After nearly three years, the MLAs are no longer MIA. How did Northern Ireland’s lobbyists and comms professionals navigate the political vacuum in the absence of a devolved government?
By Claire Smyth,
“We’ve been here before. We didn’t panic. We’re pragmatic. We just regrouped and said, ‘Well, decisions still need to be made. Who will be making them?’”
This was the strategy of political adviser Anna Mercer when she realised that the suspension of Northern Ireland’s devolved government in January 2017 might last longer than a few months.
It was a setback for the decade-long fight for justice, but Mercer wasn’t about to give up her work lobbying on behalf of the victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse. In the absence of the politicians at Stormont, she would need to persuade MPs at Westminster to legislate on the issue instead.
Ultimately, amid concerns that the necessary legislation might be blocked by MPs facing pressure for similar inquiries elsewhere in the UK, the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act was rushed through the House of Commons in November 2019 ahead of Parliament’s dissolution for the general election, “establishing the Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board and conferring an entitlement to compensation”. So how did the lobbyists and campaigners pull it off?
Assembly? What assembly?
The collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 came just a matter of days after the publication of the findings of the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry. Recommendations had included financial compensation as a means of redress, but then, without a functioning government at Stormont to legislate for this, campaigners would need to wield their influence elsewhere.
This meant doing as much as they could to speed up the legislative process at Westminster. They lobbied MPs, successive secretaries of state and the senior civil servants holding the fort at Stormont. A breakthrough arrived in November 2018 in the form of a consultation on the HIA Inquiry’s report. Campaigners worked to secure cross-party political support, pushed for legislation to be drafted in preparation for a vote and finally wrote to the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to secure parliamentary time.
Westminster also proved crucial for the campaigners fighting for marriage equality and the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, although these were achieved as amendments to other legislation rather than as stand-alone acts. “As soon as we realised that devolution wasn’t returning soon, a lot of us jumped on a plane to Westminster,” recalls Grainne Teggart, who pushed for abortion reform in her role as Amnesty International UK’s Northern Ireland campaign manager. Like HIA, abortion legislation had also been the focus of an inquiry and litigation.
Amnesty International deployed a high-profile media campaign to inform politicians and the public about the need for action, highlighting the impact of the existing abortion law on women in Northern Ireland.
Teggart adds that the Democratic Unionist Party’s confidence and supply arrangement with Theresa May’s government proved a “helpful tool” and “paid dividends for us in finally securing reform”, as it highlighted the fact that previous attempts at reform had been stifled by the Assembly’s veto mechanism, which was originally designed to prevent one community discriminating against another.
The breakdown of the Stormont government necessitated this more creative approach to lobbying. “We had to think about lobbying in the traditional sense of government, but also through the other advocacy tools that we have,” Teggart says. “A lot of my work includes strategic litigation, because sometimes that’s what it takes to force the hand of the government or to ensure that an issue does not drop off the agenda. That’s certainly something I’ve moved into in recent years.”
Playing it smart
Timing was also key. Gavin Boyd is policy and advocacy manager for LGBT group The Rainbow Project, one of the six organisations behind the Love Equality campaign for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. He recalls that it was a question of “finding the right time when the government couldn’t pull its own legislation”.
“They were up against their own deadline. They needed this bill over the line, and they needed the votes in the Commons to get it through,” he says. “We had known all along that as soon as it came to a straight up-or-down vote in the House of Commons that we would win overwhelmingly, and we did. It was just a question of finding the right procedural loophole, the right timeline. And if you can’t get it through as a private member’s bill, tack it onto something the government can’t vote down.”
However, legislation isn’t the only way to bring about change, Mercer notes. Her clients in the HIA campaign engaged with Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and while she stresses that there’s no substitute for an assembly at Stormont, she recognizes that its absence “made me a lot more creative”.
“It also sharpened my understanding of political processes across the water, as well as making me look to other institutions, such as local government, and the possibilities they hold to help deliver change,” she says.
Local government has been key for Brown O’Connor Communications, which counts property developers among its clients. Planning functions were devolved to Northern Ireland’s councils in 2015. Although this proved a “baptism of fire” for the local authorities, it at least meant that decisions were still being taken without the Assembly – “albeit not at a big level in terms of what were seen as regionally significant applications,” says Arlene O’Connor, who co-founded the Belfast-based consultancy two months after the Assembly shut up shop.
Councillors soon became important targets for PR and lobbying campaigns in Northern Ireland, O’Connor explains. “Lobbying still happened on a daily basis in Northern Ireland, but maybe not in the same way as when the Assembly’s in place. Organisations just had to rethink where those messages were going.”
Some decisions were made at Stormont in the absence of government, but many officials were reluctant to sign off on matters that could be challenged in the courts. In July 2018, the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that a decision by a civil servant in Northern Ireland’s Department of Infrastructure to approve plans for a new waste incinerator in the absence of a minister, was, in fact, unlawful. Westminster later introduced legislation to enable civil servants to make such decisions in the public interest without a minister, but many felt it was too vague and didn’t go far enough.
Recent strikes by Northern Irish health workers demanding pay parity with their counterparts in the rest of the UK further exposed the consequences of the lack of devolved government, with Stormont officials claiming that they could not act and the Northern Ireland Office being accused of refusing to act as a means of applying pressure on politicians to form a new executive. The pay dispute was one of the first matters of business when Stormont returned this January.
Brexit also highlighted the “democratic deficit” in Northern Ireland, Mercer adds, given the lack of a power-sharing executive to represent the views of all political parties. “Not having a voice for Northern Ireland was a disaster. However, the business community rose to the challenge of making sure that voice was heard and, from a lobbying perspective, that was very effective.
“The winners in terms of getting their voices heard over the past three years are the organisations that have been lobbying other people and haven’t just waited for an Assembly to come back. They have put in the graft and they have seen their hard work rewarded.”
Claire Smyth is a Belfast-based journalist who has worked for both the BBC and investigative news site The Detail.
A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2020. Details correct at time of going to press.