Important but underrated: Parliamentary Questions in the Northern Ireland Assembly

In the first of our blog series from our Annual Conference, Legislatures in Uncertain TimesSean Haughey discusses his research into parliamentary questions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. 

The Northern Ireland Assembly tends to make headlines for the wrong reasons. In addition to the several occasions on which it has had its powers suspended by the Secretary of State (2000; 2001; 2002), prolonged periods of stalemate between the two largest Assembly parties, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Féin, have required the intervention of British and Irish Prime Ministers, Foreign Secretaries, and American diplomats. Once again, the Assembly finds itself the subject of daily news bulletins, this time because 11 months of inter-party negotiations have failed to produce terms on which the DUP and Sinn Féin are prepared to enter government with one another. In short, crisis has almost been as much a staple of devolution in Northern Ireland as the Assembly itself.

With most observers focused on the very survival of the devolved institutions, less attention has been paid to the everyday functions of the legislature in Northern Ireland. That is worth redressing. As a case-study, the Assembly offers a virtually untapped resource for scholars and students of parliaments. A particularly interesting line of enquiry, considered here, is the approach of MLAs to parliamentary scrutiny.

Consociational legislatures aren’t exactly exemplars of robust parliamentary scrutiny. In Northern Ireland’s case in particular, the precedence afforded to building cross-community consensus (or the avoidance of conflict, at least) has downgraded issues of accountability and good governance to of secondary importance. Until very recently, there was no official opposition to hold the multi-party coalitions to account. For most of the Assembly’s history, all five major parties in Northern Ireland have sat in government. When the fourth Executive (2011-16) was formed, for example, membership of the five Executive parties accounted for 105 of the Assembly’s 108 MLAs. In a situation where more than 97% of the legislature is comprised of governing parties, one might rightly question if meaningful scrutiny occurs at all.

There are two contrasting perspectives to consider here. On the one hand, critics of consociationalism contend that the system, by its very nature, stifles robust parliamentary scrutiny. In Horowitz’s view, for instance, consociation creates ‘too cosy a relationship’ between parties in government (2000), none of whom have a particularly strong incentive to challenge a government of which they are a part. On the other hand, studies of coalition governments show that governing parties need not necessarily turn a blind eye to their coalition partners. Intra-coalition scrutiny can occur if parties are so inclined (Martin & Vanberg, 2011).

So which has been the Northern Ireland experience? Are governing parties holding one another to account, or are Northern Ireland coalitions – to paraphrase TUV MLA Jim Allister – unanswerable and unchecked ‘cabals’? This isn’t a purely academic question. Devolved government will return to Northern Ireland – be it next month or next year – and when it does it is likely to be in the form of a multi-party coalition. The brief Government/Opposition experiment in 2016-17, when the Ulster Unionists and Social Democratic and Labour Party declined their ministerial posts to form the first official Opposition, is unlikely to be resurrected (not least because their opposition gamble did not pay electoral dividends). The question of ‘who scrutinises whom?’, then, has contemporary relevance.

Parliamentary question (PQ) analysis sheds some light on the issue. Each MLA in Northern Ireland is entitled to table up to five written questions per day to the Executive. Written questions, being less-constrained by party leaderships than oral questions, provide a more sincere reflection of members’ intentions (Rozenberg & Martin, 2011). If intra-coalition monitoring is in fact occurring, we can expect – to paraphrase Martin (2012) – members of Party A to question ministers of Party B more than ministers of Party A.

A sample of PQs from the 2011-12 parliamentary session (n = 16,726) shows that intra-coalition monitoring is in fact occurring. Table 2 displays the number of intra-party and inter-party questions by party. The table should be read horizontally – that is to say, for example, that each DUP MLA tabled 8.7 questions to each DUP minister and 21.4 questions to each non-DUP Minister, and so on. Paired sample t-tests reveal the difference in means between intra-party and inter-party question means to be significant for four of the five main parties. Only Sinn Féin MLAs exhibit atypical questioning behaviour in the sense that the party’s questions are (almost) equally distributed between ministers drawn from their own party and those belonging to other parties.

Haughey - table 2

Given the high proportion of inter-party PQs, the argument that Northern Ireland’s multi-party coalitions are unchecked ‘cabals’ needs to be reconsidered. Rather, the data here is suggestive of ‘accountability from within’. Evidently, parties are not indifferent to the activities of their coalition partners. Existing research on intra-coalition monitoring has highlighted parties’ use of parliamentary committees (Müller & Strøm, 2008), however the use of PQs for intra-coalition monitoring has been under-researched (Martin, 2012). In the Northern Ireland case at least, we can say that written questions appear to offer MLAs a means of keeping tabs on their coalition partners.

Given their importance to the process of intra-coalition monitoring, there is a strong case for a review of the Executive’s handling of written questions. In 2009 the Assembly’s Committee on Procedures rebuked ‘[p]ractically all departments’ for their poor record in answering written questions on time (NIA, 24/08/09R). Despite this, the problem of long delays in answering questions has persisted (and perhaps worsened). A 2015 investigation by the Belfast Telegraph, for instance, revealed that less than 25% of questions to the First and Deputy First Ministers were answered within the 10 day time limit.  MLAs have also lodged complaints with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) which, on at least one occasion, has ordered the Northern Ireland Executive to release information requested in written questions or risk contempt of court.

The Executive’s mismanagement of written questions not only inhibits the scrutiny efforts of individual members, but potentially the collective scrutiny endeavours of the Assembly’s Statutory committees. Interestingly, there is evidence that MLAs have been using written questions to develop specialised policy knowledge in areas which fall within the jurisdiction of their committee assignments. As Figure 1 displays, there is evidence that some specialisation is occurring among MLAs who focus their questions on their committees’ policy areas.

Haughey - figure 1In all of the twelve cases above, committee members table a higher proportion of written questions to their committee’s corresponding department than non-committee members. The first set of columns, for example, show that Agriculture committee members tabled 14.2% of their total written questions to the Agriculture department (DARD), whereas non Agriculture committee members used only 5% for the same. This pattern of question usage is significant. If the development of specialised knowledge makes members more effective in their scrutiny duties (McGrath, 2013), the use of written questions in this way by committee members is a welcome development – especially given previous criticism of committee members for poor subject specific expertise (Cole & McAllister, 2015).

In short, there is much to be learned of a legislature through parliamentary question analysis.  In the case of Northern Ireland, a close examination of intra-coalition questioning challenges the popular narrative that multi-party coalitions in the region are only held to account by the small body of MLAs that sit outside the Executive. To be sure, the ‘accountability from within’ demonstrated above is imperfect – not least because of the Executive’s track record in replying to questions on time. If the capacity of future Assemblies to hold Executives accountable is to be enhanced, one concrete proposal for achieving this would be stricter enforcement of the deadlines, imposed upon Departments by Standing Orders, for answering questions on time. The Assembly’s committee system would benefit from this as much as individual MLAs given the tendency of members to avail of this underrated scrutiny tool to assist with their Statutory committee work.

Sean Haughey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of Liverpool. His research focuses on legislative behaviour in the Northern Ireland Assembly and is funded by the ESRC. He tweets at @S_Haughey.

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