Is Northern Ireland a Failed State?
The question must be asked
Northern Ireland has the ability to govern its own affairs in a range of areas: education, health, policing, and more. The UK government in London retains power over foreign policy, taxes, and much of the ‘big boy’ stuff.1
But Northern Ireland has only exercised this ability for a total of thirteen of the past fifty years. The rest of the time, the UK government has been in charge, an arrangement known as ‘direct rule’. The devolved government most recently collapsed2 in February 2022, and, despite an election later that year, its political parties have been unable to form a new one since.3 In software terms, Northern Ireland’s political institutions have very low uptime; they rarely work.
Meanwhile, public services and infrastructure are crumbling – from healthcare and policing to roads and the electrical grid. Journalist Sam McBride writes: ‘A sort of half-hearted anarchy pervades. There are still laws, police and regulatory bodies. The streets aren’t filled with looters. But so much of what an advanced democratic society takes for granted is crumbling.’
What’s going on?
Litany of failure
Taking a survey:
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary over two decades ago, with the intention that both communities in Northern Ireland could support a more neutrally-branded service. Fifty-fifty recruitment of new police officers meant that Catholic officers rose from 8% of the total in 2001 to around 30% when the policy ended in 2011, a share that has remained stable until today. This was a great policy success at the time – an outcome that has proven increasingly rare in Northern Ireland since.
In summer 2023, however, the PSNI responded to a Freedom of Information request by posting the names and work locations of all PSNI officers and civilian staff online. This is an appalling breach of security; among other things, police officers are under threat of violence from dissident republicans. One officer was shot in a targeted attack as recently as March this year. Imagine if the CIA posted the names of all of their employees online – it would be a breathtaking display of incompetence.
In the aftermath of the breach, officers spoke to the media of the personal risk this put them under. Many feel driven to leave the force. The whole affair could cost the government up to £240m (roughly £130 per person in Northern Ireland!).
The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal in 2016-17 was perhaps the peak of government incompetence in Northern Ireland. A UK government scheme to subsidise wood-fired boilers was brought to NI, but was tweaked by officials: the result was a generous subsidy for every wood pellet you burned – generous enough to more than cover the cost of the fuel itself. The inevitable result was people buying boilers and running them for no reason except to capture subsidies and make a profit. A scheme which was supposed to save the environment ended up harming it, and wasting up to £500m of public money. The scandal became universally known as ‘Cash for Ash’.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were in charge of the department which rolled out the scheme, and family relatives and churches of DUP politicians were direct beneficiaries of it.
When problems with the scheme were exposed, some government officials even alerted private companies to upcoming changes to the scheme. Those firms promptly jumped into the scheme before the door was shut. Inside information was shared at the expense of public finances.
When the consequences of Cash for Ash were uncovered, the government collapsed and didn’t return for three years.
Northern Ireland has had other problems with its energy sector. A coal-fired power plant in Kilroot was closed in October 2023, the last such plant in the UK. Its closure had been forecast for some years and a gas-fired plant had been planned to replace it. But it’s not ready on time, and won’t be in place until March 2024. This led to warnings about blackouts from the grid operator (though its leadership later seemed to walk back these comments).
This year has also seen two separate stories break on NI’s environment. First, it has emerged that a large toxic waste site at Mobuoy that the government first found out about a decade ago has still not been cleaned up. The waste is alarmingly close to a reservoir that supplies Derry’s drinking water.
In addition, Lough Neagh, the UK and Ireland’s largest freshwater lake,4 is suffering from an algal bloom that threatens wildlife in the area. It’s an ecological disaster. The algae has resulted in declines in wildlife populations, from swans to young fish, and will take decades to fix. One of the drivers appears to be the flow of phosphorus from farms into rivers. Northern Ireland’s government has encouraged farms to become more intensive in the past decade with a strategy called ‘Going for Growth’.
40% of NI’s drinking water is drawn from the Lough, but Northern Ireland Water insists there is no threat to the public. The threat of unsafe drinking water is somewhat of a theme.
Anecdotally, a friend of mine recently received a letter from the hospital that she was due for an appointment with a consultant. Confused, she contacted the hospital. They explained that she had requested the appointment – 5 years ago. Those with financial resources, like my friend, often pay privately for treatment instead. Others have no option to do so.
The whole system is so broken that people on welfare are losing access to free eye and dental care due to an obscure technicality.5 It’s a legislative accident that no politician or civil servant wanted to happen, but no one from either group has taken a grip of the situation and fixed it.
The UK government has been unwilling to step in and impose direct rule officially, as this would be seen as an admission that power sharing across the sectarian divide – a key goal of the Good Friday Agreement – has failed. This has left civil servants effectively in charge of running the country (rather than the UK government’s Northern Ireland Office). However, limited budget-setting powers mean that those officials are unable to offer pay increases to public sector employees. There are budget shortfalls across the departments.
Things didn’t used to be this way. A few decades ago, it was agreed that you’d know when you’d passed from Northern Ireland into the Republic because the roads would get noticeably worse; now the opposite is true. There is a sense of real decline in Northern Ireland – the state might not have outright failed, but it’s become increasingly inept.
Those are the symptoms. They are easy to lament, and they dominate headlines in NI. However, the underlying causes of Northern Ireland’s government failure are awkward to discuss, because they involve a critical analysis of the basis of peace.
After the Government of Ireland Act (1920) created Northern Ireland, the Executive Committee for Northern Ireland ran the territory until 1972. As the Troubles intensified, the British government took charge instead, in an arrangement known as direct rule.6
Negotiations took place at various points during the Troubles in an effort to stem the violence and re-establish a devolved government. The Sunningdale Agreement attempted to establish a power-sharing executive in 1973, but it collapsed within a few months. The Anglo-Irish Agreement gave the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in governing NI’s affairs in 1985. And the Downing Street Declaration laid out many of the important concessions for peace.
But none of these proved ultimately successful until the 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement), which established the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. The defining feature of the Executive is consociationalism: the government is legally required to be a merger of nationalist and unionist parties. This system is significantly more inclusive of the Catholic/nationalist community than the pre-1972 one (which was a major cause of the Troubles). However, the power-sharing aspect creates an ability and incentive to collapse the government out of outrage or brinksmanship. These structures were necessary for political settlement, but they don’t provide stable governance.
Businesses and people left Northern Ireland during the Troubles rather than put up with regular political violence and general disruption. However, political violence is largely a thing of the past. It’s easy to use past trauma as an excuse for poor performance, but look at Poland: under communist rule for decades, but it’s putting up great growth figures.
Success for any place is partly a question of talent. There are two opposing forces when it comes to talent in Northern Ireland. One is brain drain, which sucks bright, talented people elsewhere, especially to the UK mainland, where private sector opportunities are better paid (and public sector opportunities are more prestigious). This is most acutely true of the most capable people, who face a much lower ceiling in Northern Ireland than in Britain – or, increasingly, in the Republic of Ireland. They leave to pursue their careers elsewhere.
On the other hand, the unique local culture and identity make people more likely to stay in Northern Ireland than in other peripheral places in the UK (it’s surely easier to swap a peripheral English region, like Yorkshire, for a more central location, like Cambridgeshire, given both are still English). NI’s lower house prices, and the UK’s best income-to-house-price ratio, must also be a factor.
I don’t know which of these two forces is stronger – but it’s notable that people in Northern Ireland don’t even talk about it.
If we want things to be run well, excellent people need to work for the Northern Irish government. The civil service competes with the private sector to recruit from the same pool of people, but without the prestige of the UK civil service. In fact, between the civil service and other parts of government, 27% of employment in NI comes from the government, compared to 18% across the UK as a whole.
More broadly, however, Northern Ireland suffers from significant cultural issues.
Since the Troubles began, the single defining question of politics in NI has been that of the Union with Britain. Unionists sought to preserve that link at all costs, while nationalists sought to sever it and join a united Ireland. This has created a false economy: simply get the desired outcome on the constitutional question, politicians say, and the rest will follow. Unionists think that there is a never-ending gravy train from Westminster to Stormont (the east Belfast estate where the government is based). Nationalists think that a united Ireland will flow with milk and honey (thus far there has been scant detail on what that would look like).7
Neither side actually grapples with the fundamental issues in Northern Irish society. None of the political parties has a concrete vision for how to make Northern Ireland better and solve the problems I outlined above.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t be a surprise that politicians who are primarily chosen for their sectarian credentials are unable to run a government. Even when elected, their re-election is based not on whether they can deliver results to their constituents, but whether they can motivate their own side to get out and vote; there is no real incentive to deliver growth. The result is complacency. When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the hope was that the future of NI was moderates willing to compromise, like David Trimble and John Hume. Instead, the centre hollowed out, and hardliners, like Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, went into government together.
A lack of pressure from the top contributes to poor standards in the civil service, which suffers from much of the same problems as in Whitehall: an excessive number of generalists, and a culture that eschews responsibility and learning from errors.
There is very limited accountability in government and few firings. When the PSNI data leak happened, it took days for the Chief Constable to resign – and to date, he’s the only person who has done so. Months on, the general public has no answers on what went wrong.
Similarly, only one civil servant was disciplined following the publication of the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, despite a range of people being implicated. Arlene Foster, the government minister most responsible for the policy, clung on as leader for years afterwards, and her party remains the dominant one on the Protestant/unionist side. No one suffered serious costs for this enormous mistake.
How do you solve a problem like Northern Ireland?
In Northern Ireland today, there are many calls for the Stormont government to be re-established. At the margin, that would help. New budgets could be set, and some of the country’s problems could be plastered over. It’s comforting to think that politicians are the problem, that they just need to get their act together and govern properly. It’s also easy to say that this is all the fault of Brexit. Though its consequences are effectively the main roadblock to reestablishing the Stormont Executive at the time of writing, structural issues and poor governance were present long before 2016.
The record of recent decades suggests that putting the same people back in charge of more money won’t address any of the fundamental problems. Northern Ireland is already heavily subsidised by Westminster: its 2021 tax revenue was £16.6bn, but expenditures were £34.6bn. That’s a subsidy of £18bn from the rest of the UK – over £9,000 for every man, woman and child! Even with this tremendous subsidy, the politicians and civil servants are unable to run the country properly. It’s almost like a resource curse: money from Westminster allows Northern Irish politicians (and voters) to ignore their responsibility for their society’s trajectory.
There is another way of looking at this. Northern Ireland was established with two goals when the rest of Ireland was becoming independent: to subdue ethnic violence, and to ensure a “Protestant government for a Protestant people”. The statelet was never intended to be a haven of good governance, or to be particularly manageable – those concerns weren’t on the radar. And in its two central goals, Northern Ireland was arguably relatively effective for the first fifty years of its existence. The Troubles led to the tragic deaths of thousands of people – but arguably, the death toll was relatively light compared to other, similar, conflicts. And today, the state is successfully containing political violence.
And yet the state of affairs in Northern Ireland today is rather grim. The obvious next question is whether there is any prospect of this changing. The political structures currently in place in Northern Ireland are not delivering for its citizens, but it’s possible that healthy private sector growth can cover many sins: tourism is growing, as are the fintech and pharmaceutical industries. The government estimates that the fact that Game of Thrones was filmed there contributes to one in six out-of-state visitors to Northern Ireland.
House prices remain lower than much of the rest of the UK, and Belfast office space costs a third what it does in Dublin. Northern Ireland enjoys a series of advantages that should see it boom economically: an English-speaking population, with cheaper than average housing in its biggest city, and good transport links to tech/finance hubs (Dublin and London).
The ingredients are present for Northern Ireland to catch up – but the political incentives are not.
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Like any other part of the UK, Northern Ireland elects its own Members of Parliament, but as they only make up 18 of 650 members, it’s reasonable to say that they have limited impact there.
Stormont has a parliamentary system, so while the election happened peacefully, the parties were unable to nominate people to executive positions (like Finance Minister).
The DUP, the largest unionist party, are the holdouts this time. Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, refused to enter government from 2017-2020.
By surface area; Loch Ness has a greater volume of water.
The law in NI that provides free medical expenses to those on benefits only applies if the benefit is named in the decades-old legislation. The new comprehensive benefits system, Universal Credit, is not named in this legislation, therefore those on it cannot get their medical expenses covered. A simple amendment to the law would fix this.
This is also why Northern Ireland has no official flag. The Ulster banner was the official flag for the pre-1972 government of Northern Ireland, an entity which no longer exists.