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Tea and teamwork – how we navigated the Northern Ireland talks

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Head shot of Sir Jonathan Stephens
Sir Jonathan Stephens, Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office

In the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), we have just completed an intensive 10-week talks process that brought us back from the brink of the collapse of devolution and on to the Fresh Start Agreement. This builds on previous political agreements and brings closer the goal of a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows and society is stronger.

Each round of talks is a learning process for us, as we strive to reach consensus among all involved. This latest success was only made possible by the hard work of civil servants throughout the NIO… as well as a plentiful supply of tea!

Teamwork lies behind almost any success.  We estimate about 70 people in the NIO were directly involved in facilitating and supporting the talks among the Northern Ireland parties. But even if they weren’t directly involved in the talks, every single member of the NIO pulled their weight in terms of making sure that the department ran smoothly.

Practical support

Devolution in Northern Ireland was threatened by twin crises – a financial crisis over implementation of welfare reform in Northern Ireland, and a political crisis over continued paramilitary activity, highlighted by two murders in Belfast during the summer.  On at least a couple of occasions, despite all the progress and efforts since 1998, devolution looked under serious threat.

The talks brought the five main Northern Ireland parties together with the UK and Irish governments. Support for the talks from the Civil Service was often very practical.  We had teams of people to welcome the political parties and encourage them to get to meetings on time.  Supplies of coffee, tea, water and biscuits were repeatedly refreshed. Over ten weeks of talks, ministers had at least 150 separate meetings – each one with a note-taker, from a team of volunteers, to ensure no one got writer’s cramp.

Behind the scenes, civil servants also worked hard to build agreement. Not just in the NIO, but with colleagues in the Treasury, DWP, Cabinet Office and elsewhere.  In particular, we worked closely with colleagues in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Although they were working for the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, we had a common interest in finding agreement. And we worked closely with the political parties themselves,understanding their positions and testing possible ways forward.

Work not wasted

Political talks are a roller-coaster, as emotions and prospects for agreement change from meeting to meeting.  In the end, there was one significant area – new institutions to tackle the past – where agreement was just not possible. The policy team working on this had worked extremely hard, crafting complex, sensitive legislation, and identifying potential compromises. Although, in the end, there was no political consensus on a way forward, the work will not be wasted, as the search for agreement goes on.

The Fresh Start Agreement puts devolution in Northern Ireland on a much more stable basis. It’s another step on a long road away from conflict.  This is a journey that requires leadership and courage from Northern Ireland’s politicians – but also the support and hard work of many civil servants in both London and Belfast.

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  1. Comment by Thomas posted on

    Sir Jonathan

    The support you and your colleagues provided to the Northern Ireland parties , has no doubt facilitated a successful conclusion to these talks. As a northern Irish person myself ( but now living in England ) I take a keen interest and it is great to see progress however painfully slow it seems at times. Well done and thank you to you and your team!