Lost in Transition: Governing Northern Ireland

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Nowhere in the UK has the public servant been as pivotal in developing and maintaining public services as in Northern Ireland (NI). The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017, and until January 2020, no ministers had been appointed to represent the region. Of course, Northern Ireland has contended with absentee ministers from Westminster throughout its recent history; however, never before have civil servants in the region experienced such a prolonged period without direct political oversight. It is therefore an opportune time to reflect on how the civil servant role evolved and adapted during those years of power-sharing. In this chapter, we reflect on the role conceptions of civil servants following the Good Friday Agreement, the period from December 1999 until January 2017. Kaufman’s (1956) bureaucratic values are used to create a conceptual framework for identifying the politics-administration dichotomy that underpins policy-making throughout this period. While there have been disruptions to the status quo in the interim, relations were permanently fractured in January 2017. Four stages of civil servant-politician relationship can be identified: delivery-oriented, combative, collaborative, and supplicant. We draw on documentary evidence and primary research to support these conclusions. This experience of the bureaucrat in Northern Ireland serves as a learning point for civil servants in other emerging power-sharing regimes – be these civil servants operating in Westminster having to engage with multiparty rather than single-party government or civil servants operating in an environment emerging from conflict where power-sharing has been identified as the most appropriate mechanism of conflict management.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Palgrave Handbook of the Public Servant
EditorsHelen Sullivan, Helen Dickinson, Hayley Henderson
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-03008-7
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Jul 2020


  • Northern Ireland
  • Bureaucratic Values
  • bureaucrat role conceptions
  • Power sharing
  • Administrative reform


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