Change a long time coming.

Posted By: June 06, 2015

Change a long time coming.
By Jarlath Kearney. Village:Ireland’s political magazine.July 3, 2012.

A key theme at the Northern Ireland Civil Service’s annual corporate gathering last month, entitled ‘NICS Live’, was the need to start “getting with devolution”. It’s exactly five years since stable devolved government was delivered in the north by the DUP and Sinn Fein’s historic rapprochement. What then has the north’s bureaucracy – particularly the elite Senior Civil Service cadre – been doing in the interim?
Certain structural changes have, of course, happened quickly and easily. The British direct-rule Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has reprised some of the characteristics it displayed at its formation in 1972. Notably, the recent promotion of British Foreign Office diplomatic influences at the slimmed down (and latterly strategically-focused) NIO should be seen in a longer-term historical and political context. Alongside that, with Westminster’s devolution of substantial policing powers to the northern Assembly in 2010, British Home Office-oriented tactical security and intelligence structures essentially migrated en masse from the NIO into the newly-formed, locally-accountable Department of Justice (DOJ).

This is important because DOJ is an integral element of the northern Assembly and its Executive Committee structures in the context of the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. DOJ’s senior civil servants should thereby routinely conform to locally-accountable demands and objectives, and be at the vanguard of promoting radical democratic reform. Instead, some observers now argue the local Senior Civil Service has been polluted and tainted by the cross-over of these career ‘securocrats’. Comparisons have been drawn to the diminishing but influential role of some old-guard RUC political detectives who are trying to damage new democratic policing by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

However, that view is too simplistic. The substantive institutional difference between the north’s Senior Civil Service and the PSNI is that the latter has been subject to substantial organisational change and cultural reform. This has opened space for genuine PSNI modernisers to assert their commitment to the north’s new democratic dispensation and challenge the old order. It has created baselines and standards against which progress can be measured and monitored. In turn, these have become crucial campaigning reference points on which democrats are relying, for instance at the Policing Board, the Assembly’s Justice Committee, in the courts and in wider civic society. That’s why a hearts and minds battle, between hawks and doves, is now an omnipresent tension within the PSNI’s most senior levels and wider criminal justice system.

The 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement stipulated a range of measures to ensure the fundamental transformation of policing, criminal justice and political institutions. Central to this transformation was the programmatic creation of a critical mass of inclusive and representative public legitimacy based on equality statute and human-rights mechanisms. This was founded on a self-determination model in which the British government uniquely ceded to one “region” of the “United Kingdom” an unqualified right of secession from the “national” territory to the Irish state, subject only to the majority vote of its inhabitants. In turn, this all-Ireland (not all-British) self-determination model was conjoined with a new framework for political equality and parity of esteem. Irish national and political rights were enshrined as entitled to co-equal legitimacy in the institutional fabric of the northern state, albeit within the finite context of extant British constitutional jurisdiction.

The institution responsible for implementing (and often obstructing) large parts of the 1998 Agreement’s reform agenda was the north’s Senior Civil Service. Yet, arguably, the Belfast Agreement’s biggest blind spot was its failure to target the Senior Civil Service for institutional transformation.

Fourteen years later this elite state bureaucracy, numbering less than 300 top officials, still hasn’t even reached full compositional representativeness (in terms of religion and gender) of the community it purports to serve. The prospect of a politically-representative Senior Civil Service – with republicans and unionists proportionately employed throughout – remains a distant mirage.

This is striking, given how relatively reasonable it would have been to impose equality on a workforce of less than 300 over the course of 14 years by employing modest affirmative action measures alongside creative structural reforms. Of course, it is equally noteworthy that (alongside other anomalies, such as still appointing ex-civil servants to the north’s Human Rights Commissioners and Equality Commissioners) the NIO singularly appoints the influential Civil Service Commissioners who oversee recruitment to the north’s Senior Civil Service. In addition, a range of specific measures for compositional equality which were recommended by the independent Ouseley Report in 2002 (commissioned by the local Executive’s first Programme for Government) were fudged by the NIO, and never seriously implemented by the System.

In this context, is it any wonder that the north’s Senior Civil Service is only now struggling to start “getting with devolution”?

This is partly why there has been no kickback from within the north’s Senior Civil Service against the efforts of DOJ’s ‘Japanese soldiers’ to damage key aspects of democratic accountability over policing and justice. In short, there is no nucleus of committed Senior Civil Service modernisers in the north determinedly driving a radical change agenda. Even if there was, they don’t have any reform programme to propagate.

Of course, the north’s Senior Civil Service has always seen itself as an organic limb of British security and intelligence interests in Ireland, rather than as the impartial and politically neutral public service institution it often proclaims. During the conflict, key sections of the Senior Civil Service became part of the ‘big boys club’ with MI5, MI6, Military Intelligence and Special Branch.

Senior civil servants, inter alia, signed intelligence and surveillance warrants; authored and implemented media-censorship laws; wrote parades policy to promote Orange marches in nationalist areas; directly oversaw brutal prison regimes; provided political rationale and press cover for state shoot-to-kill strategies; vigorously opposed non-violent civil rights efforts like the MacBride Principles for Fair Employment; and introduced community vetting frameworks to exclude deprived nationalist communities from public funding. Such activities collectively intensified realities of political, social and economic exclusion from the state. The detrimental cost to the human rights of those affected by such white-collar, public-policy oppression has never been acknowledged. Despite that, the legal principle of collective responsibility applies.

Dozens of senior local bureaucrats have historically been responsible for driving Britain’s tactical security and intelligence doctrine throughout all the north’s government Departments and their associated policies, personnel and practices. That was the case both during the conflict and since the 1998 Agreement. Methods like British national security vetting in public-sector employment were, and are, fundamental to these tactics of exclusion; for direction and influence over the north’s future public policy.

In any event, the Senior Civil Service’s institutional concept of being ‘politically neutral’ continues to rest on default unionist support for British constitutional control, rather than on the 1998 Agreement’s innovative framework of two-way political equality and uniquely all-Ireland (not all-British) self-determination.

In addition, the Senior Civil Service essentially wrote the current terms of reference for dealing with the past via the NIO’s unilateral appointment of a retired Head of the Civil Service, Sir Ken Bloomfield, as first Victims Commissioner. This was done in parallel with, not service to, the 1998 Agreement’s multi-party negotiations. In his first report, Bloomfield restricted issues of truth and definitions of victims solely to, respectively, those of armed actors and violent actions. The active and influential role of the Senior Civil Service was excluded from Bloomfield’s ‘official’ narrative of the conflict (for example, in relation to the causes of political insurgence or maintenance of state violence).

Given the structural, practical and personnel linkages between the Senior Civil Service with contested public policies/public law and controversial security practices throughout recent history, the institution’s untransformed continuum into the post-1998 Agreement’s transitional context raises manifestly significant consequences.

While there are some flickers emerging of potentially leaderly commitment to the new Executive’s Programme for Government as a potential basis for providing putative ‘neutral’ public service, the fact remains that merely “getting with devolution” will not go far enough or fast enough.

The strangulating dynamic of the elite bureaucracy’s unreformed knotweed in the north’s body politic now demands a holistic and urgent focus on the fundamental institutional reform of the Senior Civil Service: its structures and functions; its mentality and culture; its processes and practices; its composition and representativeness; and the acknowledgement and analysis of its biased and active participant role, during both the conflict and the transition.

Jarlath Kearney is a PhD Affiliate at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute, investigating the role of the north’s Senior Civil Service in the peace process.