Business

We really don’t have space for the same old approach

LEADERS IN BELFAST: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Rishi Sunak, Akshata Murty and Leo Varadkar at Queen's University. Can you imagine offering that gathering to any other region in the EU? It just wouldn’t happen. And in reality we won’t have that kind of access here in the near future either. Picture: Mal McCann
LEADERS IN BELFAST: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Rishi Sunak, Akshata Murty and Leo Varadkar at Queen's University. Can you imagine offering that gathering to any other region in the EU? It just wouldn’t happen. And in reality we won’t h LEADERS IN BELFAST: Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Rishi Sunak, Akshata Murty and Leo Varadkar at Queen's University. Can you imagine offering that gathering to any other region in the EU? It just wouldn’t happen. And in reality we won’t have that kind of access here in the near future either. Picture: Mal McCann

THE road back to a Stormont Assembly and Executive is now very clearly set out, and it is widely expected that we will see a devolved Government in place before too long.

Stormont departments are already in ‘new minister briefing’ mode and permanent secretaries are doing the D’Hont maths and trying to work out which party or minister they will soon be answering to and working with.

As things stand we all await the DUP to accept that they are on the wrong side of politics, of democracy and at the moment, of the best aspirations of our young people. But even that is changing as that party seeks a fig leaf and tries to ultimately turn stubbornness into pragmatism. They will get there, slowly but surely, and that means we will all get there.

So is this the moment when those of us who have called for a Stormont return get to celebrate, or will we be regretting what we have wished for? I am very sure that if devolved government returns only in the same state that we had over the last 10 years, well then it will not be worth it. Our funding structure, our governance structure - political and civil service - frankly is not fit for purpose and there really is little point in rolling out the systems and the structures of the past.

There have been ongoing discussions between senior civil servants and the political parties; all predicated on a return being imminent, so let’s hope that our elected leaders are truly entering a new phase of mature, devolved government. The New Decade New Approach deal which facilitated a return to devolution in January 2020 turned out too quickly to be based on an old agenda and an old approach.

It was very interesting to see the contributions from immediate past heads of the Civil Service when addressing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee earlier this month. They were remarkably frank about the problems of the past and the need to avoid those same problems in the future.

David Sterling made a very valid point that, instead of rushing back to government departments too quickly, the parties should agree and sign off a Programme for Government and then run the D’Hont system. That may be one way of ensuing a more collegiate approach to delivering Government for the people here. Maybe.

One thing that we can be sue of is that our world class ability to miss an opportunity is still in place. Due to the ongoing nature of our stalled politics and the inability of the DUP to see a bigger picture, the potential of the Good Friday Agreement 25th anniversary events appears to have come and gone without being cashed in.

As Queen's University and the Ulster University pulled in the most senior figures in UK, European Union and indeed global politics to celebrate the anniversary, we frankly missed a penalty kick. President Biden came and went with barely a whimper here, while his engagements down south turned into rock star rallies.

One week later we had the honour, and it was an honour, to have An Taoiseach, the UK Prime Minister, the EU President, and former US President Bill Clinton and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, all in Belfast, all full of goodwill, all keen to show Northern Ireland off as a political success story.

Can you imagine offering that gathering to any other region in the EU? It just wouldn’t happen.And in reality we won’t have that kind of access here in the near future either. Congratulations are due to Queen's University in particular for hosting what was a real milestone event.

There were a few occasions during that week when all the principal players were in the one room at the one time, either on panel discussions or at one of the dinners. Imagine the impact of all of our political leaders saying to that gathering: we need your help, your investment, access to your universities for our students, your influence to make sure we build a new, shared and sustainable prosperity?

Unfortunately that did not happen. All of our guys were never in the one room with the EU, RoI, UK and USA leaders. They could have been, as such a joint request would not have been turned down. If such a meeting had taken place, and they had sought direct positive interventions, we can only imagine the outcome. Instead, we had one major party essentially avoiding the entire event and the other party leaders tip toeing around that fact, and that became one of the stories of the week. What a shame.

However we have to accept we are where we are. The discussions around a financial package to smooth the way to restoration are clearly well advanced. There are new faces at the top of the civil service and a widespread acknowledgement that transformation is required across the political structures and the public sector in order to deliver proper public services. We really don’t have space for the same old approach. It’s time to not miss an opportunity.

Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast