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14 March 2018

A whistle-stop tour of Northern Ireland public policy

A whistle-stop tour of Northern Ireland public policy

We take a whistle-stop tour of some of the policy stories affecting Northern Ireland this month. Together these brief reports help to paint a broad picture of the current challenges the people of Northern Ireland face caught between parties and governments who often cannot find agreement. It looks like devolution is increasingly being devalued. We encourage our members to pray for our political leaders and church leaders who are seeking to serve the least and the lost in these challenging days 

Brexit – In short and as yet, no-one can say for sure what the border will look like after the UK has left the EU and what crossing it might entail. The 310 mile Northern Irish – Irish border which runs largely across fields, farms, and quiet country roads remains at the centre of European politics. In the past month prime minister Teresa May has ruled out the return of physical infrastructure on the border. However the European Union, and indeed the Republic of Ireland, have stated that at this stage, that option cannot be discounted. The alternative would seem to be that Northern Ireland somehow remains, de-facto or as an exception, part of the single market and customs union. However this is unacceptable to many who voted to leave the EU and many who voted to remain in the EU who ironically both agree that one part of the country cannot effectively remain. With the UK leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 there is just over a year for this issue to be resolved

Legal challenge to the Good Friday Agreement – As we approach 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement an interesting court decision has paved the way for a potential change to one of its most important provisions. The Good Friday Agreement provides that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of people here wish it to remain so. Raymond McCord, a victim’s rights campaigner and unionist, has been granted leave to seek a judicial review over the provision in the Agreement which allows the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, alone to determine when to call a border referendum. He argues that he wants to remove any potential for political abuse. He has already been granted permission to take similar leave in the Republic of Ireland 

Budget – A budget for Northern Ireland has been passed in Westminster that will include £410 million of the £1 billion additional monies which formed part of the deal between the DUP and the Conservatives. The additional money is to be used for capital spending on infrastructure and to initiate some of the long term reforms for health care recommended and agreed in the Bengoa report. The passing of the budget highlights the absence of a devolved Northern Ireland Executive who would ordinarily make such decisions. The secretary of state said that the budget was determined with extensive involvement of the Northern Ireland civil service. It remains unclear how much consultation was involved with the DUP or other Northern Ireland parties. 

MLA pay – At the time of writing the secretary of state has stated that she is minded to reduce MLA pay by 27.5 per cent in line with a recommendation by former NI Assembly Chief Executive Trevor Rainey. Personally, talking with MLAs from across the parties many are deeply uncomfortable with receiving their full pay while not being able to do their full job. It seems likely that this will be implemented in the coming weeks via legislation at Westminster 

Political donations – Further legislation from Westminster resulted in political donations above £5,000 being made public for the first time for political parties in Northern Ireland. The argument for many years against this was for security reasons or for business reasons many donors would be uncomfortable in having their name linked publicly to any particular political party. For more than 10 years the parties have had to report donations and loans to the Electoral Commission who were prohibited from publishing the details. Now all donations and loans over £7,500 and since 1 July 2017 have been published despite attempts from political parties here and at Westminster to backdate this to 2014. 

Renewable Heat Incentive scheme – The inquiry into the renewable heating incentive scheme continues with fresh evidence being heard most days. The current head of the civil service and former head of the department who administered the scheme has been giving evidence this week. He has said that they are many things that he cannot satisfactorily explain including why the risks were not managed and reviewed more frequently. The evidence so far has revealed that the failings in the scheme and its administration were widespread. The inquiry is due to hear evidence for a number of months yet and will likely not make its findings until later this year at the earliest. 

Abortion and marriage – Conor McGinn MP is bringing a private member’s bill to the House of Commons at the end of the month on same-sex marriage. Mr McGinn is originally from County Armagh. The government have said that if the bill makes it to a vote members would be given a free vote on the issue. Stella Creasy and more than 100 more MPs have signed a letter flagging their intention to pursue legislation at Westminster to permit abortion in Northern Ireland in much wider circumstances than the law currently allows. The law in Northern Ireland is very carefully balanced and has resulted in more than 100,000 people alive there today who would otherwise have been aborted had it been legal to do so if legislation similar to the rest of GB had been enacted in 1967.