with the EU at the end of 2019 setting out Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements. The UK Northern Ireland Act 2022 had allowed the ministers of the previous Executive to keep governing in ‘caretaker roles’ up to October 28th 2022 while the parties negotiated a new Executive, but when this period ran out without any agreement, Northern Ireland simply ceased to have any ministers running its government departments.

The Northern Ireland Act would have then required the Northern Ireland Secretary in Westminster, Chris Heaton-Harris, to call snap Assembly elections. However, as the UK Government was still attempting to secure a compromise with the EU and DUP on the Protocol and the DUP suggested that no new election outcome would change its position, the Government instead amended the law to delay the need for elections and buy more time. When a further deadline passed in January, Heaton-Harris introduced another amendment kicking an election all the way into 2024.

Meanwhile, on February 14th the DUP blocked a sixth attempt by other parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to elect a Speaker. While the country has gone without a functioning Executive for long periods before (most recently from 2017 to 2020), the Assembly not even being able to sit or set up committees due to the lack of a Speaker represents an additional problem. Though there are 90 duly-elected MLAs, the Assembly has been in a forced recess for nearly nine months, posing a challenge for organisations wishing to influence policymaking.

Without ministers, who has been taking decisions in Northern Ireland?

In some cases, the UK has taken decisions where Stormont has been unable to. In January the Government announced Northern Ireland households would receive £600 of support with energy bills, for example. MPs also just agreed to tack a popular ‘Dáithí’s Law’ amendment to the Bill they needed to pass to delay the Northern Ireland elections. Backed by the British Heart Foundation NI and a variety of political parties, the ‘Dáithí’s Law’ campaign was named for a six-year old Belfast boy awaiting a heart transplant, Dáithí Mac Gabhann, and will now enable Northern Ireland to follow the other nations of the UK in implementing opt-out organ donation.

Further, some communications and even policy choices have been made by departmental civil servants in Northern Ireland, who were given slightly increased powers by the emergency law Westminster passed in late 2022. In a report on the current powers of civil servants, NI-based think-tank Pivotal PPF noted the NI Department of Education has moved forward with proposals for expansion and closure of particular schools, for example, while senior civil servants from the Department of Health have authorised campaigns and even given interviews about pressures on Emergency Departments, GPs and social care. Pivotal PPF’s researchers concluded “at least some of [these decisions] would have been taken by ministers had they been in post”. However, it also seems that many decisions are not being taken at all. The Belfast Telegraph recently published a list of 39 key matters requiring political direction that are being put off, such as the stabilisation of cancer services and agreement on a refugee integration strategy.

If nothing changes, what can charities do to influence policy in Northern Ireland?

  1. You can keep building relationships with civil servants, especially given their current additional responsibilities.
  2. If the issue can credibly be couched as particularly urgent or high-profile and is likely beyond the powers of civil servants, you can consider lobbying the NI Secretary or Westminster MPs for intervention. However, your pitch must be sharp given the demands on the NI Office and Westminster’s likely reluctance to overstep (even ‘Dáithí’s Law’ was initially played down by an NIO spokesperson as “highly unlikely” to pass).
  3. The Assembly may not be sitting, but you can start to map and build relationships with friendly or relevant MLAs in anticipation of when they may be able to undertake more actions. 70 of the 90 current MLAs sat in the 2017-2022 Assembly term and so will have a track record of their interests and priorities, while the newer members will be looking to build their profiles.
  4. Keep track of All-Party Groups. APGs have been formed and are holding a mix of online and in-person meetings in Stormont itself, and so can be engaged with or give you a further guide as to what individual MLAs are interested in. Without a Speaker, Committees don’t exist yet in the new Assembly, but you can make initial assumptions as to who some of their eventual members might be based on Committee memberships in the previous term and overlaps with APGs (e.g. MLAs involved with health-related APGs often served on the Health Committee too).
  5. While their capacity as legislators is currently stunted, many MLAs are nevertheless very focused on the public-facing constituency and campaigning aspects of their roles, so asks built around social media campaigns or constituency events can still be effective.
  6. It is still possible to schedule drop-in events in Stormont, but keep expectations in proportion about turnout as charities have reported mixed results. Some MLAs may be on-site or be willing to travel in if they’re from constituencies in and around Belfast, but the situation has been comparable to when other Parliaments are in recess and those from seats that are further afield may be harder to pin down.
  7. Finally, written questions can be put to the Assembly’s corporate body, the Assembly Commission, on matters where Stormont can lead by example as an institution (recent examples include whether the Assembly has a modern slavery charter, is a migraine-friendly workplace, and about energy costs).

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