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Now the war is over, by Paul Gosling

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02 September 2005

The IRA's decision to end armed conflict finally gives Northern Ireland's citizens the chance of a normal life. But this means setting up democratic systems to replace political structures built around a sectarian society. Paul Gosling reports

The Provisional IRA's July statement ordering 'an end to the armed campaign' produces a new era for Northern Ireland. But even assuming this closes the armed conflict – and some other paramilitary groups are not on ceasefire, let alone standing down – the lack of war does not immediately produce a normal society.

'How long will it take the conflict to work its way out of the system? We haven't even got to the point of having the discussion,' says Neil Jarman, director of the University of Ulster's Institute for Conflict Research.

Jarman is alluding to the continuing symptoms of trauma. Levels of tranquilliser use are about twice those in Britain. The incidence of domestic violence and hate crime is probably the highest in the UK. Jarman believes this demonstrates a widespread feeling after 35 years of the Troubles that violence is the response to any problem. And Northern Ireland has a political system that enshrines sectarian division, with schooling and housing operating what Jarman calls 'benign apartheid'.

Abuse of powers – particularly relating to housing allocation – prompted local government reorganisation in the 1970s and left 26 district councils with not very much to do. Today quangos are responsible for 56% of devolved spending and district councils for just 2.8% – the parks, cemeteries, refuse collection and not much else. That is about to change – a bit.

'What we [in Northern Ireland] lack in size, we make up for in terms of administration,' says Greg McConnell, the chief operating officer of the Review of Public Administration – which has the job of recommending a rationalisation of the province's bureaucratic burden.

Every way you count it, McConnell is correct. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.7 million people, about the size of Kent and Medway local authority areas. But instead of having two local authorities, Northern Ireland has 26. And while Kent and Medway have four health trusts, Northern Ireland has 19. The province also has 26 district policing partnerships, five education and library boards, about another 40 quangos and is party to six cross-border institutions. Just as significantly, Northern Ireland has 11 government departments (see box).

There is now enthusiasm for reform, with direct rule ministers and business leaders wanting public sector expenditure to fall from about 60% of gross domestic product to the UK's overall 42%. But McConnell says while this was 'an underlying rationale' for the review, it has never been explicitly part of its job. Instead the ten-point terms of reference include improving democratic accountability, equality and, near the end of the list, efficiency and effectiveness. Government departments are not part of the RPA's remit – but it is likely to pass some comments on the matter anyway to the minister with responsibility for the review, Lord Rooker.

It is generally accepted that the 11 departments are there to provide the right number of ministers when the Assembly's Executive is sitting. And that political fix has a cost, both financially and in accountability. Ministers' powers differ from those in the UK and other devolved administrations, because they have complete authority over their departments and are not subject to collective responsibility.

These points irritate the Democratic Unionists. It wants fewer departments and collective ministerial responsibility. 'That is what we would like to see,' says DUP policy adviser Philip Weir. 'Unfortunately, as the RPA is constructed these issues are unaffected.'

Northern Ireland's second largest party, Sinn Fein, agrees that there should be fewer departments, but wants a new one to take responsibility for policing and justice.

Sorting out district councils is more straightforward. 'We want councils to have responsibility for everything you can see,' says McConnell. 'They should draw up the plan for an area, give planning permission, have regeneration powers, look after the roads, have the power to change the area, hopefully for the public good, and provide that direct accountability. That, to me, is self-evidently a good thing.'

But it is not quite that simple. Health, social services, education, housing and the fire service would still be outside councils' control, run by quangos. The overall balance of powers and expenditure would not alter very much. McConnell says there is no alternative to keeping most of the quangos – 'what else would you do with them?', he asks. The unspoken assumption is that despite recent progress, you still could not trust local authorities with the public services that matter most, and that might again be controlled according to a sectarian agenda.

This implied view is articulated by the SDLP. Review spokeswoman Patricia Lewsley says that her party would oppose additional powers going to district councils unless there were adequate checks and balances to prevent sectarian abuse of power. 'You have to remember why powers were taken away in the first place,' she says, referring to the 1960s and early 1970s when there was blatant sectarian misuse of housing powers in particular.

Sinn Fein takes a different approach, saying that the retention of powerful quangos provides jobs for the boys who used to be top civil servants, supplied by those who are today's top civil servants. 'Civil servants run the review and former civil servants run the quangos,' says a Sinn Fein spokesman. 'Civil servants have more power and influence than they do in Britain.' Assuming Sinn Fein does return to government, a review of the functions and operations of the civil service will be one of their priority demands.

A matter of contention within the review's remit is how many councils emerge at the end of the process. Interim recommendations from the RPA offer the alternatives of seven, 11 or 15 councils. There is widespread opposition by councillors to the seven council model, while Lord Rooker says that 15 is too many. The outcome will probably be 11, or a number very close to it.

The review will also recommend restructuring of the health service, reducing the dual layers of regional boards and local trusts. Meanwhile, health minister Shaun Woodward is overseeing a second type of shake-up, demanding radical improvements in quality and speed of service.

In this Woodward has been aided by another review – by John Appleby of the King's Fund. He was asked by ministers to consider the quality of service provided by Northern Ireland's health service. Appleby's review, published this week, is highly critical of the quality of health care in the province, arguing that it is far behind that of England in terms of waiting lists and other performance measures, is less efficient and has much higher overheads. He recommends greater use of performance targets and performance management, using incentives, and a big increase in health care spending. He is also sympathetic to greater cross-border approaches to health care.

The Republic of Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, says that there is no question that the future of Northern Ireland lies with greater integration with the republic, both in administrative and economic terms. 'All the parties in Northern Ireland now recognise that it is impossible to envisage any political accommodation in Northern Ireland that does not have a strong North/South component,' he stresses. The cross-border agencies now employ 700 staff, with 70% funding from the republic. 'For our part, we have always recognised the sensitivities and complexities that surround North/South co-operation,' says the Taoiseach.

Ahern also urges economic normalisation, supporting the initiative of his foreign minister Brian Cowen for closer integration with the republic as a solution to the economic problems of the North. Economic inactivity in Northern Ireland is the highest in the UK – at 27.4%, compared with 21.3% across the UK. Unemployment remains twice as high for Catholics as Protestants. But closer economic links are held back by different currencies and a much higher standard rate of corporation tax in the North – 30% in the UK against 12.5% in the Irish republic. Consequently, business leaders have begun campaigning for a cut in this tax in Northern Ireland.

But even if there are signs of progress on normalisation regarding the military, the politics and the economy, this does not mean we are near the end of the road. Jarman has no doubt that Northern Ireland is in for a long haul. Resolving conflict elsewhere has involved first demilitarisation, then demobilisation and ultimately integration. 'We have not really got to the second stage,' he says. While in South Africa, fighters from the African National Congress went on to become leaders of the country's army and police, the thought of republican and loyalist protagonists doing likewise is barely conceivable in Northern Ireland.

'We have not even got to a discussion of demobilisation strategies, let alone reintegration,' says Jarman. 'There is no discussion about retraining schemes [for former paramilitaries], it is assumed that people will do it for themselves. It's got to the stage when these questions really have to be addressed.'

Current departments and their likely fate

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD)— likely to be retained, with additional responsibilities for fishing

Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL)— Democratic Unionists want it closed, Sinn Fein wants it retained but likely to be abolished. Fishing could go to DARD and libraries to DE

Department of Education (DE)— will be retained, probably taking on additional responsibilities for further and higher education from DEL

Department of Employment and Learning (DEL)— likely to be abolished

Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI)— will be retained, probably taking on additional responsibilities for adult skills training from DEL

Department of the Environment (DoE) — likely to be abolished, with planning responsibilities transferred to district councils and heritage maintenance passed to newly created executive agency

Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP)— will be retained

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) — will be retained

Department for Regional Development — likely to be retained

Department for Social Development — likely to be retained

Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister — will presumably be retained, but may be slimmed down

In addition, a Department of Policing and Justice is being demanded by Sinn Fein and seems likely to be created

The current 11 government departments would then become nine departments, with three existing ones abolished and one new one created

PFsep2005

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