In the weeks running up to the Good Friday Agreement referendum on May 22 1998, I spent a lot of time talking to people – particularly within and across unionism.
I was always leaning towards supporting it, but not so much so that I wasn’t open to considered persuasion from the No campaign. Over and over again I asked people from the DUP, UKUP (Robert McCartney’s party) and the UUP’s anti-agreement wing if they had a ‘viable and available alternative’ to what was on offer. I’m not denying that I heard very powerful arguments against the agreement (some of which were hard to refute); but no one was able to point to an alternative that would be acceptable to either nationalism in Northern Ireland or the UK government.
But what struck me most was a long conversation with an old university friend who was living and working in London. He was longing to ‘come back home’ with his wife and children – he was brought up near Portrush – and saw the agreement as an opportunity for Northern Ireland to become a better place, “a place where people like my dad are never again going to be targeted and murdered by terrorists”.
He was planning to vote yes, albeit with reservations. He ended the conversation with this comment: “Alex, success is going to be measured by four yardsticks. Has terrorism truly ended. Has trust truly developed. Is the Executive and Assembly truly cooperative. Is it truly competent, efficient government.”
A year later he was appointed to a very senior position in the company he works for and decided not to come home permanently; although he does return for a few weeks every summer. We had another long chat recently – on the 21st anniversary of the referendum – during which I texted him a picture of the notes I had made of his original ‘truly’ yardsticks for success (I’ve kept a political diary for over 30 years) and asked him how he would answer those questions. He laughed for about 30 seconds and then went silent for 30: “Mostly, but there are now serious doubts. I don’t see much hard evidence of the trust where you most need to see it. No and I’m not sure there ever was or will be proper cooperation. Judging by recent stories (and our conversation predated the ‘holiday pay’ story) efficiency and competence are not the most obvious hallmarks of devolution.”
That’s a fairly damning assessment from someone who voted yes, who wishes Northern Ireland well and who has brothers and sisters still living here. But it’s not an assessment with which I would differ.
For years I was regularly criticised by people in the political parties when I wrote about the distrust at the heart of the Executive. Over and over again I was told that my pessimism didn’t reflect what was going on behind the scenes. When I was on panel events with politicians they often told audiences that my criticisms were more to do with bad news being viewed as ‘more newsworthy’ than what was really happening.
Yet here we are after 30 months without government. Thirty months since Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter blew the lid off the pretence that the DUP and Sinn Fein had a really good relationship. Thirty months of serial failure to reach an agreement to reboot the Executive. Month after month after month of horrendously bad news about waiting lists for hospital appointments; failing schools; mothballed projects; Olympic-standard can-kicking; and Oscar-winning performances from politicians telling us how much they are committed to the ‘sort of good government that all of the people want’.
The RHI report is waiting in the wings, due to be published in September/October. It will make for fascinating reading, not least because of what it will have to say about how ministers, special advisors and key civil servants ran a department. In the last few days we’ve had the revelations about the ‘holiday pay’ court ruling re the PSNI and consequent concerns that thousands of claims from civil servants and others could cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds from a budget which is already under huge pressure.
Stephen Farry, the minister responsible for not introducing a two-year cap on backdated claims, is defending his decision and claiming that not discussing the issue with his Executive colleagues was acceptable because the terms of the Ministerial Code didn’t require it. Personally, I would have thought that old-fashioned prudence and a desire to be remembered as competent would have led him (maybe on the back of advice from his own advisor and his civil servants) to warn the Executive about the possible financial exposure of his decision at some later point. But no.
Tomorrow is the 21st anniversary of the election of the first Good Friday Agreement Assembly. Everybody knew that it was going to be a steep learning curve. A whole generation of civil servants had grown up with direct rule, with the senior cadre used to running their own show (with a nod of deference to the here-today-gone-tomorrow ministers in the NIO). The vast majority of MLAs had no experience of governance above local council level. So we all knew that it would take a while for everyone to learn the ropes.
Two decades later – and that includes a period of continuous governance between 2007 and the end of 2016 – it doesn’t look as if much has actually been learned by anyone, politician or civil servant. Which is why it would be absurd to imagine that even if the parties cut a deal in the next few weeks (which still strikes me as unlikely) and restored devolution it would usher in a bright new era of competence and efficiency. It wouldn’t. We have had crap government for far too long. Bizarrely, the sheer scale and nature of the crap we have endured doesn’t appear to have made in on to the talks agenda. Tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it?