Sandra Bolan, Account Director at leading strategic communications and public affairs firm Lagan Consulting, examines the implications for those seeking to influence the policy agenda in the absence of a devolved government in Northern Ireland.
It is now over a year since the late Martin McGuinness resigned, bringing about the collapse of the devolved institutions at Stormont. Despite subsequent Assembly elections, rounds of talks and deadline after deadline, little progress has been made and the Assembly chamber and Ministers’ offices, continue to sit empty.
But what are the implications of this ongoing impasse in Northern Ireland’s devolved government for organisations in reviewing and executing their public affairs and stakeholder engagement strategies? It is true that under devolution, there were more avenues in which public affairs activity could be directed, from individual MLAs, to Assembly committees, to Ministers and their special advisors and, quite often this was at the core of organisations’ engagement activity. In some respects, this system of government, which was comparatively accessible, transparent, and with the right insight, not difficult to navigate, made the work of those engaged in influencing the policy agenda relatively straight forward.
As the activity of Government at Stormont has ground to a standstill, does that also mean organisations should call a halt to their lobbying work? Does the lack of a functioning Assembly reduce the opportunities available for influencing the policy-making agenda?
Day after day we see headlines in the media about the challenges our public services are under due to the fact we have no ministers in place to make important decisions about how our public services are managed. Alongside the running theme of pressure on the health service, in recent weeks we have heard about the ongoing crisis around the state of our roads, potentially devastating cuts to arts funding and the delays in implementing a scheme of financial support for farmers hit by last summer’s serious flooding. This is not to mention the issue of a lack of Budget, which, according to the Head of the Civil Service, David Sterling, is quickly approaching ‘crunch time’.
But, crucially, not all the work of government is at a standstill. Some significant decisions are continuing to be made at the highest level, particularly in the area of planning. Just recently we have seen approval granted for the North South Interconnector, which has been argued for many years as a key piece of energy infrastructure. Similarly, last year saw the Department for Infrastructure Permanent Secretary give the green light for a controversial waste incinerator in Mallusk. While in many cases senior civil servants are reluctant to take important decisions in the absence of local ministers, it is worth noting that there are some exceptions.
Which is why, in the continuing absence of devolution, and as we look ahead to perhaps a period of direct rule, it will be increasingly important that the other aspects of government, beyond the Assembly and Executive, feature strongly as organisations look to review their public affairs strategies. Knowing your way around the nine government departments and identifying key individuals at the right levels, relevant to your own issues and agenda, will be a vital skill going forward. Civil servants may, in some cases, be less accessible than ministers and MLAs but often their input can be extremely valuable in progressing issues in a timely fashion. Investing in building relationships and getting to know the right people who are important to your organisation is highly valuable and time well spent.
Similarly, it is easy to overlook the importance of the other layers of elected government. Westminster, even under devolution, retains responsibility for policy on a wide range of issues as diverse as taxation, immigration, competition, data protection and internet regulation. Our local MPs have an important role in representing their constituents through their work at Westminster and can influence those matters which are in the reserved and excepted category.
A number of local MPs sit on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) which has a role in overseeing the work of the Northern Ireland Office and makes recommendations to the UK Government on the back of its inquiries and reports. The NIAC is currently conducting a number of inquiries around Brexit and the implications for Northern Ireland, representing a good opportunity for local organisations to have their voices heard. As discussions continue around Brexit, led by the UK Government, it will be crucial that the full implications of our unique situation are well understood by those around the negotiating table.
Closer to home, it is important not to forget the importance of local government in any engagement strategy. Gone are the days when local councils were considered to only have responsibility for emptying the bins and burying the dead! The 11 new local authorities are much bigger and enjoy a wider range of powers including around local economic development, urban regeneration and, critical for those with a role in developing projects, planning.
It is therefore worth making sure that local government officials and elected representatives feature high on your list of stakeholders and that they don’t get overlooked in any public affairs strategy. Building positive working relationships with local government representatives can go a long way in helping organisations communicate their key issues.
MLAs still at work
Finally, MLAs’ constituency offices remain open, so don’t overlook how they can help address any issues you may be facing. Even in the absence of devolution they still represent useful advocates and continue to have a role to play in representing their constituents to government, even if they aren’t a part of it at present. Indeed, should the Assembly return, they will be back to work on Committees and in the chamber; and maintaining these relationships now could provide invaluable further down the line. A number of All Party Groups are still meeting and these provide very useful platforms for raising your issues.
So, as we look back on a year with no functioning Executive it is fair to say, for many, it has been a highly frustrating time, as decisions on some key issues remain untaken. But, in terms of policy engagement, it provides an impetus for organisations to think a bit deeper about their strategies and to look at what alternative avenues are open to them. As public affairs professionals, we look forward to the restoration of devolution here, even if the prospects at present don’t appear positive, but, even without a functioning Assembly and Executive, all is not lost, and with the right strategy, progress on key issues can be made.
Sandra Bolan, Account Director
T: 028 9261 9550