agendaNi issue 117 February 2024

Page 1

...informing Northern Ireland’s decision-makers

A critical gateway to net zero NIE Networks’ Derek Hynes Director of NICS

New Northern Ireland

Alliance Party MP

Digital, Security and

Prison Service Director

Stephen Farry

Finance Shared

Beverley Wall on a

discusses the role of

Services Paul Duffy

renewed focus on

a fiscal floor in

explores AI in

rehabilitation

sustainable public

cybersecurity

finances

issue117 8 Issue Aug/Sep Feb 2024 11

Policing and Tax justice • DigitalReports: government • Public affairs Carbon • Special Health • ICT

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Northern Ireland Environment Forum

2024

Thursday 18 April • Europa Hotel, Belfast The Northern Ireland Environment Forum, organised by agendaNi, is Northern Ireland’s major conference on environmental policy and management. The Forum provides an important opportunity for all the key players in the environment sector to come together for a day of discussion and networking. Alongside visiting experts, the Northern Ireland Environment Forum will be addressed by the key people in Northern Ireland's environmental policy landscape. With challenges facing the environment both locally and globally, the Forum will be of interest to attendees representing all the main sectors with an interest in Northern Ireland’s environment sector at this pivotal time.

Expert speakers include:

Who should attend:

David Greenfield Circular Economy Institute and University of Brighton

Neil Rowland Queen’s University Belfast

Tracey Teague Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs

John Woods Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Glenys Stacey The Office for Environmental Protection Sarah Jennings Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru / Natural Resources Wales Jane McCullough Climate NI

Lucy Gaffney Business for Biodiversity Ireland

Dave Foster Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Max Bryant Northern Ireland Environment Link Debbie Caldwell Belfast City Council Mark Horton Rivers Trust Joanne Sherwood RSPB Northern Ireland

3 Environmental policymakers 3 Environmental managers 3 Elected representatives 3 Local government 3 Environmental consultants and advisors 3 Sustainability managers 3 Developers and construction companies 3 Waste management companies 3 Legal and financial advisors 3 Heads of ESG 3 NGOs/environmental charities 3 Academics 3 Planning professionals 3 Regulators Sponsored by

Tickets available: Online: www.nienvironmentforum.com

By email registration@agendani.com

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agendaNi Issue 117 Feb 2024 Digital

Events

Publications

Editorial

For what it’s worth…

David Whelan, Editor david.whelan@agendani.com

As yet another false dawn of a return of Stormont rumbled through

Fiona McCarthy fiona.mccarthy@agendani.com

the media, the true state of public finances in Northern Ireland was evident in the desperation that willed the DUP to accept the Secretary of State’s ‘final offer’ financial package. The revised offer on the table of £3.3 billion was set to facilitate longoverdue public sector pay rises, writing off debt accrued just to keep the region ticking over in the last two years, and an extra heave of cash into a broken health system to ease, but not cure, spiraling waiting lists. Another cliff edge will inevitably be faced in two years.

Ciarán Galway ciaran.galway@agendani.com Odrán Waldron odran.waldron@agendani.com Joshua Murray joshua.murray@agendani.com Circulation and Marketing Lynda Millar lynda.millar@agendani.com Events

It is an uncomfortably familiar scenario. Just look at the original

Jillian Wallace jillian.wallace@agendani.com

hope surrounding New Decade, New Approach, the latest in a long list of poor implementations of previous financial packages.

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A recent inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee brought

Gail Kinkead gail.kinkead@agendani.com

some insight into the sustainability of public finances. In short, the

Design

system is broken. The UK Government has conceded as much in

Gareth Duffy, Head of Design gareth.duffy@agendani.com

proposing a ‘fiscal floor’ as part of any financial package. As the UK Government weighs up its options on what the future

Jamie Hogan jamie.hogan@agendani.com

governance of Northern Ireland looks like, what is clear is that cash

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alone will not provide the basis for transformative change required

Sharon Morrison Email: subscriptions@agendani.com Online: www.agendani.com

to navigate a fragile political and financial landscape. This context is evident across our featured reports of Policing and

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justice and Digital government, however, so too, is the willingness

Owen McQuade, Publisher owen.mcquade@agendani.com

to implement transformation for better outcomes. Our cover story with NIE Networks platforms an organisation primed to invest for the future of the region, while our round table discussion with the Consumer Council assesses the role of the consumer in a decarbonised energy system. Progress requires the displacement of the status quo.

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Digital

Events

Publications

contents 10

04 08

04

Matters arising

07

Quoteworthy

08

Issues 10

Cover story: Managing Director of NIE Networks Derek Hynes on his organisation’s role in the delivery of a sustainable energy system

14

DfE Deputy Secretary Paul Grocott discusses the importance of transparency in economic development policy

22

Round table discussion: The role of the consumer in the energy transition 32

Chris Giles, economic commentator at the Financial Times, on the UK’s productivity crisis

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43

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Energy security in an all-island context

Digital government 48

Sponsored by

Paul Duffy, Director, NICS Digital Security and Finance Shared Services on tackling the challenge of cybersecurity

54

Dan Brember gives a UK Government perspective on transforming public services

56

How are Executive departments using AI?

60

Geoff Huggins, on the Scottish Governments creation of a unified digital infrastructure for public services

62

Digital solutions to support delivery of prison frontline services

Hosted by


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14

22

Policing and justice 74 80 84 86 90

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Sponsored by

Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Beverley Wall on a renewed focus on rehabilitation Analysis: PSNI’s twin crises in public and staff confidence State of the court estate Adult Restorative Justice Strategy progress report Consensus for extending use of live court links

Public affairs 98 111 112 114 116

PRONI: Opening up the archives Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry MP on the need for a fiscal floor Irish Minister for Education Norma Foley TD on all-island education cooperation Political platform: SDLP’s Justin McNulty MLA Back page: Cardiff University politics and international relations lecturer Guto Ifan on the “Barnett squeeze”

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matters arising

P U B L I C A F FA I R S

Secretary of State sets new ‘deadline’ for Stormont return Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP has once again legislated away from his obligation to call a fresh Assembly election. Following the expiry of the ‘deadline’ of 18 January 2024 set under the legislation for parties to form a new Executive in the absence of functioning power-sharing, the Secretary of State has extended the deadline for the formation of an Executive to 8 February 2023. Heaton-Harris has consistently set deadlines for the DUP to re-enter the Executive but has also repeatedly extended these in spite of claims that he “will be forced to call an election”. Heaton-Harris now states that he will not seek to call another election and will instead “legislate to protect public services”. In a statement issued by the Northern Ireland Office on 19 January, the day after widespread strikes across the public sector, the Secretary of State expressed his disappointment that an Assembly speaker could not be elected before the legal deadline, adding that he intended to introduce new legislation which will take a “pragmatic, appropriate, and limited” approach to addressing the Executive formation period and support departments. The Assembly was recalled by Sinn Féin and sat on 17 January 2024. In proceedings chaired by the legislature’s most senior MLA, Alan Chambers of the Ulster Unionist Party, Patsy McGlone MLA received the support of a majority of MLAs to be

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Credit: X/Chris Heaton-Harris.

elected as the new speaker, but this was not ratified as the DUP refused to support the reestablishment of the Assembly amid its ongoing boycott of the institutions over what it claims is a protest against the ‘border in the Irish Sea’. Although UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak MP announced a new deal – the Windsor Framework – which came into effect in October 2023, the DUP claims that this reform is incompatible with its demands. It is understood that the DUP’s officer board was in favour of a return to Stormont by a margin of seven votes in favour and five against, but it is understood that Donaldson wants the support of at least two-thirds of his party’s senior figures, as threats loom over a potential threat. This is backed by University of Liverpool political scientist Jon Tonge, who told The Irish News that a number of DUP politicians are “working with the TUV” to prevent a DUP return to the Executive. During the debate, Sinn Féin vice-president and Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill MLA was markedly more sceptical of the DUP’s intentions than at any other time since the 2022 election, stating: “The only remaining conclusion for the DUP’s boycott is the refusal to accept a nationalist First Minister.” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP has refuted this assertion, saying previously that he is “relaxed” about the prospect of the DUP nominating a deputy First Minister.


matters arising

H E A LT H

Cancer patients being failed Not one of the Department of Health’s statutory targets for waiting times for cancer patients in Northern Ireland are being met, according to the latest statistical bulletin from the Department of Health, released in January 2024.

HSC trusts have outlined draft waiting time targets whereby all urgent breast cancer referrals would be seen within 14 days. Of 1,357 patients starting treatment following urgent GP referral for suspected cancer, 34 per cent (against a target of 95 per

Another quarterly update, for cancer screening waiting times, shows that the number of people receiving treatment for cancer following an urgent GP referral is significantly below targets outlined by the Department of Health. Most worryingly, only 52.9 per cent (1,757) of breast cancer patients were seen by a breast cancer specialist within 14 days of an urgent referral, compared with 70.2 per cent (2,426) in the previous quarter and 63.2 per cent (2,364) in the same quarter in 2022.

cent) started treatment within 62 days, the worst on record. Research from the cancer treatment charity Macmillan has said that if the 62-day target was met by December 2026, around 2,700 people diagnosed with cancer over the next five years would survive at least an extra six months.

E D U C AT I O N

Easier access to Irish universities for northern students Students in Northern Ireland will no longer be required to hold four A-levels in order to attend universities in the Republic, an Irish Government minister has announced. Citing the recently published ESRI report on north-south higher education student mobility, which highlighted the negative impact of current points assigned to A-levels, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Fine Gael’s Simon Harris TD, noted that it is only possible to achieve the maximum 625 Central Applications Office (CAO) points by taking four A-levels and one of them has to be maths. However, the number of students taking four A-levels is limited, thereby restricting number coming from Northern Ireland.

Minister Harris was responding to the findings of a Universities Ireland report, which recommended the aforementioned changes to the curriculum for northern students. Northern students are already exempt from Irish language requirements which apply to students from the Republic. The report’s recommendation must now be accepted by each university’s academic council, and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has outlined its “hope that this revision will be in place for the students looking to start their studies in September 2024”.

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I N F R A S T RU C T U R E

DfI opens planning and climate change call for evidence The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has launched a call for evidence on planning policy and climate change with an aim to streamlining planning for new renewable energy projects.

was now in a climate emergency and passed the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. Given the need for adaption to emmitent sectors, the

The move is a step forward following the announcement of a Statement of Intent in January 2023 by the Department for the Economy and The Crown Estate to express their commitment towards establishing offshore wind leasing in Northern Ireland. DfI states that the call for evidence will be used as a consultation to help inform any future focused review of the Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS).

Department is seeking submissions on how its planning policies can help to reduce carbon emissions. The call for evidence will run until 28 March 2024. The Department for Infrastructure states the information gathered through the Call for Evidence will be “considered and will help inform any decision by a future Infrastructure Minister on a potential review of the SPPS and the options for it”.

The SPPS sets out the regional planning policies for the orderly and consistent development of land here. Prior to the collapse of the Assembly, MLAs declared that Northern Ireland

It adds: “In the absence of Ministers, any final decisions will be taken in light of the decision-making framework at that time.”

HOUSING

Significant increase in construction output There has been a significant increase in construction output in Northern Ireland throughout 2023 when compared to 2022, according to new statistics. The figures, published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), show that the total volume of construction output increased by 1.6 per cent over the third quarter of 2023 and increased by 7.8 per cent over the year. They also show that the increase in construction output seen in quarter three 2023 from the previous quarter was driven by increases in both new work (1.5 per cent) and repair and maintenance (2.6 per cent). Quarter three 2023 was the fourth consecutive quarter of annual growth and the third consecutive quarter of annualised growth.

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After a short recovery following the decline seen in quarter two 2020, construction output saw a downward trend from quarter three 2020 until a recent low recorded in in quarter three, 2022. However, since quarter three 2022, construction output has been on an upward trend, and this is mainly driven by increases in repair and maintenance output. The volume of new work output during this period has remained relatively stable. These construction figures will be welcomed by decisionmakers, as the most recent housing statistics show that, at the end of 2023, there were 45,105 applicants on the social housing waiting lists. Of these applicants, 32,633 were in housing stress. This is in addition to figures which show that, in 2022/23, 10,349 households were accepted as statutorily homeless.


“The only remaining explanation for the DUP boycott is the refusal to accept a nationalist First Minister.” Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill MLA speaking in Stormont Credit: Liam McBurney

“To my fellow unionists in Northern Ireland, whatever their political persuasion or background, the notion that a unionism that turns in on itself is a unionism that can deliver for Northern Ireland... to secure the union for the future, is not the way to go.” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson MP

“Can’t help thinking if the Assembly has met for the last time, it will be unionists who come to regret it the most.” David Sterling, former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service writing on X

“In the absence of any movement on pay, public transport workers have been left with no alternative but to escalate their strike action with further strikes.” Sharon Graham, General Secretary, Unite the Union agenda quoteworthy

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Credit: X/Chris Heaton-Harris.

issues agenda

Heaton-Harris tables ‘final’ financial package to incentivise Executive return Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris MP has tabled a ‘take it or leave it’ financial package, aimed at enticing the return of the Executive, that now amounts to £3.3 billion. With a new budget for Northern Ireland due soon, Heaton-Harris has said the package will not be available without the return of the institutions. Heaton-Harris’s ‘final’ offer of a financial package contingent upon the return of the Stormont Executive amounts to £3.3 billion in funding, an increase on the £2.5 billion that had been offered the week before the tabling of the final offer in mid-December 2023. Stressing that the package on offer was ‘generous’, Heaton-Harris called for the DUP to return to Stormont, stating it is “now time for decisions”. Presenting the financial package to the media, HeatonHarris broke down highlights of the £3.3 billion, including: almost £600 million for public sector pay awards for 2023; £34 million to aid in the tackling of healthcare waiting lists in 2024; £15 million to aid with the initial costs related to the PSNI data breach in 2023; the creation of an investment zone for Northern Ireland that will be worth £150 million according to the UK Government; and the improvement of the terms of a potential stabilisation fund meaning an extra £520 million over two years, bringing the total to £1.125 billion. 8

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Public sector pay The £600 million intended to fund public sector pay claims will go some way towards addressing one of the most pressing challenges that would face any resurrected Stormont, with an estimate 170,000 public sector workers having called a mass strike on 18 January to protest real terms pay cuts they have endured while the Executive has been dormant, meaning they have seen no real terms pay increases during an inflationary crisis. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency’s Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings found that the typical public sector worker in Northern Ireland saw the real value of their wages fall by 4 per cent between April 2021 and April 2022 and by a further 7 per cent from April 2022 to April 2023. Unions representing the striking public sector workers had called on Heaton-Harris to release the £600 million regardless of the return of the political institutions. Irish


Credit: X/Unite The Union NI.

issues agenda

Crowds at Belfast City Hall during the public sector strike on 18 January 2024.

Congress of Trade Unions assistant general secretary Liam Murphy stated that Heaton-Harris “remains unwilling to pay public servants a fair increase or even speak to the trade union leadership”, but that he had “conceded” the “moral case for fair pay” by offering the £600 million and accepting that the workers were in need of a pay increase. He added that the attempt to ‘withhold’ the funding pending the return of Stormont was “an ill-judged and cynical attempt to manipulate these workers”. With the Northern Ireland Civil Service stating that there is no funding for the pay increase without the £600 million, Head of the Civil Service Jayne Brady wrote to HeatonHarris urging him to release the £600 million to avoid the strike action on 18 January, but the Northern Ireland Office’s position is that the Secretary of State has no authority to negotiate public sector pay.

Stormont overspend After two years of Stormont overspend, the total sum that a returning Executive would owe to the UK Treasury now stands at £560 million. However, Heaton-Harris has offered to freeze any repayments for two years and to then write off the sum if the resurrected Executive produces a fiscal sustainability plan.

Public funding Through the £3.3 billion package, £1.125 billion would be made available in “stabilisation funding” aimed at repairing the damage done to public services that have seen funding stagnate. There will also be additional funds of £34 million and £15 million made available to tackle hospital waiting lists and the costs of the PSNI data breach respectively.

infrastructure projects to be increased over five years, the ceiling eventually rising by £135 million. £600 million of funding previously given for central government funding would also be allowed to be reallocated under the terms of the package. A new fiscal floor would also be introduced, meaning that spending per head in Northern Ireland would always be 24 per cent higher than it is in England in order to better reflect the higher costs of delivering equivalent public services in Northern Ireland. This fiscal floor would operate in a manner similar to that of Wales, where the normal allocation of funds is topped up to ensure funding never falls below a certain threshold.

‘Time for decisions’ While this financial package has been widely publicised as a £3.3 billion package, it should not be taken that that means the Westminster government would provide £3.3 billion in new funding should the Executive return: over £1 billion of that £3.3 billion would be accounted for by the forgiveness of £560 million of Stormont overspend and the allowance for the reallocation of £600 million of previously allocated funding. Despite this, it does represent an effort on the part of Westminster to heavily incentivise the DUP to return to the institutions with badly needed funding that any returning Executive would need to address multiple funding holes in public finances. With this funding only available to a resurrected Executive and a new budget for Northern Ireland due in the coming months to follow on from 2023’s ‘punishment budget’, the ball is in the court of the DUP; it is, as Heaton-Harris said, time for decisions.

Further flexibility would also be introduced into Stormont finances, with the amount an Executive could borrow for

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cover story

A critical gateway to net zero Managing Director of NIE Networks, Derek Hynes, talks to David Whelan about his organisation’s role in the delivery of a sustainable energy system for all. 10

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Outlining his vision that the transformation of the electricity network will support “a more sustainable and prosperous future” for the region of Northern Ireland, the Managing Director describes NIE Networks’ transmission and distribution network as the “gateway” to delivering on the region’s net zero ambitions. Over the next decade, Northern Ireland Electricity needs to work with generation developers to make sure it is able to double the amount of renewable generation connected to NIE Networks’ transmission and distribution networks, growing from 1.9GW currently to over 5GW by the mid-2030s. NIE Networks recently submitted its seventh regulatory price control (RP7) business plan, signalling planned investment of over £2 billion in the electricity network between now and 2031. Hynes believes that “investment and ambitious management of the electricity networks becomes a ‘gateway’ to delivering on Northern Ireland’s net zero ambitions”. Addressing the context in which NIE Networks is planning for the future, Hynes explains that despite a widespread feeling of political and policy inertia for the region, “sensible progress” has quietly been made in 2023 within the energy sector. Pointing to progress in several areas, not least the publication of the draft Offshore Renewable Action Plan, the Utility

“NIE Networks cannot create a prosperous society alone, but what we can do is play our part through ambitious plans for the electricity network of the future.” Derek Hynes, Managing Director of NIE Networks Regulator’s consultation on connection charging policy, and the evolution of the process and rules around the connection of small-scale generation, Hynes believes that key steps are being taken to ensure the right environment is being created for energy to be a positive sector for economic growth and meeting climate targets.

Reach NIE Networks owns and operates the electricity network consisting of approximately 2,200km of transmission network and 47,000km of distribution network, reaching over 910,000 customers in the form of homes, businesses, and farms. In November 2023, the Utility Regulator published its draft determination for the RP7 price control for NIE Networks – which sets out new limits on the revenue that NIE Networks can recover from

customers to operate their business for the six-year period from 1 April 2025 to 31 March 2031. Although yet to be finalised, the total expenditure allocation of £2.21 billion is a 16 per cent reduction on NIE Networks’ request of £2.55 billion. However, Hynes is adamant that a collective understanding and acknowledgment of the necessity and opportunity afforded by investment in the network will see continued support for investment in the future RP8 and RP9 programmes. “The RP7 plan, and the sustained level of investment that we are planning over the next 20 years represents one of the largest ongoing private sector investments in the history of Northern Ireland,” he states. Discussing NIE Networks’ ability to borrow such sums for investment, Hynes says: “We must be an efficient and

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competitive organisation so that we can compete for these funds on a global basis and achieve the lowest possible cost of debt for the people of Northern Ireland. “How the debt market perceives Northern Ireland’s indigenous energy companies when we are seeking these levels of funding is an insight into how Northern Ireland is seen as an investment by the global financial community.” The Managing Director outlines plans for the majority of the investment to be aimed at increasing the capacity of the existing network. Much of Northern Ireland’s 11kV network has been in place since the 1950s and Hynes says that work is already underway to increase capacity. “Over the coming years, this entire network will be rebuilt with bigger poles, wires, and transformers so that we can all be confident that the network will be there for us when we can invest in electric vehicles, electric heating, and domestic generation,” he states.

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Additional work includes working alongside the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) to rebuild and expand the transmission network, including the modernisation of high voltage substations at the likes of Kilroot and Ballylumford to accommodate growing amounts of renewable generation, and the building of new cluster substations to connect onshore solar and wind generation, particularly in the west and north-east of the region. Although not included in RP7, Hynes also welcomes critical first steps being taken in the rollout of smart meters in Northern Ireland. In June 2023, the Department for the Economy published a cost/benefit analysis of electricity and gas smart meters, resulting in the development of an implementation plan for electricity smart meters and systems. Describing the move as a “significant milestone” in Northern Ireland’s energy journey, the Managing Director says: “Smart meters, as part of a wider flexible system, have the potential to help drive carbon reduction with improved energy data,

increasing flexibility in the electricity system and helping consumers better manage energy efficiency in their homes and businesses. “They will also allow reform of the electricity tariff system which has been in place for many years which should be a way of making sure that the transition to a net zero energy system is accessible to everyone.”

Reliability Alongside the push for greater capacity, Hynes explains that a critical component of NIE Networks’ future work is improving the reliability of the network. The Managing Director says that the organisation is committed to ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland can trust the electricity network to be reliable enough to allow them to move towards consuming more electricity, as they replace fossil fuels in their homes and transport. “This will help to create an environment in Northern Ireland that encourages


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business to move here and connect to our network knowing that is very reliable and well managed,” he explains. “The need for investment is clear. Our commitment to doing it efficiently is steadfast, and we hope that the cost to Northern Ireland is reasonable. The process is rigorous, and we welcome that. It will balance the need to keep prices as low as possible, with the equal need for investment.”

Economic opportunity To fulfil such ambitious plans, Hynes acknowledges that NIE Networks must grow. Currently employing just under 1,500 people, the Managing Director estimates that that figure will need to rise to over 2,000 by 2029, while the number of contractors working for NIE Networks will need to double from 500 to 1,000 in the same period.

“The RP7 plan, and the sustained level of investment that we are planning over the next 20 years represents one of the largest ongoing private sector investments in the history of Northern Ireland.”

Supplementing this growth is NIE Networks’ ambition to grow its apprenticeship intake by 2025. The Apprentice Academy is open to applications until 11 February 2024. More details can be found on NIE Networks’ website. Hynes explains that this internal growth is symptomatic of the wider economic opportunities afforded by the push towards net zero and the multiplier effect of early investment.

Setting out that NIE Networks’ investment can help generate economic growth and play a key role in the Department for the Economy’s 10X vision, he highlights the role of the organisation as an enabler of other businesses. “As we continue to invest in the network, we will also create jobs and qualifications for our people that help support a more sustainable and prosperous future for society. Other businesses also require us to make connections and capacity available as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“As they imagine a fossil fuel-free future, their plans depend on NIE Networks providing the network that they need to support their growth and climate ambitions.” Hynes believes that by listening to local communities, being as transparent as possible on costs and disruptions, and showing a pathway to economic growth, NIE Networks can continue to enjoy the trust of local communities. “The electricity network is a part of the fabric of the physical landscape and the work of building and maintaining it requires that we have the people’s trust. Being honest and open with people is vital in maintaining this trust and I hope we can become a more transparent organisation over the coming years. “This will mean us truly committing to a just transition for those who are vulnerable. Doing our best to listen and respond to politicians, civic, and community representatives, and those who speak on behalf of the economically disadvantaged is more important than ever. “As we seek to build a new network, we know that the poles and towers that we build will form part of the landscape for generations, and we must work with the communities to make sure that this is done in a way that works for everyone.” Concluding, Hynes points back to NIE Networks’ role as a key enabler of net zero, amidst an array of stakeholders all seeking to make Northern Ireland a better place to live and work. “NIE Networks cannot create a prosperous society alone, but what we can do is play our part through ambitious plans for the electricity network of the future. Fundamentally, we want to create a system whereby people can plug in without concern, and in doing so, burn fewer fossil fuels. “However, we are part of a wider jigsaw working for the people of Northern Ireland. We are a private company, but we work to a public service ethos, recognising that the work that we do not only has environmental benefits but much wider downstream positive economic and societal impacts that can benefit all. “Spending billions of pounds in Northern Ireland creates economic activity in the local economy. It will contribute to the 10X and the net zero economy. As we continue to invest in the network, we also create the jobs and qualifications for our people that help support a more sustainable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland society.”

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A decade of innovation Deputy Secretary for the Economic Strategy Group at the Department for the Economy (DfE), Paul Grocott discusses the importance of transparency in economic development policy in the absence of an Executive.

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Borrowing a quote from Harvard professor Martin Linsky’s take on leadership, Grocott says the Department is “relentlessly optimistic about the possibility of changing our place in the world, and also brutally realistic about the difficulty of getting it done”.

Department’s business plan for the year, the first time a DfE business plan has included activity from right across all of their partner organisations, Grocott says that the Department recognises that policy responses and interventions must be developed and delivered in parallel.

Operating in the absence of an Executive, policymakers in the Department for the Economy have attempted to transparently present plans for economic development, an example of which was the 10X Delivery Plan published in July 2023.

Explaining further, he says: “We need to be clear that we will support activity that can be shown to contribute to those goals, but we must also consider stepping back from activity that is not able to make that contribution. Proper use of public funds requires nothing less.”

The Deputy Secretary acknowledges the current and future “difficult decisions” required as a result of DfE’s budget allocation, but stresses that this does not mean the Department “is without the means to effect change”. “The Department for the Economy has control over significant economic levers, but we must learn to use them in a more focused way and make the best use we can of all our partners’ activities in a coordinated way.” Discussing the overarching 10X vision of supporting innovative economic growth in a way that is inclusive and sustainable, he states: “We need to ensure that our interventions are focused on areas of existing or potential strength and taken forward at a scale sufficient to support genuinely transformational change. “What is clear from our work on the 10X vision to date is that we cannot continue to keep doing the same things over and over and expect different results.” In adopting the 10X Delivery Plan as the

With the Department currently engaged on the delivery of an action plan for 2024/25, Grocott says that the focus will now be on delivering objectives at scale.

Innovation One of the Northern Ireland economy’s most recognisable challenges is longstanding low productivity. Northern Ireland averages a productivity rate some 20 per cent below the UK average, and, more strikingly, 40 per cent below the Republic of Ireland’s rate. A central component of that low productivity is a smaller percentage of innovation-active businesses than the small, advanced economies chosen for comparison. This challenge is further compounded by sub-regional variations of innovation, leading to regional inequalities. “We know that businesses which innovate have higher productivity, are more likely to create new jobs, and are more resilient to market shocks. So, we want to encourage more companies to innovate,

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and for companies that innovate already to move further up the value chain,” says Grocott. “Part of the solution to this regional inequality lies in supporting more businesses to innovate and supporting more people to have relevant skills.” The Deputy Secretary points to significant capital investment through the City Deals programme as some of the efforts ongoing to address the issue but adds: “This is not just an issue for government to address. If we want higher innovative growth, better skills, and more efficient supply chains, we must work together on this shared interest over the coming years to deliver this change.”

Better jobs Supporting better jobs is cited by Grocott as a second critical aspect of productivity. He states that there is a major skills gap in the labour market, referencing DfE figures which demonstrate an “overall poor performance” at skills attainment among the cohort of people educated to level three (A-level) and above. “Supporting innovation to deliver growth and more trade is only part of the 10X vision: we must also ensure that growth supports better outcomes for all our citizens,” he says. Grocott calls on employers in Northern Ireland to “draw upon some of the untapped potential we have in the labour market”. “We have high levels of economic inactivity and part of the reason is that many people face unreasonable barriers to employment.” He also outlines how having “better jobs” will ensure that Northern Ireland has a more inclusive society. Citing that Northern Ireland has the largest proportion of people with disabilities out of employment in the UK, Grocott explains how a person without disabilities and with low levels of qualifications is more likely to be employed than a disabled person with a higher-level qualification: “That cannot be right, both in moral and economic terms.” Having better jobs will, Grocott asserts, ensure that there are reduced levels of regional inequality in Northern Ireland.

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agenda issues

“We can deliver our 10X aims if we move forward in a spirit of partnership as we seek to transform our economy.” “Making the most of the potential of our people can really have an impact at regional and local level, and we can target programmes in Northern Ireland’s most deprived areas to support this,” he says. However, he states that “we must collectively recognise that we are not tapping into our human capital as well as we should be”. “Part of the issue is barriers to people accessing employment that makes the most of their skills, so we need collectively consider what changes we can make to our recruitment practices to tap into this potential.”

Sustainability Grocott asserts that small, advanced economies such as that of Northern Ireland need to “deliberately develop unique strengths to give us a competitive advantage”. “Too often, government has failed to deliver change by shying away from difficult decisions. In the current budget context this is no longer an option,” he says. One aspect of how this is happening, he explains, is that Department officials are identifying Northern Ireland’s strengths to build up the sectors that can make “best use of these unique selling points”. Collaboration across all sectors, he asserts, will be key to addressing these challenges, whether across government

or between government and the business sector. “The aspect of focus, and one that directly reflects the whole 10X concept, is perhaps more challenging; we must focus on those policy interventions that have the most impact.”

The path forward Grocott’s overriding message is that “we are now moving from concept to delivery”. “The first delivery plan has got us moving in the right direction, but we really need now to see change happen. The next delivery plan for 2024/25 will set out our plans to achieve that. The objectives that have been set for 10X delivery are deliberately ambitious, and we need to follow through at scale to deliver real change. “We recognise that achieving this vision will not be easy, and we will not be able to do it without support from all of our partners, whether this is through your engagement in innovation activity, critically examining your recruitment policies or making changes to reduce your carbon footprint. These are unavoidable imperatives in today’s economy, but we can deliver our 10X aims if we move forward in a spirit of partnership as we seek to transform our economy.”


issues agenda

28 ‘potentially unsafe’ Post Office convictions in Northern Ireland The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has identified 28 “potentially unsafe convictions” involving 29 individuals in Northern Ireland over the Post Office scandal. The PPS stated on 17 January 2023 that the Post Office Limited (POL) provided the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in 2020 with a list of 23 cases (involving 24 individuals) in which they believed that Post Office employees had been prosecuted and convicted and which may have relied upon evidence from the Horizon system. These cases were concluded between 2001 and 2014. Throughout that period, the PPS states that investigations were “generally undertaken by POL” which then submitted files to the PPS through the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Of the 28 investigations referred to by the PPS, 24 of those investigations were carried out by the Post Office itself, before being referred to the PSNI. The Post Office Scandal saw over 900 subpostmasters across the UK prosecuted for theft, false accounting, and fraud for shortfalls at their branches when these shortfalls were in fact due to errors of the Post Office’s Horizon accounting software. Although the UK Government has established a public inquiry into the scandal which has seen a small number of convictions overturned, the majority of those convicted are still waiting to have their conviction overturned, and the scandal has re-

entered the public debate following ITV’s dramatisation of the matter, Mr Bates vs The Post Office. In Northern Ireland, of the 29 individuals flagged by the PPS, two have thus far had convictions overturned, and a third, Lee Williamson, is currently before the Court of Appeals. The PPS has stated that it is “mindful of the ongoing public inquiry”, however, unlike its counterparts in England and Wales, the PPS does not have the remit to refer cases that it finds to be “potentially unsafe” to the court, with the onus placed on an individual to refer their case to the Court of Appeal. The PPS states: “We understand that there is no present intention on the part of Westminster to extend the legislative scheme proposed for England and Wales to Northern Ireland or Scotland.” The public inquiry heard from 72 individuals in Northern Ireland in May 2022. Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Herron has since said in a statement that the PPS is likely to oppose appeals where a case is believed to be unconnected to flaws in the Fujitsu Horizon system.

agenda issues

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Credit: Jim Corr

Institute of Public Health marks 25 years of shaping public health policy

Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Martin McKee, gave a keynote address, ‘Should governments make us healthier? Shifting the focus of public policy’, at the Institute of Public Health’s 25th anniversary event in October 2023.

2023 was a significant milestone for the Institute of Public Health (IPH), which marked 25 years of shaping public health policy in Ireland, north and south. Set up in 1998, prior to the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the Institute provides support to the respective departments of health and chief medical officers in both jurisdictions. IPH’s establishment recognised that a geographical border offered no protection against disease or ill-health and that people on both sides of the border faced similar health risks and challenges. As a north/south agency, IPH conducts research and provides evidence and analysis to inform public health policy development. It works with a wide range of stakeholders at local and national level to make lives better for all by improving health equity and reducing health inequalities. To mark this milestone anniversary, IPH hosted a special event on 4 October 2023 to bring together policymakers, public health professionals, and

community representatives to consider if governments can make us healthier. In a keynote address, Martin McKee made the case for all government departments to invest in health by adopting a Health For All Policies approach. The Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says: “We have long known that policies in other sectors – housing, transport, education and so on – can safeguard and improve population health, but we now recognise how better health is essential if we are to achieve success in other sectors. Healthier people stay longer in the workforce and are more productive. Healthier children get better educational outcomes. Healthier families invest more in small and medium enterprises.”


Credit: Jim Corr Credit: Jim Corr

The 25th anniversary event featured a panel discussion moderated by journalist and commentator, Alison O’Connor. Pictured (L-R): are Alison O’Connor; ESRI health economist Anne Nolan; SDLP MLA Colin McGrath; Empower CEO Adeline O’Brien; Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane; Community Development and Health Network Director Joanne Vance; and Martin McKee.

Pictured (L-R): at the Institute of Public Health’s 25th anniversary event in October 2023 were Bernie Hannigan, IPH Board Chair; Roger O’Sullivan, IPH Director of Ageing Research and Development; and Breda Smyth, Chief Medical Officer of Ireland.

In response, a panel of invited guests discussed the potential to shift the focus of health policy and investment and to place greater emphasis on illness prevention and health improvement. The panel included Sinn Féin TD and health spokesperson David Cullinane; SDLP MLA and health and wellbeing spokesperson Colin McGrath; CEO of Empower, Adeline O’Brien; ESRI health economist Anne Nolan; and Director of the Community Development and Health Network, Joanne Vance. The special gathering also heard contributions from IPH Board Chair Bernie Hannigan, Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland Michael McBride, and Chief Medical Officer of Ireland Breda Smyth. Commenting on the 25th anniversary event, IPH Chief Executive, Suzanne Costello, says both jurisdictions could mutually benefit through enhanced cooperation, knowledge exchange, and information-sharing on public health.

Costello adds: “Faced with mounting challenges that affect our health – widening health inequalities, a cost-of-living crisis, the global climate crisis, and a rise in non-communicable diseases – there is a prime opportunity to reframe our approach to health on the island of Ireland and to harness enhanced cross border cooperation on shared public health challenges, such as alcohol harm, tobacco control, overweight and obesity, and the needs of an ageing population.”

W: www.publichealth.ie


issues agenda

Review: Education in Northern Ireland ‘highly underfunded’ Education in Northern Ireland is “highly underfunded”, with recurrent funding for the Department of Education having been reduced by £145 million in real terms in the last decade, a review has found. In what local politicians have described as a “punishment budget”, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris MP made the decision to reduce public spending on education by £70 million. This is symptomatic of cuts to education funding over decades. For reference, in Britain, total spending in education is projected to grow by 9.8 per cent over the next two fiscal years. This longstanding and constant underfunding has dominated the review, commissioned under New Decade, New Approach following the reestablishment of the Executive in January 2020 and published in December 2023, to make a suite of recommended measures which it claims would improve educational outcomes. The first measure proposed in the review is that early years education should be expanded, with the desirable objective being that two-year-olds should receive up to 20 hours of education per week and that three-yearolds receive up to 22.5 hours per week for 38 weeks of the year. 20

agenda issues

“Accompanied by the planned expansion of funded pre-school education this would represent a significant investment in early childhood development. It is estimated that a universal two-year-old programme could cost up to £110 million per annum,” the review states. In terms of funding, the review outlines that, in a constrained funding position, the priority for decisionmakers should be to ensure “equitable and effective provision for all learners while offering additional support to disadvantaged children and their families” and that the immediate priority should be “those in disadvantage, before moving to more universal provision”.

Educational disadvantage To combat educational disadvantage, the review recommends that the Fair Start Programme should be funded and implemented and that the Engage Programme should be evaluated, and a business case developed to assess the widest potential benefits to


issues agenda

investing in early childhood education;

“Learners with statements of SEN should not be considered as supernumerary to admission or enrolment figures. This approach should allow institutions to prepare to meet the needs of these learners. The goal should be to adopt a ‘SEN first’ model that ensures that learners with a statement of SEN receive school placements in a timely manner.”

introducing pre-vocational pathways from 14 years old;

Other proposed changes

removing qualification requirements that prevent progression;

prioritising wellbeing;

investing in continuing professional development;

measuring success other than attainment at 16 or 18 years;

raising the age of educational participation to 18 years old;

developing a thriving college sector with valued vocational qualifications; and

The review also calls for the limiting of the number of students undertaking transfer tests and the promotion of the need for increased flexibility at age 14 to allow students to transfer to different institutions if they wish.

providing educational opportunities for underqualified adults.

Political reaction

Northern Ireland of mainstreaming such an approach to provide ongoing targeted support for learners at risk of disadvantage. The report makes numerous recommendations that it states would positively contribute to combatting disadvantage. These include:

Improving SEN support To improve learner support, inclusion, and wellbeing, the review outlines the need to transform SEN (students with a statement of special educational needs) support “to cater equitably for the needs of all learners”. On SEN support, the review is stark, asserting that “current policies, practices, and legislation are failing to deliver support for learners with SEN”. At the same time, the review argues that expenditure is out of control in a way that “threatens the quality of service for all learners”. “Thorough reform is urgently required. The use of resources should be based on equitable treatment of all pupils.” The authors of the review say that a comprehensive learner support workforce programme should be developed and implemented to increase the number of specialist provision professionals (such as trained SEN teachers, speech and language therapists, educational psychologists, etc.) whilst reducing the number of classroom assistants.

Other points of note include a proposal to make education mandatory until the age of 18, and the need for a single education department, with the Department of Education only assuming responsibility for primary and post-primary education, while further and higher education falls under the remit of the Department for the Economy.

Sinn Féin Stormont spokesperson for education Pat Sheehan MLA said the review puts a “welcome focus on SEN and early years” but ignores the “long tale of underachievement”. “The review appears to ignore the major, and well documented, fault-line within our education system which is the long tale of underachievement in the North and the practices, such as academic selection, which drive it,” Sheehan said. DUP education spokesperson Diane Dodds MLA said that “there are both challenges for those involved in education as well as providing solutions across a number of areas”. Alliance education spokesperson Nick Mathison MLA said that while he welcomed the report, that “many of these recommendations are only possible with an Education Minister in post”. “This report can bring real transformation within our education system but only if a reformed and properly funded Assembly and Executive is up and running.”

agenda issues

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round table discussion

Energy transition: Implementation that meets consumer need The Consumer Council gathered stakeholders from energy, water, transport, and academia to discuss the role of the consumer in the energy transition. What is the role of the consumer in the energy transition? Kevin Shiels Energy is a fundamental part of the essential services all consumers require daily, ranging from different forms of energy (oil, gas, electricity), to transport, and water. The reality is that these services are changing as we move

Round table discussion hosted by

towards decarbonised energy systems and wider economy; and consumers are central to that change. Firstly, because it is consumers who will inevitably pay for this change, and secondly, because these services need to ensure that all consumers, not just those who are engaged in the transition, are informed, catered for, and protected where needed. The energy transition should not happen to consumers, it should be driven by consumers and a big part of this is about how they can be incentivised to change behaviours. Paddy Larkin The consumer has many roles in the transition but potentially the most critical role is support. If consumers do not support the transition, it will not happen. That support comes in two levels. Firstly, consumers as a whole, who will need to pay for the transition. There is risk in such long-term commitments and so if consumers are going to support it, they need to see that it is being done at the lowest cost, with the best intentions, and that the potential of any unintended

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consequences are minimised. They need to be informed, and importantly, well represented. At an individual level, changing behaviours is key to the transition. To enable this, consumers must have choice and be incentivised to change. Stephanie McCullagh The cleanest form of energy is that which is not used, and consumption reduction is a critical part of the transition. Consumers have a personal responsibility for energy conservation, which, when calculated as a collective, can be a massive driver of change. Our role as a utility in the transition might not be immediately evident, but NI Water is the single largest electricity user in Northern Ireland and as such we need to help customers understand that as more water is consumed, more energy is required for treatment and distribution and therefore taking small steps such as conserving water can play a part in the energy transition. Greater understanding of the energy cost of consumption is required and we need the consumer to


Round table participants

support greater efficiency, act on it, and lobby for change. Inna Vorushylo It is important to highlight that consumer engagement does not always represent active consumers. We need active consumers, but to be active, consumers need to be informed and they need to trust their providers. Unfortunately, that trust between the consumer and energy organisations is quite low. The consumer needs evidence that they can trust the actions being taken to transition and they need to see opportunities in it.

Noyona Chundur Noyona Chundur has been Chief Executive of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland since January 2021 and was awarded Public Sector Director of the Year at the 2023 Institute of Director Awards. A former board member of the Consumer Council and Chair of the Audit and Risk Assurance Committee prior to becoming Chief Executive, she has previously held the role of Head of Campaigns and Digital Solutions at Invest Northern Ireland.

Chris Conway

Chris Conway

Active consumers can drive change but there needs to be much more education to ensure the link between energy efficiency and climate change reduction are being made. Energy efficiency, and the steps that consumers can take right now for better conservation, are not part of the mainstream conversation. Instead, the media tend to focus on the decarbonising potential of future technologies like EVs or heat pumps, and less on the most efficient of all, which is consumption reduction. I also believe consumers have a big role to play in vocalising to politicians and policymakers how they want the transition to happen and to support politicians to make some of the big decisions needed.

round table discussion

Chris Conway is Group Chief Executive of Translink, which is the main public transport provider for Northern Ireland, providing rail, bus, and coach services across the region. He is a member of Business in the Community (BITC) NI Advisory Board, a member of the CBI NI Council, and a member of the Ulster University Council. He is a Chartered Company Director and a Fellow of the Institute of Directors. He is also a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Paddy Larkin Paddy Larkin joined Mutual Energy (then Northern Ireland Energy Holdings) in 2007 as an Executive Director and Managing Director of Moyle Interconnector Ltd and, in 2010, took over as Chief Executive of the Group. Previously, Larkin was the Chief Executive of Premier Power, a subsidiary of the BG Group and owner of Ballylumford Power Station. He is an engineering graduate from Queen’s University Belfast, a Fellow of the Irish Academy of Engineering and serves as a non-executive director of Northern Ireland Water.

Noyona Chundur

Stephanie McCullagh

Consumers are the most important component of the energy transition and their insights need to drive how we navigate this change. To do so, we need to fully understand where consumers are today. The reality is most consumers have low understanding, awareness, and appetite for the transition. The past two and a half years of market volatility, security of supply concerns, and price rises has seen interest rise because consumers want to lower their bills, but not their understanding of what is expected from them or environmental considerations. Consumers need to first understand what is being asked, and presented with simple, accessible, and convenient actions, so they can embrace the energy transition and influence government and policy making.

Stephanie McCullagh is currently the Director of Customer and Operations at NI Water and has worked in the water industry for over 27 years. She has held a range of senior positions in NI Water including leading capital delivery and transformation programmes as well large operational and customer teams. She is a civil engineering graduate from the Ulster University and is a chartered member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Kevin Shiels Kevin Shiels is an Executive Director in the Utility Regulator (UR). His main focus is regulated markets and consumer outcomes, compliance and enforcement investigations, energy strategy, and UR’s current restructuring programme. An economist by profession, Shiels was previously Director of Retail Markets and Consumer Protection at the UR and has previously held government economic advisory posts in a number of Northern Ireland departments. He has a BSc in economics from Queen’s University Belfast and an MSc in applied economics from Ulster University.

Inna Vorushylo Inna Vorushylo is a lecturer in energy markets and energy storage at Ulster University. She has more than 15 years of experience and expertise in energy research, focusing on energy and power system modelling and policy influence, specifically the challenges and opportunities of energy transition. Within this context, Vorushylo is dedicated to exploring the pivotal role of energy storage and demand flexibility in driving and shaping the decarbonisation of the energy system.

What are the priority pillars of delivering a consumer-centric transition? Noyona Chundur In a joint project between the Consumer

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round table discussion

“By its very nature, energy transition has to be delivered at pace. What consumers want when moving at speed is to trust the energy system and the suppliers operating within it.” Noyona Chundur Council and the Utility Regulator, looking at future consumer protection during decarbonisation, we identified six priority pillars. The first, and consumers see this as a non-negotiable, is protection. Consumers need robust protections to be confident in the energy market. Secondly, the cost of energy transition must be affordable for all consumers, and from a whole systems perspective. Thirdly, consumers want simplicity with trusted information and clear pathways to the access services and solutions they need, tailored to their circumstances. Fourthly is to build consumer trust.

leadership to explain why they should invest in the energy transition. Kevin Shiels I think the biggest priority for a consumer-centric transition in Northern Ireland is a concerted and focused move beyond the rhetoric to one of action. The Department for the Economy’s Energy

Strategy identified the need for a consumer-centric energy transition and the Climate Change Act outlined the need for a just transition, but what do these mean when it comes to delivery? For example, it is important that Northern Ireland moves ahead with the just transition strategy and principles set out in the Climate Change Act. Similarly, the need for independent, quality advice for consumers is agreed by all and the Department’s strategy usefully identified a one-stop-shop approach for consumers, but the wheels need to be firmly set in motion to enable consumers to make informed decisions and have trust in that information. Two other brief examples – Northern Ireland is behind other neighbouring jurisdictions on delivering frameworks for promoting more active consumers and behavioural change to enable decarbonisation; and we lack the energy affordability solutions being delivered elsewhere, for example, affordability tariffs for vulnerable customers. So, the priority for a consumer-centric transition in Northern Ireland is to move beyond the rhetoric and start delivering on the building blocks and enablers that we all recognise are needed. Noyona Chundur Interestingly, consumers are more engaged in and supportive of solutions when they are localised. Our research into the decarbonisation of transport found support for macro measures such as increasing tax on petrol and diesel cars (16 per cent), increasing car parking

Fifthly, consumers want inclusive policies and standards that set out how industry and suppliers interact with them. Inclusivity also means addressing the digital divide so no one is left behind when we consider digital delivery. Finally, consumers want leadership. Our lowest earning households have less than £27 per week after paying for essentials, so they want to see visible and consistent

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“We need to ensure there are no unintended penalties for those who cannot afford to upgrade to new renewable technologies.” Stephanie McCullagh


charges (23 per cent), or introducing congestion charges (30 per cent) was low. When we flipped the questions to focus making their town or city cleaner and safer, 65 per cent would support traffic calming measures, 60 per cent would support an ultra low-emission zone for Belfast and 51 per cent would support low traffic neighbourhoods. There are quick wins available if we can identify local value and benefit. Chris Conway

“The energy transition should not happen to consumers, it should be driven by consumers and a big part of this is about how they can be incentivised to change behaviours.” Kevin Shiels pay for the service they receive and the energy consumed.

Paddy Larkin A consumer-centric transition is one that understands that no one is willing to regress on the current standards of provision or standards of living. A transition that threatens security of supply or reliability to the power or water running to homes, for example, will not be accepted nor supported. It goes beyond the energy sector. We cannot have an outright ban currently on fossil fuel plants but expect the lights to always come on. At the same time, we cannot expect 100 per cent renewable electricity supply but reject the building of new renewable infrastructure. Therefore, education and awareness around the trade offs that will be required is a priority pillar. That feeds into the issue of affordability. As it stands, green energy is a more expensive endeavour and therefore, energy efficiency is a critical element of driving affordability. However, efficiency needs to be appropriately incentivised and that includes the recognition that tariffs must be tiered to match different social need. Stephanie McCullagh Education of the consumer is a priority. For example, water is a mostly hidden service because much of the infrastructure is unseen. However, that does not mean that consumers do not

At NI Water we have worked hard to ensure we are sharing with consumers the responsible steps NI Water is taking to drive down our usage and therefore consumer costs. In doing so, we also aim to show we are taking our decarbonisation journey seriously. We see an opportunity to join-up our thinking with other key stakeholders and help drive policy decision-making. Inna Vorushylo From an engineering perspective, decarbonisation of the energy sector is wholly possible but if we are to achieve it, then we rely on empowered consumers. An empowered consumer can take many forms ranging from those who want to benefit from providing reliability and load balancing to the grid, to those who simply want to delegate decision making to a trusted provider via a one-click solution. However, what all consumers will want, and must have, is sight of the overall and personal benefits.

What are the challenges posed to consumer protection of a fast transition?

round table discussion

A strong consumer voice can help garner political momentum and drive policy changes. To achieve that strong voice, there needs to be greater clarity on what a just transition is and the pathway that is being taken. There is a genuine fear among many low-income households that the energy transition means larger costs and greater fuel poverty. We must articulate and demonstrate fully that a just transition means that everyone will be taken along on the journey and no one will be left behind. If that can be done, then I think the support of a much larger cohort of people can be acquired. Another avenue of support is the removal of existing road blocks to let engaged consumers self-generate and feed back in to the grid, allowing them to be an active player in the transition.

renewable technologies, but consumers as a whole currently pay for the networks to support them. However, there are limitations and challenges in the equitable access to infrastructure and we can see a global trend whereby vulnerable consumers are being left behind. Another challenge is how we ensure that as some industries phase out, we create new jobs and reskill employees for the future employment market. Stephanie McCullagh We need to ensure there are no unintended penalties for those who cannot afford to upgrade to new renewable technologies. One way of doing that is through a just transition and ensuring that everyone is brought along on the journey and no one is left behind. Chris Conway The most obvious one is that technology follows Moore’s law: people coming in

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Inna Vorushylo Affordability. Some consumers can afford to buy electric vehicles or install 25 25


get in too late and you join a long queue because this transition is global. The other challenge is affordability. We currently have a situation where the person who is not producing renewable energy is providing security of supply for the person that is. The tariffs and the prices people pay are not reflective of the infrastructure they use and that becomes more apparent if you go very fast in the transition. Kevin Shiels

round table discussion

“A consumer-centric transition is one that understands that no one is willing to regress on the current standards of provision or standards of living.” Paddy Larkin early may pay the higher prices and the prices will come down as the technology advances. People are therefore afraid of moving too fast but we need leaders to take those first steps otherwise the transition will never happen.

those countries now seeking to follow them are coming up against different challenges in the form of accessing infrastructure. There is a timing challenge. Get in too early and you pay too much,

The pace of change can be frightening and it is being driven by the energy companies themselves, quite rightly wanting to decarbonise, and by the challenging Northern Ireland legislative 2030 decarbonisation targets. That pace of change is not going away. However, we can establish minimum standards regardless of what energy the consumer uses, consumers should be guaranteed standards around price transparency, complaints handling, and the full consumer journey from delivering new technology through to the outcomes in their homes and businesses. If we can get that in place and set a base level of protection for consumers, we can indeed provide a more consumer centric transition. The second thing we can do is learn from elsewhere. The reality is that Northern Ireland is behind other jurisdictions in looking at these questions. We do not have to reinvent the wheel and

Noyona Chundur This links back to honest conversations that are not happening, whether it is around heat pumps or EVs. Part of the narrative around heat pumps is them being a good thing, but that narrative does not include the disruption, the timeframes, the steps necessary for their installation, or the other technologies out there. We need to ensure that the consumer has all of the information so that they can make informed decisions, and we build and retain their trust in the transition. Paddy Larkin Germany and Britain are early leaders in renewable energy but they both have very high electricity prices. However,

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“Digitalisation can help the energy sector to interact more efficiently with other sectors, such as transport, health or education and bring cross-sectoral benefits of more integral system design and planning.” Inna Vorushylo


we can be focused fast-followers of other jurisdictions who are further advanced, albeit we do have to make our transition Northern Ireland centric. Noyona Chundur

“We need simple policies. For example, if Belfast is a zero-emissions zone, then it is a simple decision for people to get a bus, or a train, or to walk.” Chris Conway Stephanie McCullagh

Kevin Shiels Until Northern Ireland has a trusted source of independent advice on what these terms mean and how individual consumers should change their behaviour, we will always have this problem of the ordinary person on the street not knowing what any of this means for them, for example on the best future options for home heating.

Identify the key enablers of empowered consumers in the transition. Kevin Shiels A form of independent trusted advice where consumers can get specific advice that they know is right for them and helps them make important decisions around changing their behaviours to help deliver decarbonisation. However, there will always be a large group of consumers who do not respond to informational signals, so we need some base level consumer protection that operates no matter what, for all consumers, so that those who do not engage default to a good deal, regardless. Paddy Larkin The domestic consumer needs strong representation through the decisionmaking process where these long-term contracts are being signed.

For me, it is affordability and accessibility. How do we make it affordable for all consumers to go to clean energy sources? What incentives and subsidies do we need and at what point do we need them? It is about making all of those available to everybody to get the timing right and make the transition available to all. Inna Vorushylo First is consumer-centric digitalisation of our energy system, to empower consumers and achieve a more efficient electricity market. If digitalisation and open data access happens, it could bring innovation, develop smart infrastructure, lower consumer bills and help eradicate fuel poverty, as regulators should have the instruments and data to see who is being left behind. Digitalisation can help the energy sector to interact more efficiently with other sectors, such as transport, health or education and bring cross-sectoral benefits of more integral system design and planning.

round table discussion

By its very nature, energy transition has to be delivered at pace. What consumers want when moving at speed is to trust the energy system and the suppliers operating within it. However, before we even get there, we need to address the knowledge gap that exists. Our research found 79 per cent of consumers have little to no knowledge of the term greenhouse gas emissions, and it was 56 per cent for net zero, 62 per cent for decarbonisation and 73 per cent for energy transition, and three in 10 did not know petrol and diesel cars are being phased out by 2035. We are starting at a low baseline and we have work to do. It is not just about influencing policy; it is about engaging communities to bring consumers onboard, giving them affordable energy for their homes and bringing them on the journey to becoming more sustainable households. The pace is set; connectivity and collaboration is the way forward.

introduced the first low-emissions zones in 2008, public transport usage increased significantly because of that one policy decision. People had a simple decision to make and it resulted in a significant shift away from people using private cars to sustainable transport. Noyona Chundur One thing that brings together everything everyone has said is giving consumers the opportunity to be involved in the transition through co-design and coproduction. This would take it one step further from representing their interests to bringing them into the process, and helping them move them from passive to active energy consumers while appreciating the scale of the challenge ahead and their role within it. This would also allow them to feed into policy decisions right at the outset, so they are embedded at the heart of the transition and invested in the appropriate pathways for them.

Chris Conway It is about simplicity. To make it easy, consumers need easy decisions to make. From a transport perspective, that is about better policy from government. We need simple policies. For example, if Belfast is a zero-emissions zone, then it is a simple decision for people to get a bus, or a train, or to walk. When London 27 27


issues agenda

Satisfaction with democracy waning north and south A new Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report into social and political attitudes in Ireland has found that attitudes are typically more positive in the Republic than in Northern Ireland, but that satisfaction with democracy has decreased in each jurisdiction. Satisfaction with democracy In its report, Changing social and political attitudes in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the ESRI found satisfaction with democracy was notably lower in Northern Ireland compared to the Republic at the beginning of the 21st century, with data collated showing it to be 22 percentage points lower and under 50 per cent of people expressing satisfaction at the time. This gap was then further widened by further declines in Northern Ireland up to 2002, when the first post-Good Friday Agreement Executive was dissolved, but satisfaction then rose by almost 30 percentage points to 2005/06, counterintuitively at a time when the democratic institutions were not functioning.

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agenda issues


issues agenda

Much of this uptick (20 percentage points) was then clawed back by another decrease at the time of the 2008 recession, but from 2009 until 2015, satisfaction with democracy in Northern Ireland “entered a period of slow and sustained recovery, where levels of satisfaction were not too dissimilar” to the Republic. While data limitations mean that the report’s findings on Northern Ireland cease in 2018, it is noted that trends in the two jurisdictions began to diverge once again from 2015 onwards, with northern satisfaction beginning a decline from around 70 per cent to 60 per cent in 2018. Attitudes in the Republic are said by the ESRI to have been “significantly shaped by the 2008/09 recession and the subsequent period of austerity”. Satisfaction hovered between 70 and 80 per cent in the years between 1998 and 2006, but 2007 saw it dramatically decline by over half, falling from around 80 per cent of people to under 40 per cent expressing satisfaction with democracy. Having slightly recovered to 60 per cent by 2009, satisfaction remained “lower and stable” throughout the period of austerity until 2014, including a dip as low as 50 per cent in 2012/13, and has steadily increased since 2015, with the JanuaryFebruary 2023 level of 83 per cent being the highest recorded over the 25 years studied. Thus, despite its gradual improvement from a low start, the ESRI determines that satisfaction with democracy in Northern Ireland is said to be “much more volatile” than the Republic. Perceived political efficacy, i.e. the degree to which people believe their voice counts, trends largely mirror that of satisfaction with democracy, with Northern Ireland experiencing an increase from 2007 to 2010, a decrease from 2011 to 2014, improvement from 2015 onwards to just over 50 per cent of people believing their voice counts. Having been below 40 per cent in 2007, the proportion of people believing their voice counts in the Republic rose to almost 80 per cent by 2018 but has subsequently decreased, hovering in the 60 per cent range in the 2020s. Optimism for the future, measured by whether or not respondents believe life

“Optimism for the future, measured by whether or not respondents believe life will improve over the next 12 months, is not high in either jurisdiction.” will improve over the next 12 months, is not high in either jurisdiction. Having stood at over 40 per cent in Northern Ireland at the start of the century, the rate of people believing life would improve was below 30 per cent by 2018, having risen as high as 50 per cent and dropped as low as 20 per cent in the interim. Having been at a similar level as Northern Ireland in 1998, optimism in the Republic rose as high as 50 per cent during the Celtic Tiger era and then plummeted to 20 per cent during the recession and the years of austerity. Having recovered, fallen, and then recovered again, optimism has once again plummeted since 2021, a period during which the Covid crisis lurched into second and third years and was then compounded by inflationary headwinds.

Trust in institutions From 1998 to 2023, trust in political institutions never exceeded 50 per cent in either jurisdiction. Political trust was at the same level in both in 1999, just under 40 per cent, but cratered in Northern Ireland while increasing in the Republic before the recession. Perhaps counterintuitively, political trust increased in Northern Ireland in the period during the early 2000s without an Executive and fell to below 20 per cent following the resumption of the Executive after the St Andrews Agreement and the onset of the recession. Political trust strongly recovered from 2013 to 2016, a time of relative stability for the Executive, but fell back to just above 20 per cent by 2017 following political ruptures such as the RHI scandal, the dissolution of the Executive, and Brexit.

Political trust fluctuated in the Republic in the early part of the century, rising by 10 percentage points before declining by 15, before entering a period of stability in the 30 to 40 per cent range during the last years of the Celtic Tiger, and subsequently dropping below 20 per cent during the recession and austerity. Remaining stagnant and low until 2013, the levels of trust rapidly increased from 2014 onwards, reaching the highest level since 2001 by 2023 despite a decrease during the Covid era. The data within the report presents a more straightforward picture for Northern Ireland rather than the Republic: during a period in which power-sharing was resurrected and failed on multiple occasions while also being defined by macropolitical events such as the 2008 financial crash, Brexit, Covid-19, and the inflation crisis, the people of Northern Ireland lost trust in political institutions and experienced fluctuating levels of optimism for their own futures and satisfaction with democracy itself. In the Republic, trust and satisfaction have increased while optimism contradictorily decreases. A finding that poses a political challenge in both jurisdictions is that people do not believe that their lives will improve year-on-year. With price inflation outpacing wage growth, it would be hard to argue that this feeling is not rooted in material reality. Tackling these challenges will be key towards ensuring this lack of optimism does not translate into further loses of faith in institutions and democracy itself.

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Women in engineering: Leading the way in firmus energy

(L-R): Rachel Rafferty, HSE Graduate Engineer; Chantal Hemphill, HSE Manager; and Rochelle Magee, Engineering Technical Administrator.

In a traditionally male-dominated industry, firmus energy is extremely proud of our engineering achievements and progress towards gender equality, with women now making up over 25 per cent of the engineering team. Having invested over £200 million since 2005, firmus energy has constructed and maintains over 2,200km of new underground polyethylene (PE) gas pipe work in the Ten Towns natural gas network area, connecting over 69,000 customers across 35 cities, towns and villages, stretching from Warrenpoint to Derry/Londonderry.

contractors in construction, installation,

Supplying gas to over 111,000 customers in all the natural gas networks in Northern Ireland, firmus energy employs more than 120 staff and sustains over 300 indirect roles through

energy efficiency starts at home and this

and other support services. Sustainability is a strategic priority within firmus energy. To embed that in the culture of the organisation, firmus energy is the only UK energy provider to put all its staff through City & Guilds Energy Efficiency training in the belief that training also puts staff in a better position to give advice and guidance to its customers to reduce their bills, save energy and help alleviate fuel poverty.

Ensuring high levels of network performance, the gas network in Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to accept renewable gases without having to make significant changes to upgrade our network and this will assist in the transition away from fossil fuels. The sizeable agri-foods industry in Northern Ireland presents a further opportunity to utilise agriculture, retail, and hospitality waste through anaerobic digestion to produce biomethane. Generating renewable gas locally will have a range of benefits for the environment and our


Chantal Hemphill, Health Safety and Environmental Manager With over 25 years’ experience in the energy industry, Chantal Hemphill has worked for firmus energy as the Health, Safety and Environmental Manager for six years. Having joined the energy sector as a graduate engineer she has held a number of roles involving design, construction, and emergency response before specialising her career in health, safety and environmental management. Hemphill plays a key role in emergency preparedness within firmus energy, planning, and overseeing emergency scenario exercises involving teams across the organisation, appointed contractors and many external stakeholders. As a graduate engineer, Hemphill quickly became interested in how the industry operated with respect to its strict safety standards and grasped the opportunity to gain further academic qualifications in health and safety, which eventually led her to becoming a chartered health and safety practitioner. Hemphill manages the health, safety, and environmental framework, developing policies and processes for the company working directly with managers, employees and contractors across the business. Hemphill uses her engineering background whilst working directly with people, improving standards, influencing behaviours and promoting safety. She has been instrumental in the development of processes and our environmental performance. This culture of sustainability has been recognised by Business in the Community awarding firmus energy Environmental Benchmarking Platinum Standard.

Rachel Rafferty, HSE Graduate

Rochelle Magee, Engineering

Engineer

Technical Administrator

After successful completion of her

Rochelle Magee has been with firmus

industrial placement within engineering,

energy for 12 years, progressing from

Rachel Rafferty joined firmus energy on a

her initial role within customer care to

permanent basis upon graduation from

her current position of Engineering

her degree in safety engineering and

Technical Administrator. Magee has

disaster recovery from Ulster University through the

responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the

company’s Engineering Development Programme.

organisation’s ISO55001 accredited Asset Management

Rafferty is responsible for ensuring all safety and

System, managing the lifecycle of our assets effectively.

environmental standards are being met across the business. Her day can range from attending site visits with constructions teams and liaising with contractors to presenting on safety or environmental performance at various internal forums and working groups.

Having successfully completed the Institute of Asset Management Diploma in 2022, Magee has developed an extensive breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding of asset management which underpins her control of daily asset management activities, ensuring that

A key part of Rafferty’s role is to support the development

all network assets deliver the highest level of service in the

of mobile working technology, enabling engineering

most efficient manner whilst minimising risk. Since

personnel to work effectively while in the field with no loss in productivity, lowering emissions from reduced business mileage and reduction in paper usage across the business.

customers and will be key in meeting government net zero targets. As firmus energy prioritises the transition to net zero carbon and play our part in creating green jobs for the future it is important to consider the people behind the energy sector in Northern Ireland. Firmus energy was awarded the prestigious Diversity Mark NI Bronze Award in 2022 in recognition of its commitment to gender diversity in the workplace. Above, we focus on three key female role models within the business:

implementation of the accredited asset management system, firmus energy has demonstrated enviable levels of continual improvement in performance.

The Northern Ireland gas industry has progressed significantly over the years. It is definitely seen as less of a man’s world than it used to be with many women holding key technical roles across the industry. Firmus energy is passionate about taking a pro-active approach in encouraging more women into the energy sector by promoting the various pathways and potential opportunities that the industry holds and working closely with local universities to develop graduate scholarships. Firmus energy also partners with local

schools and colleges to encourage gender equality within STEM, through careers talks that inspire the next generation of energy network engineers and helps nurture the future leaders who will deliver our net zero strategy.

T: 0330 024 9000 E: furtherinfo@firmusenergy.co.uk W: www.firmusenergy.co.uk


issues agenda

The UK’s productivity crisis Chris Giles, economics commentator of the Financial Times, speaks to agendaNi about how the UK’s economic recovery has been hindered by a productivity crisis. “The UK economy is not in a healthy state, but it is probably not as bad as people outside the UK view it at the moment,” Giles says, summarising developments at the end of 2023. The most significant problem facing the UK economy, he explains, is a crisis in productivity growth. “Almost every advanced economy around the world has had a decline in productivity growth after the financial crisis of 2008, but the UK’s is bigger than almost anyone else’s,” he says. The scale of the problem is evident in the challenges posed to forecasting the economic outlook. In April 2008, the IMF predicted growth per annum of about 2.75 per cent out to 2013. In September 2008, the financial crash hit, and since then there has been a gradual but consistent decrease in what economic forecasters think the UK can achieve. Had the predicted 2.75 per cent growth rate become reality, Giles says that the UK would have a “bright 32

agenda issues


issues agenda

After revisions, the UK is no longer likely to be a G7 outlier with the worst postpandemic recovery: Real GDP index, 2019 Q4 = 100

Source: Chris Giles, Financial Times.

outlook” where public finances would be generating rapid tax revenues with strong real growth. Instead, at 1.5 per cent, “it is tough”, and “if it goes below that, which some people think it will, it is really tough”. In comparison to the UK, the US has recovered from both the financial crisis of 2008 and more recent economic shocks much faster. Since 2008, the US economy has grown by 30 per cent while the UK’s has grown by 16 per cent, a gap that is mirrored in the recovery figures since the Covid crisis. While the recovery from Covid-19 has “definitely been [and gone] now”, the UK economy is still between 2 and 3 per cent below “where we thought we would be in 2019” just as Covid began. The crisis led to significant amounts of borrowing, which has left the UK with a debt of roughly 95 per cent of its GDP. With interest rates at 5.25 per cent, such high levels of debt make the debt interest component of government spending significantly higher than previous years.

Inflation “What has happened in the world in the last year-and-a-half has been the inflation shock, which we are still trying to understand properly,” Giles says. “We are now realising that a lot of it was supply, not demand. There was a demand shock as well, but it was mostly a supply shock, which has now improved and that is helping to bring US inflation down, but US price levels are about 15 per cent higher than they were before the shock, and that is what people feel.” The inflationary peak was particularly felt in Europe, Giles says, due to the spike in gas prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While gas prices now remain at roughly twice the wholesale price when compared to prices prior to the invasion, they are no longer rising as rapidly as they were in early 2022, with inflation falling to 2.4 per cent in the eurozone, 3 per cent in the US, and 4.6 per cent in the UK. “We have had a more persistent shock, and this is one thing that the Bank of England is concerned about, that we

might have more persistence in our inflation,” Giles says. “I think that is a legitimate concern for now but hopefully that will go away reasonably quickly. The Government can say that they have halved inflation in 2023 although that was always generally going to happen, and the public are unlikely to give the Government credit for that because they will see that prices are 16 per cent higher than they were two years ago and their wages have not risen by 16 per cent, so they are worse off. “All of this means that people are not happy. The Bank of England is very concerned and has reason to be very concerned. It is an independent, unelected bureaucracy and if it loses public trust, that is a real problem. It has pretty much lost public trust due to this inflation episode and I would have thought that it would absolutely want to have inflation licked before interest rates start coming down. You have to maintain your credibility and central banks have lost quite a bit of credibility over the last year.” Neither the UK Government nor private

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issues agenda

A Starmer goverment would face a very different growth environment that in the 1990s: UK real GDP, date of election in 1997 and expected in 2024 = 100

Source: Chris Giles, Financial Times.

sector forecasts predict significant growth in the years ahead, with an average of 1 per cent growth per year predicted over the course of the next five years. This is partly, Giles says, because there is still work to do to lower inflation, with high interest rates designed to “cause some pain” to companies and households and lower spending.

Following a sustained period of economic shocks – from the financial crisis of 2008 to Brexit to Covid and then the inflationary crisis – Giles stresses that the economy could also deteriorate, especially depending upon the result of 2024 US presidential election and the possibility of the latest stage of the Israel-Palestine conflict escalating beyond the Holy Land.

While the Bank of England, the body that essentially controls economic growth through determining interest rates, are pessimistic, Giles believes they are too pessimistic: “Their latest forecast from November 2023 has inflation being more sustained than I think it probably will be, but if they are right, they will need to keep interest rates higher for longer and that will depress the outlook to a point that we will have very little growth over the next few years. The labour market, however, is relatively strong. Employment is not the problem, it is productivity. We have low unemployment and high employment rates, but this is not the problem.”

In the UK, public finances improved throughout 2023, with wage growth higher than expected leading to tax revenues also being higher than expected. However, Giles points out that Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt MP’s response to this was not to give the extra revenue to public services, meaning that real increases that were expected in departments are now being replaced by real cuts in government expenditure. “There is something that is going to be very difficult for whoever wins the next election: another period of austerity, or there will be more money put into public services, but then that probably means that the tax cuts we have just been given will be taken back in some other form,” Giles says.

There are signs for optimism that things may improve earlier than expected, Giles says. Wage growth now outpaces price growth, and business confidence surveys have seen upticks recently, although Giles caveats this by saying they are growing “at quite a low level, but at least going in the right direction”. Consumer confidence is still low when considered in the long term but has at least begun to recover from its autumn 2022 low point. All of these factors continuing to improve could allow the Bank of England to drop interest rates sooner than expected, which could allow more demand into the economy.

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“For Labour, who we expect to win the election given the polls, it is much more difficult than it was in 1997, when they last won an election after a period of being out of power. The other way of looking at it is that they might feel like they have to spend more money but will have to raise taxes as well to fund that. “It is going to be a tough period, I do not think it is as bad as other countries see the UK at the moment, but it is a pretty sober outlook.”


issues agenda

Department seeks legal advice over missed first carbon budget timeframe The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) says that it is considering legal advice after the passing of the statutory deadline for publishing Northern Ireland’s first carbon budget. The Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 established the “end of 2023” as a deadline for the Department to publish carbon budgets for the first three budgetary periods of (2023-2027, 2028-2032, and 2033-2037). Despite the launch of a 16-week consultation in June 2023 on Northern Ireland’s 2030 and 2040 emissions reduction targets, as well as the first three carbon budgets, the Department has not clarified its current or next steps for establishing a carbon budget. Instead, in response to a query on why the deadline had been missed, and whether a new timeframe had been established, a spokesperson for DAERA said that the Department is currently considering legal advice and as such, “is unable to comment further at this time”. Carbon budgets set a maximum total amount for the net Northern Ireland emissions as a whole for five-year periods and are seen as a key component to the overarching ambition of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While the emission targets set are a net figure for Northern Ireland, each department will have to ensure that the net Northern Ireland emissions account for each budgetary period does not exceed the carbon budget for that period. The Climate Change Act mandated the

Department to carry out a public consultation lasting at least 16 weeks on proposed carbon budgets; commission a financial, social, economic, and rural impact assessment on the effects of the carbon budget for that period; and consult the Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner, the other Northern Ireland departments and the Just Transition Commission and lay proposals before the Assembly. It is around this last point on which the Department is potentially seeking advice, given the prolonged absence of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and subsequent failure to appoint a Northern Ireland Climate Commission Commissioner and establish a Just Transition Commission. While the Climate Change Act allowed for the Department to publish regulations that would amend carbon budgets for any budgetary period before the start of that period and change the date by which a carbon budget must be set, the Department has missed the timeframe set for the first carbon budget for 20232027. Earlier in 2023, the Department had already set out that plans to also consult on Northern Ireland’s first draft Climate Action Plan (2023-2027) had been delayed, pointing to the requirement for detailed modelling, analysis, and policy development across government

departments, “coupled with an extremely difficult budgetary position and the challenges associated with developing, in the absence of ministers, the new policies and programmes required to meet the carbon reduction targets”. Prior to the establishment of a net zero greenhouse gas emission target in the Northern Ireland Climate Change Act, the Climate Change Commission, an independent, statutory body set up to advise the UK and devolved governments on emission targets, had previously advised on an 83 per cent emission reduction target for Northern Ireland, highlighting that even this aspiration would be “extremely challenging”. The Climate Change Commission has recommended that the first carbon budget should be set at a 33 per cent average annual reduction, the second carbon budget at a 48 per cent average annual reduction, and the third carbon budget at a 62 per cent average annual reduction. The Climate Change Act requires the setting of targets for the years 2030 and 2040, that are in line with the 2050 target, to be completed by June 2024. The CCC’s advice is a 48 per cent emissions reduction, against the baseline figure, by 2030, a target already outlined in the Act. It further recommends a 77 per cent reduction by 2040 as the target.

agenda issues

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Delivering a net zero future Executive Director of Generation and Trading at ESB, Jim Dollard, talks to David Whelan about the organisation’s ambitious plans for Northern Ireland and the role of the region in ESB’s net zero by 2040 plans.

Executive Director of Generation and Trading at ESB, Jim Dollard.

As a vertically integrated utility company, ESB Group operates right across the electricity market, from generation through to transmission and distribution, and retail. With stated ambitions to achieve net zero by 2040, the organisation is putting in place the infrastructure and services to achieve this, with a focus on growth in its three core markets of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Great Britain. The organisation’s footprint in Northern Ireland is long standing and is centred around the development, in 2002, of the 400MW gas-fired combined cycle power plant at Coolkeeragh, Derry. Since then, ESB has, in the last decade, invested in

six onshore wind farms in Northern Ireland, contributing over 100MW of renewables.

Dollard explains that Northern Ireland has a significant role to play in the net zero potential of ESB’s core markets.

Beyond generation, ESB acquired NIE Networks, the owner of the electricity transmission and distribution network, in 2010 and also operate the retail business Electric Ireland, supplying electricity and gas to the domestic market.

“Having set ourselves an ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2040 across all aspects of our business, we recognised the need to invest throughout our business network. From a generation perspective, our goal is to increase our renewables footprint from 1GW currently, to 5GW by 2030.

Dollard was involved in ESB’s entry to the domestic market in 2015, but his current role as Executive Director of Generation and Trading sees him focused on scaling up the company’s renewable generation potential in Northern Ireland.

“We are already very large investors in the Northern Ireland market and see huge potential to grow across a range of technologies, utilising our experience from other markets to achieve the net zero ambition.”


Curryfree Windfarm, Derry.

Onshore wind In the previous decade Northern Ireland was regarded as a global leader in the development of renewable energy from onshore wind. While political instability in recent years has seen some inertia on progress, Dollard believes that huge potential still exists in the region. Outlining that ESB is targeting upwards of 300MW of new onshore wind assets in Northern Ireland, he points to recent policy developments in the form of the Department for the Economy’s Energy Strategy, which he believes has laid the groundwork for investment and development of renewable assets. “As one of the fastest adopters of onshore wind in Europe, the North achieved very high penetration of renewables very quickly, driven by good policy. As we head towards net zero, we are encouraging policymakers to push again and harness the further potential that exists in relation to onshore development,” he explains.

On what supports are needed to drive investment in Northern Ireland, Dollard points to the success to date of CfDs in driving investments and therefore projects in other jurisdictions. While he acknowledges the emergence of a market whereby organisations utilise customer PPAs to fund individual projects, he adds: “Given the current starting point, it will be difficult to see the targets reached without a governmentlevel CFD programme. Corporate PPAs will undoubtedly play a role in reaching net zero but they will not be the main engine.” Beyond policy, he believes another crucial element of enhanced development centres around planning. Signalling his understanding that planning and the pace of planning processing is a challenge in all existing markets, he explains that if ambitious generation targets are to be achieved, then efficient planning processes are vital to progress.

Quizzed on whether Northern Ireland’s inability to build on its early onshore wind success could be detrimental as the region now enters a competitive global race for investment, he says: “Northern Ireland will reach net zero. It has to, and therefore organisations like ourselves see the opportunity that exists and are positioning ourselves to maximise the potential once the right policy frameworks are in place.” He adds: “Northern Ireland has the ability to quickly catch up with surrounding markets in relation to the development of renewable generation but where the challenge lies is in the consistency of policy approach. The previous success in onshore development was driven by consistent and good policy. What we cannot have is a stop/start approach, because investors must see a coherent market and development pathway.”

Pointing to the likelihood of 2GW ambition of onshore wind development being targeted by policymakers, the Executive Director of Generation and Trading welcomes such a clear signal to markets of the direction of travel.

“The reality is that projects emerge once the policy instruments are there,” he explains.

Coolkeeragh Power Station.

Credit: @aerialvisionni

To this end, Dollard highlights the progression of significant ESB projects in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland which have been driven by the delivery of policy frameworks.

4


Offshore wind In January 2023, The Department for the Economy (DfE) and The Crown Estate announced a statement of intent to establish offshore wind leasing in Northern Ireland. It followed a clear policy signal in the Energy Strategy which encouraged the development of an action plan to deliver 1GW of offshore wind from 2030. Dollard welcomes work between The Crown Estate and the Department for the Economy to progress consenting rights off Northern Ireland’s coast and says that ESB stands ready to invest and harness the offshore resources, once agreements have been reached. In August 2022, it was announced that ESB had been granted a lease option for a 500MW offshore wind project in Scottish waters off the east coast of Shetland, as part of a process by Crown Estate Scotland to offer development rights for in excess of 26GW of new offshore wind projects. “The ScotWind process has been a very successful one, delivered by the Crown Estate Scotland. There is the potential for that process to form a template for any future process for Northern Ireland. We would like to see this process move at pace.” In a sign of ESB’s eagerness to drive generation, Dollard explains that while the organisation awaits the frameworks being put in place to develop offshore wind infrastructure, the proximity of ESB’s INTOG project in Scottish waters to the Foyle Estuary could see future exportation of electricity to Northern Ireland, subject to the appropriate development policies. Elaborating further, Dollard says that such is the potential for renewable generation surrounding Foyle Estuary, ESB is investigating the area’s potential as a renewable hub, utilising the concentration of industry around the Foyle and the existing Coolkeeragh power station assets, to pilot, develop, and scale up future renewable technologies.

Carrickatane Windfarm, Derry.

Projects include the Galloper Wind Farm, for which ESB is part of a consortium generating 353MW off the coast of Suffolk; Inch Cape, in partnership with Red Rock Power Limited, a 1.1GW project off the Angus coastline in Scotland; and Neart na Gaoithe, a 450MW project off the Fife coast, alongside EDF Renewables UK. In Ireland, planned projects include Clogherhead Offshore Wind and Oriel Offshore Wind, located off the coast of County Louth, and Celtic Offshore Wind, east of Cork and the south of Waterford. Meanwhile, feasibility work is being carried out on the likes of the flagship Moneypoint Offshore Wind Project, off the west coast of Ireland, the Loch Garman Offshore Wind Farm near County Wexford, and others. Additionally, ESB is partnering with Ørsted to develop a potential 5GW pipeline of offshore wind development projects off the Irish coast, which includes complementary renewable hydrogen projects. “We are very active in the offshore wind market; we bring a wealth of experience, and we would love to be involved in a circa 500MW project in Northern Ireland in the near future.”

Renewable enabling technologies

“It is an exciting prospect,” he says. “It is a model that has been used elsewhere, for example, in Great Britain where renewable hubs are being created near the Humber River to utilise its industrial concentration and surrounding offshore renewables.”

Dollard is well aware that generation in itself will not be enough to drive net zero and to this end, ESB is focused on those enabling technologies that can facilitate higher penetration of renewables on the electricity grid and provide stability.

ESB’s experience in developing offshore wind projects speaks for itself. Involved in offshore wind generation since 2017, the company has a significant number of planned projects for Ireland and the UK.

At the end of 2022 a large synchronous compensator became operational as part of ESB’s plan to transform its Moneypoint site in County Clare into a green energy hub.

With the rising share of renewable power such as wind and the shutdown of conventional plants, synchronous compensators are playing an increasingly important role in grid operations. “In addition to identifying new sites in strategic locations, we are also developing the most cost-effective approach to rolling out the technology across ESB infrastructure in key locations which will help transform the power system for future generations ensuring ongoing resilience, effective operation and allowing the grid to exceed its current renewables penetration limit,” explains Dollard. Highlighting that ESB is intent on developing battery solutions and synchronous compensators in all its core markets, Dollard points to the rollout of a programme of 300MW of batteries across five sites in the Republic of Ireland. Discussing the important role of batteries in a future decarbonised system, he adds: “In a net zero world, batteries can provide a number of services in the form of capacity, but also frequency response and those services that increase grid stability. “Batteries are still a relatively new technology, but we are starting to see them being deployed at scale, which provides for learnings. We believe that there are huge opportunities at sites like Coolkeeragh and other potential sites in Northern Ireland for enabling technology to be deployed.” Dollard stresses the importance of such technology in providing reliability in a future energy system fuelled by renewables so that consumer and investor confidence is retained.


“Our reputation as a developer is high because, from the outset, we recognised the importance of community engagement in project delivery. If you intend to operate assets over the long term, which we do, then there must be buy-in. That can be more challenging depending on the project but if Northern Ireland is going to roll out on such a large target as 2GW of renewable generation, then community engagement will be key to progress.”

Credit: @aerialvisionni

Highlighting that buy-in and public confidence is critical to any future infrastructure development, he outlines ESB’s understanding of the importance of community engagement in the development of renewables.

Coolkeeragh Power Station.

Hydrogen Dollard believes that renewable generation and enabling technologies are two of the core pillars of achieving net zero. The third, he says, is the decarbonisation of dispatchable generation. In the past, that generation has been fossil fuelled, such as natural gas. ESB is of the belief that hydrogen produced from renewable electricity will play a critical role in the decarbonisation of many sectors and plan to use their existing capabilities and future renewable growth to become a leading player in large scale renewable hydrogen production, to meet the energy requirements of Ireland’s future zero carbon economy. ESB is actively looking at how it might burn hydrogen in its gas-powered plants, including Coolkeeragh, and hope to conduct tests in the next few years before moving towards live consumption. While onshore wind possesses the potential to create green hydrogen, it is widely accepted that the volumes required to create a hydrogen economy, and power Coolkeergh, for example, mandates large scale offshore wind generation. “If you want a green hydrogen economy, the no regrets move is offshore wind development at scale. For all of the markets we are operating in, offshore wind is the precursor to a large-scale green hydrogen economy. “While Great Britain has a road to travel in terms of their hydrogen strategies, they are probably the leaders in Europe currently in relation to their support structures and frameworks. Policymakers north and south in Ireland are watching that closely and can learn from that.”

Reiterating how ESB’s experience in other markets can benefit Northern Ireland, he points to ESB’s gas-fired Carrington Power Station which opened in 2017, which is part of a recently developed hydrogen hub in the area. It is hoped that Carrington will be able to burn a green hydrogen blend by 2028. “We have similar plants in Ireland and once we have completed those tests, we will be seeking to make those plants hydrogen-ready,” he explains. With market creation viewed as one of the biggest challenges of a green hydrogen economy, Dollard explains that ESB’s link between green hydrogen production and possessing the infrastructure to act as an offtaker of that production, means that the organisation is primed to play a role in every part of the net zero journey.

Concluding on a 10-year outlook for ESB in Northern Ireland, Dollard says: “At ESB we are long-term players, and our vision stretches to the long-term ambition of net zero and beyond. “As we strive to reach net zero, we want to build sustainable relationships with industry, the consumer and the environment. We have an active and investment-heavy footprint in Northern Ireland and view the region as a really important market in our growth ambitions. “Over the next decade, if we are able to point to the creation of 500MW of offshore wind projects and 300MW of onshore projects, alongside the deployment of renewable enabling technologies, then it will be a journey well made.”

Jim Dollard was appointed to the position of Executive Director, Generation and Trading in May 2018. Prior to this he held the position of Executive Director for Business Service Centre (BSC) and Electric Ireland for five years. An accountant, he began his career in ESB in 1992 and has held a number of senior management positions throughout the group in both financial and managerial roles. Dollard holds a BComm and a master’s in business studies from UCD.


issues agenda

Energy security in an all-Island context Brian Ó Gallachóir, Associate Vice-President for Sustainability at University College Cork (UCC), assesses whether worrying electricity generation inadequacy necessitates an all-island focus on energy security. Ó Gallachóir heralds the development of the all-island Single Electricity Market (SEM) as one of the “hidden giants” of greater all-island cooperation, 25 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In 1995, the North South Electricity Interconnector was restored after almost 20 years of inaction and since then several significant electricity and gas infrastructure projects have been developed on the island, ranging from the commissioning of the Moyle electricity interconnector to Scotland in 2021 to the approval in 2018 of a second North South Interconnector. While benefits to consumers have been evident in the delivery of cost reductions per kWh, the all-island market has also been critical to providing timely

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warnings on supply risks via generation system adequacy reports. “These reports significantly helped enable us to look at the challenge of meeting our electricity demands through electricity supply on an all-island basis in an efficient and cheaper way,” explains the Cork-based academic.

However, the report also indicates tight margins for Northern Ireland from 2016 onwards, providing an impetus to build and plan for the second interconnector.

“That focus on efficiency leads to emissions reduction relative to what otherwise would have ensued. Similarly, efficiencies also lead to price reductions, relative to if these markets had continued to evolve separately.”

“The signal at that time was important in terms of flagging what might be important,” says Ó Gallachóir, adding: “Rolling forward to 2017, we saw even starker warnings of the situation, but this time in both jurisdictions. This foresight has been very important in terms of informing the policymakers, the regulators, and the industry of the challenges ahead.”

Significant infrastructure developments in the all-island electricity and gas networks have provided a high degree of reliability. The Generation System Adequacy report for 2012-2021 (Figure 1) shows large levels of surplus electricity on an all-island basis.

In the past five years, energy policy developments have been significant. The transition of the SEM to the I-SEM as part of the European electricity market developments in 2018 was impacted by Brexit and in the last three years there have been strong policy


issues agenda

Figure 1: Generation system adequacy 2012-2021 2,200 2,000

Surplus/Deficit (MW)

1,800 1,600 -TB 1,2,3

1,400

-TB4

1,200

1,000 800

-GI 1,2,3 +EWIC

600

+Large Tidal +Offshore wind

-BL4,5,6

400 200 0 2012

2013

2014

2015

NI

2016

2017

2018

Ireland

2019

2020

2021

All-Island

Source: EirGrid All-Island Generation Capacity Statement 2012-2021

developments relating to supply security, but also in terms of the energy transition to a low carbon future. Both jurisdictions on the island share a number of ambitions in relation to net zero by 2050, including the target of an 80 per cent renewable energy share of electricity generation by 2030. Key to achieving this ambition will be the increased focus on interconnection. The Greenlink Interconnector between County Wexford and Pembrokeshire, Wales is currently under construction with a commission date of 2024. The second North South Interconnector continues to face challenges but has a target commissioning date of 2026. Additionally, the Celtic Interconnector linking Ireland to continental Europe via France is set for commission in 2027, while the Lir Interconnector, connecting Northern Ireland and Scotland, should be active by 2029. One of the key achievements of the SEM has been the levels of variable, non-synchronous renewable electricity that has been integrated onto the allisland electricity network, which at times has breached 75 per cent. Ó

Gallachóir explains that absorbing such levels of renewable generation on a small power system is “world-leading”, but points out that wind variability does mean there are instances when the share of wind-generated renewable electricity is low.

Security of supply Highlighting the role of natural gas in providing energy security, the Associate Vice-President of Sustainability at UCC points to a period in early January 2021 of low winds and cold weather where the power system on the island compensated for the low levels of wind with increases in natural gas power. “The level of flexibility and agility that our system has developed in order to deliver the growing amounts of wind energy that we have on the all-island system is another key feature that is sometimes hidden in our electricity supply mix,” he explains. “It is important that we can maintain this going forward but it requires significant changes to electricity markets. There is a need to focus not just on the energy payments associated with the market

make-up, but also the system services and capacity payments.” Highlighting that auctions have not always delivered as much capacity remuneration contracts as required, which requires policymakers to rethink market support for new back-up generation capacity, he adds: “We have the theories in terms of how to support and remunerate for capacity, but unfortunately, we have not sufficiently delivered and this is why we have this short-term adequacy challenge.” More challenging, Ó Gallachóir suggests, is the fact that many of the capacity remuneration contracts for additional gas-fired power plant which have been awarded, have not delivered on the amount of generation initially pledged that is required to be available at times of low wind speed. This has led to a situation where in winter 2023/2024, the loss of load expectation is 21 hours. While this is less than the 50 hours recorded in winter 2022/2023, it is still well above the guideline of eight hours at most. Ó Gallachóir explains that blackouts

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agenda issues

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issues agenda

Electricity and gas infrastructure on the island of Ireland • 1970: North-South Electricity Interconnector built • 1975: North-South Electricity Interconnector retired for 20 years • 1995: North-South Electricity Interconnector restored • 1996: Scottish Northern Ireland Gas Pipeline (SNIP) commissioned • 2001: Moyle electricity interconnector to Scotland commissioned • 2002: Second gas pipeline built (Ireland-Scotland) • 2006: SNP (South North Gas Pipeline) built • 2012: East-west (500 MW) electricity interconnector commissioned • 2018: Second North South Interconnector approved • 2022: Celtic (Ireland-France) electricity interconnector approved

Northern Ireland, the first caverns of the Islandmagee (County Antrim) natural gas storage facility are expected to be operational by 2026. However, Ó Gallachóir says that in the context of progress of the all-island electricity market, the question has now been raised as to whether storage at an all-island level for gas should be considered. Concluding, the academic raises some concern that the SEM and the benefits and brownouts have been avoided because of policy decisions to extend older power plants that were scheduled to retire, and the procurement of temporary emergency electricity generation, which is more expensive, more carbon intensive, and does not represent a long-term solution to the challenge. Temporary electricity generation is in the main fuelled by natural gas. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent price hikes of imported

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agenda issues

natural gas shone a focus on Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuels to ensure energy security.

of an all-island approach – not least

Although Ireland was relatively insulated from the physical risk to security of supply because of gas interconnections to Britain and a low Russian dependence, it is an outlier in the absence of gas storage.

In the context of an ongoing demerger

Progress is, however, being made. The Irish Government recently published an Energy Security Strategy, while in the

look at energy security, not just through

improved energy security – are underappreciated.

between EirGrid, the Irish electricity grid operator, and the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI), he says: “I would hope that as we move forward, we refocus our efforts on ensuring we the lens of each jurisdiction, but on an all-island basis.”


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Automated Intelligence: Bringing structure to unstructured data

Mark Dunne, CEO of Automated Intelligence.

David Whelan speaks to Mark Dunne, CEO of Automated Intelligence about the company’s unique offering and unstructured data specialisation, as well as plans for contributing to the building of a local talent pipeline in Belfast. Automated Intelligence is a Belfast-based IT and technology company that specialises in unstructured data. Unstructured data is defined as data that either does not have a pre-defined data model or is not organised in a pre-defined manner that can be typically text-heavy, resulting in irregularities and ambiguities that can render the data difficult to understand using traditional programmes. To deal with this, Automated Intelligence provide a cloud native end-to-end platform for unstructured data management and governance. Through its Datalift platform, which is built upon Microsoft Azure using micro-service architecture, Automated Intelligence’s one-stop-solution takes data from initial discovery through to categorisation and actionable outcomes (deletion, preservation, migration, archive).

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It is in its attention towards unstructured data that Automated Intelligence distinguishes itself, as Dunne explains: “There are a lot of data companies, but unstructured data is where your problems can stem from, so only a handful of companies in Europe deal in unstructured data. We have developed our own software product over time that accelerates ingestion of data and presents it in record time, so it is a unique product. “Unstructured data could be, for example, a passport office that takes everything – photos, birth certs – and does not index them. That has huge privacy and regulatory issues, so there is a lot of regulation around unstructured data. Meta was recently fined €200 million by the EU Data Protection Commissioner and that all related to the improper retention of unstructured data.

A product like ours allows you to structure all that unstructured data.” Automated Intelligence works with the world best solution providers across multiple sectors as they enable their customers to take control of their data, with clients ranging across the public and private sectors including the UK Cabinet Office, DEFRA, Deutsche Bank, and Sainsbury’s Bank. “The dominant sectors are government, financial services, telecoms, media, and entertainment but our offering is open to everyone in the public and private sectors,” Dunne says. “We can take data from hard files, semi-digitised files, and put them all together for data integration. Our product is something that you could use to collate all this single information and deploy it across multiple platforms.

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“Trust is built up through your previous client base and your clients’ references. Clients such as Sainsbury’s Bank and the Cabinet Office have trusted us for long periods and we have not let them down, so we are proven, tried, and tested on that front. With data security and integrity of critical importance while working with such highprofile organisations, Automated Intelligence is a Microsoft Cloud Partner, ISO9001, and ISO27001 accredited, as well as being Cyber Essentials and Cyber Essential Plus, and PCI DSS accredited. “There is a lot of legislation that means that you have to move all paper-based data into a digital cloud,” Dunne says. “Anything over 20 years old in the National Archives in the UK has to be moved across to the cloud, for example. There are a lot of security standards that we have developed to work with clients’ security sets but that is a constant ongoing challenge.”

Plans for growth Having been founded in 2010, a 2023 restructure saw Dunne appointed as CEO. Having worked in the IT industry for over 30 years, with roles in Esat (later BT Ireland), Éir, Fidelity Investments, Capgemini and First Derivatives, he brings a wealth of experience to his new role. With the company operating mainly in the UK and Ireland, Dunne plans to broaden its reach to the US and into Europe. “I am very excited by the product and its potential,” he says. “I feel that this product is very difficult to replicate and would require huge investment to do so, so it is a very unique product. I can see it having huge relevance given recent risk and regulatory issues around unstructured data across the EU and the US. I am hoping to build on that relevancy.” With roughly 17 people on staff, Automated Intelligence plans to grow employee numbers in order to meet forecasted increased demand. The company’s three-year outlook from 2024 to 2026 states that it plans to increase revenue fivefold and the workforce by three. “That growth will be achieved through

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Mark Dunne, CEO of Automated Intelligence, Stephen Lusty, CTO of Automated Intelligence.

“We have developed our own software product over time that accelerates ingestion of data and presents it in record time, so it is a unique product.” new logo acquisition [the acquisition of new clients] in the UK and Ireland market, and later in 2024 we will be looking at the US market,” Dunne says. “We will also have a strong focus on Scandinavia, central Europe, and southern Europe.” Helping to feed this increase in staffing numbers will be an exciting partnership with Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) to develop a local talent pipeline. “The quality of QUB graduates is incredibly high,” Dunne says. “We have had some interaction with QUB recently and their quality is some of the best I have seen


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in Europe. The skills pipeline and collaboration with industry in this area is really good.

“In 10 years’ time, we would like to see a local indigenous international data brand, with a strong global reputation for robust data solutions. We would like to access markets beyond the UK and Ireland, growing jobs here in Belfast, and contributing to the local economy. “I was surprised by the amount of QUB graduates that go to London and New York, and I am not sure all of them want to go. There is a huge brain drain here and we would like to help put a stop to that. We would like to provide a platform for graduates to come and work locally but serve international clients.” Improvements will also be made to the Datalift product as both a platform and a service, with plans afoot to make it more AI-friendly. An artificial intelligence addition will be made to the service via a large language model, allowing the product to find data quicker and enable it to tell the user what said data is before transferring it to the cloud. Datalift is currently more focused on the cloud and automation, with Dunne stating that “the idea is to progress to integrate an AI model”.

unstructured data was people-centric up until now. Large teams would be deployed in remote locations like India, the Philippines, etc., offshore locations where projects would be done for six to 12 months. A mid-sized UK bank recently did a data cleansing project for nine months that required over 40 people offshore to achieve what they want. Combining our product and services would allow you to do that same job with three times less people three times quicker. We are reducing the cost cycle and the labour effort cycle. “The service user then gets a better end product, a dataset that can be worked on, used, made better, smaller, or bigger. It is an investment for data indexation and there is a reduction of costs in terms of storage as well, with a lot of the data covered being redundant or duplicated. Every client gets our interface and can go in and use their data sites. The next part of that is data analytics, which is becoming such a

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“QUB and University College Dublin are the standard setters from what I see. As we look towards the future, it is important to grow that collaboration with QUB and that is something we are starting now. That ongoing collaboration around innovation to help them produce graduates with relevant skills is incredibly important to our growth.

huge part of this world. As long as the data is good enough, they can use this data for greater outcomes and as companies are looking at this data, we can help them organise it efficiently. It is all about doing less: one-third of the labour effort, one-third of the staff needed, one-third of the cost.” Concluding, Dunne once again casts his eye to the future, a future of increased internal investment, increased staffing, and increased reach. “There needs to be significant investment over the next few years in developing our product to ensure that it remains an industry leader,” he says. “It also requires the right local talent to allow us to do that, and that is what our collaboration with QUB will hopefully bring us.”

T: +44 (0)2890 996 118 E: info@automated-intelligence.com W: www.automated-intelligence.com X: @automatedintel LinkedIn: Automated Intelligence

‘The service user gets a better end product’ All of these improvements are in service to the product that is central to Automated Intelligence’s offering. Dunne homes in on what it is that makes Datalift such an enticing offering for clients: “Typically, structuring

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Tackling the challenge of cybersecurity Paul Duffy, Director of the newly renamed Digital, Security and Finance Shared Services within the Department of Finance speaks to agendaNi about the restructuring and how AI will change cybersecurity. Having originally been named Enterprise Shared Services, Duffy’s directorate was restructured and renamed to better reflect its role in providing digital security and finance shared services to the nine Executive departments and a range of other public sector bodies in Northern Ireland. “The reason for the change in the name is to be clear on the services we provide across government and to raise the profile and prominence of security as a shared service,” Duffy explains. The change comes at a time when the world is still dealing with the shockwaves of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated changes to working and living patterns, with life lived more online in both the professional and personal senses than ever before. “We

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must be able to trust the systems that connect us and enrich our lives economically and socially,” Duffy says. “Recent global events have reminded us that this can have a direct impact locally, with data showing that the UK is the third most targeted country for cyberattacks, behind only the US and Ukraine. In 2022, the UK was the target of 30 per cent of all cyberattacks across Europe.” Highlighting the disruption caused by interruptions to networks and communications systems, Duffy recalls a day in 2023 when the Northern Ireland Civil Service experienced an outage and was left without access to its digital network on a Monday morning. “Evidence clearly shows that Monday is the most popular day for working from home in the public and

private sectors, meaning that there were, at that time, thousands of public servants with no connection to our digital network. “In addition, as many of our public services are now delivered and accessed digitally, we saw a widespread impact on many diverse public services, ranging from cattle sales to criminal cases in our courts, and while there was a timely and successful resolution to the issue, it clearly highlights how reliant we are on our digital infrastructure.” This reliance creates a landscape that is challenging to protect and an attractive target for malicious actors. To tackle these challenges, the UK Government launched its National Cyber Security Strategy in 2022, with the aim of significantly strengthening all critical


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government functions by 2025 and making all government and public sector organisations fully cyber resilient by 2030. Central to this will be the Cyber Assurance Scheme, known as GovAssure, a five-stage process underpinned by the National Cyber Security Centre Cyber Assessment Framework that aligns critical national infrastructure best practice and uses a comprehensive approach to ensure government is constantly assessing cyber resilience. Locally, the framework is currently being piloted against three critical systems within the Department of Finance. “The intention is that this will be rolled out to all Northern Ireland government departments in 2024, incorporating any of the lessons learned through the pilots currently underway,” Duffy says. “Across the NICS, a crossdepartmental GovAssure Implementation Board has been established and is responsible for overseeing implementation by all departments.” Along with this work on public infrastructure, Duffy acknowledges that much of Northern Ireland’s critical cyber infrastructure is in private hands. “This means that the involvement of the private sector is essential for any national cybersecurity strategy to be effective. The Government must find a way to share intelligence about cyberattacks safely and encourage the private sector to feel confident about revealing security concerns and problems to government. “Transparency and early visibility of potential and actual cyberattacks on private organisations remains a challenge. Early engagement with statutory organisations can assist in the response to an incident, it can limit its potential impact on other organisations, and this early engagement is likely to be viewed positively in the event of legal consequences that an organisation may face. It is important that we learn from each other’s experiences. Cyber is an ever-evolving threat and we must work together to minimise its impact.” With 95 per cent of cybersecurity breaches said to be a product of human error, Duffy also stresses the importance of open and encouraging cultures within both the private and

“Recent global events have reminded us that this can have a direct impact locally, with data showing that the UK is the third most targeted country for cyberattacks, behind only the US and Ukraine.” public sectors that would allow employees to be unafraid to promptly report mistakes that could leave an organisation vulnerable to attack. To complement this, he states that expertise must be present at board level in order to provide direction, policies, standards, and the ability to make informed decisions. Turning towards the technological topic of the moment, AI, Duffy says that it will “almost certainly increase the volume and impact of cyberattacks”. “The impact on the cyberthreat will be uneven in terms of utility, type of actor, and level of sophistication,” he says. “Regardless of whether the original cyberattack was conducted using AI, it will almost certainly make cyberattacks on the UK more impactful. “Using AI, threat actors will be able to analyse extracted data faster and more effectively and use it to train AI models. AI’s utility in social engineering, password cracking, and phishing lowers the bar for novice criminals,

hackers for hire, and hacktivists to effective access and information gathering operations. While there are clearly opportunities to use AI to strengthen cyber resilience, it is highly likely to intensify UK cyber challenges for government and the private sector.” Concluding, Duffy states that Northern Ireland is “widely recognised globally for its cybersecurity innovation, with a thriving tech and cyber industry playing an important part in creating a secure digital environment for society”. “Our digital world is continually evolving, and the pace of change will only quicken to embrace new and emerging technologies. This growth in digital and technological advancement brings many benefits to society but it also creates challenges that we can only tackle collectively. It is this partnership between the public sector, industry, the voluntary community sector, and academia that is our greatest strength.”

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encompass: Transforming healthcare Following the launch of a new regional digital patient record system in Northern Ireland by the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust on 9 November 2023, David Whelan talks to key stakeholders about the rollout of ‘encompass’ and its transformational capabilities. By the end of 2025, it is intended that all of Northern Ireland’s health and social care trusts will have implemented the new digital patient record system, encompass. The creation of a digital care record for every citizen in Northern Ireland has been described as the greatest transformational change to the health and social care system in a generation. In November 2023, the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust marked a significant milestone by becoming the first trust to ‘Go-Live’ with the transformative system, a culmination of over seven years of work. The system itself, while unique to

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Northern Ireland, was created by Epic, a global leader in the delivery of electronic health record software, which currently provides for over 200 million people within the UK and across the globe.

Trust, Roisin Coulter, praised the ambitious approach to tailoring a world-leading system which is in use in over 19 countries across the world adding that benefits are already being realised.

As well as replacing existing disjointed and outdated IT systems, ensuring more efficient and effective information access and storage for health and social care professionals, a My Care patient portal has been developed, which will allow everyone in Northern Ireland to access their own patient records.

“Every person in Northern Ireland will benefit from having one single, lifetime electronic health record. The encompass programme has, to date, helped us integrate over 40 systems within one record, which offers a sense of the ambition behind this transformation. For patients, there are multiple benefits to their interactions with health and social care services being consolidated and accessible in one place, and for practitioners, there

Discussing the early implementation of encompass, Chief Executive of the South Eastern Health and Social Care


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Raied Abdul-Karim, encompass Programme Director, who has overseen the introduction of electronic health records in many parts of the UK, says that the successful launch of the programme was aided by the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust acting as a champion for transformation. “Understandably, there were anxieties and concerns around delivering such a large programme of transformation because, by its very nature, it is disruptive. “Roisin [Coulter] was a visible leader and the buy-in from her team ensured a smooth and safe implementation, which is critical to gaining the confidence and trust of all other organisations as we continue the rollout of encompass. I think it is important to say that no transformation of this scale will run perfectly, and so we must ensure that any issues that arise are treated as learning, to ensure the next implementation is even better.” At a time when resources are tight across all public services, particularly in the health and social care sector, Senior Responsible Owner for encompass, Dermot Hughes, accepts that some risk is involved in the commitment to such a large-scale programme, but reiterates the necessity for change.

“I think it was recognised that the biggest risk existed in not delivering change. The legacy systems that existed prior to encompass were senescent and no longer fit for purpose. “In terms of the launch of encompass, we identified the greatest risk as relating to changing work patterns, how staff interact with systems, and ultimately how patients experience their healthcare. To manage this risk, we have implemented strong governance, establishing a matrix of risk which both identifies and shares risks, which we work through to ensure we get to a point where all stakeholders are comfortable with the system before we ‘Go-Live’. “The main focus of the ‘Go-Live’ process is not simply to turn on an IT system, but to turn on an IT system where patients are kept safe.” To date, the South Eastern Trust has trained over 9,500 staff in encompass, deployed some 12,500 new devices and was supported by 700 additional ad hoc staff from across the globe during the ‘Go-Live’ process.

Evolution Feedback from the Epic team suggests that some three months on from ‘GoLive’, the Trust are ahead in their implementation in comparison to UK counterparts. However, as Abdul-Karim explains, implementation is only the beginning of the process.

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are tremendous advantages to reducing variation and delivering a more consistent practice.”

“It is not unusual for such a major programme to take time to embed, especially as staff learn new ways of working and for the technology to mirror the care model. With every implementation, there is a stabilisation period, but success will be measured by benchmarking against other systems on how quickly people are using the system and whether the right benefits are being drawn.” More importantly, explains AbdulKarim, is the ability of the system to constantly evolve: “As new policies and care models evolve, tweaks and adjustments to the system will be required. This is a long journey, but it is a fruitful journey,” he says.

Cybersecurity An overarching concern often raised with any digitisation of public services is around the cybersecurity threat. Health records, in particular, contain sensitive information, making it a prime target for ransomware. Abdul-Karim accepts that the impact of the risk profile is increased but is steadfast in his belief that safeguards have been successfully utilised to minimise threat. He believes that key to quelling concerns is raising awareness around the benefits and impact of the system to users and the wider public. Underpinning this is an ambitious rollout of the My Care patient portal. To date, thousands of people have downloaded the My Care app with 4 work underway to ensure patients can access their records and appointment details.

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Hughes says: “Governance of the Epic systems across the world are wellknown to be pre-eminently good, so any cyber risk is minimised and managed. From a user perspective, making information available and open to patients is a large culture change and gives those patients greater responsibility. Hopefully, that will alleviate some of the burden on primary care, but it also changes the dynamic completely, bringing us up to being the most digitally enabled population in western Europe in relation to health and social care.” Coulter outlines the importance of patient and client involvement in the design of the patient portal. “We want to expand the use of the portal because we want to get to a place where citizens are empowered to take more responsibility for their health and wellbeing,” she explains. “It can be a gamechanger for a region which faces significant challenges around chronic conditions, by supporting a two-way relationship between the citizen and the clinical, multi-professional team. “One month after the ‘Go-Live’ we had 12.7 million electronic messages sent through encompass, and we have administered over 185,000 electronic medication administrations. By expanding use, we can reduce variation, drive up standards, and improve safety.” The Chief Executive will play a leading role in helping other trusts across Northern Ireland implement the system on a rolling basis, starting with Belfast Trust on 6 June 2024. She is quick to point out the broader benefits that will come from real-time information gathering and storage, especially when operational on a regional basis. “As we plan and deliver services across Northern Ireland, real time information will link to the Department of Health and enable them to see what is happening in our health settings at any one time. In the past, we have relied on retrospective trends to plan, but this data will be a driver for delivery and importantly, for future planning.” Hughes agrees that the encompass system has the potential to change healthcare management from “narrative to data” in a comprehensive and unique fashion. Concluding, he says: “The Epic platform is shared by hundreds of institutions around the world, including a dozen major institutions in the UK, and they act as your partner. Best practices and successes elsewhere are shared. “Interestingly, it will also signal a quantum change for research and development in Northern Ireland, as data from birth to death will now be available to universities and their researchers.” Northern Ireland’s unique model of care when compared to many global counterparts, encompassing social care, healthcare, mental health, and domiciliary care, for example, means that if successful, the digital transformation of healthcare will catapult the region to a global exemplar. Abdul-Karim stresses the need for multi-stakeholder support as the rollout of encompass continues. “The scale of this programme is huge, and it is obvious to see from our work with the South Eastern Trust that this transformation reaches to everyone from doctors to nurses, caterers to cleaner, and patients in many settings. We need to celebrate the potential of this transformation, support it and trust that it will help deliver better and safer outcomes for all.”

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Profiles: Dermot Hughes, Senior Responsible Owner, encompass Dermot Hughes is a former Medical Director of the Western Health and Social Care Trust. As the Senior Responsible Owner for encompass, he works with all the health and social care trusts to facilitate the implementation of the Epic platform, the largest implementation in Europe to date.

Roisin Coulter, Chief Executive of the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust A nurse by profession, Roisin Coulter has been the Chief Executive of the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, the first Trust to implement encompass, since June 2021.

Raied Abdul-Karim, encompass Programme Director Currently leading the biggest electronic health record programme for health and social care in the UK, Raied Abdul-Karim is overseeing the implementation in Northern Ireland across a broad scope including acute care, community care, mental health care, social care, the prison services, and linkage to primary care. Previously, he was the Strategic Programme Director for the UK Public Sector between 2018 to June 2023.


digital government report

Transforming justice: The impact of new technology on the criminal justice system In an era characterised by rapid technological advancements, the criminal justice system is undergoing a profound transformation, fuelled by the integration of digital technology. As society becomes increasingly interconnected, law enforcement agencies, court services, and probation agencies are changing, eager to harness the potential of new tools and systems. From predictive analytics and biometric identification to electronic monitoring and virtual courtrooms, digital technology is reshaping the landscape of criminal justice. For more than three decades, ITS has been at the forefront of developing versatile solutions for clients within the criminal justice system. Police complaints, a key regulatory area within the criminal justice system is essential to ensure accountability and public trust, and one in which ITS has a strong presence, with all the major UK and Ireland agencies using its complaints management system to oversee and investigate complaints against the police. Powerful case management systems capture a wide range of complaint data and incorporate management controls with advanced business intelligence reporting. The company’s expertise in complaints management extends beyond the Police

Ombudsman and into the courts services, where it has systems in place for investigating complaints and allegations of judicial misconduct. An online platform permits members of the public to register and lodge their complaints and then check on the progress as well receive regular updates on status. Workflows in the system automate task assignment and track documents, streamlining the entire process of investigating complaints. The versatility of the company’s case management system is not confined solely to complaints management; it has significant implementations in both the forensic and probation areas of criminal justice. In the forensics arena, systems safeguard the efficient handling of evidence, ensuring accurate and reliable support for law enforcement agencies and in the probation services where the system organises and handles case data, encompassing individual’s details, progress reports, and intervention plans. Integration with other criminal justice departments is a critical aspect of any effective system, and ITS has been at the forefront of ensuring seamless

collaboration. Recognising the interconnected nature of criminal justice processes, the company has implemented innovative solutions and technologies to facilitate information sharing and data interoperability among various departments. This integration enhances the efficiency of internal operations and fosters a more comprehensive approach to tackling crime and maintaining public safety. Through the implementation of state-ofthe-art software and data sharing, ITS has created a versatile platform that can be deployed in the numerous areas of criminal justice. This approach helps break down silos, allowing law enforcement agencies, forensic laboratories, judicial bodies, probation services, and other stakeholders to work collaboratively in addressing the complex challenges of the criminal justice system.

W : www.weareits.co.uk LinkedIn: ITS Computing Ltd

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Transforming public services: A UK perspective Dan Brember, Deputy Director of GOV.UK Content for the UK Government’s Government Digital Service (GDS), tells agendaNi about how the UK Government is aiming to reclaim its former status as a pioneer in the delivery of digital services for citizens. With GOV.UK now over 11 years old and Government Digital Service (GDS) over a decade old, the world at large in a state of flux following the seismic reverberations of events such as Brexit and Covid-19, and the constant progress of both technology and society, Brember says that GDS are taking the opportunity to reflect. “One of the things that we are asking ourselves at the moment is what are the big things we have perhaps taken for granted or assumed have remained true that we need to revisit and consider whether or not there are opportunities for us to change,” he says. “One of the big touching points for us has been our relationship with other peers around the world, looking at what they are doing well. Many of them

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are solving similar challenges to us in their contexts and we, for a long time, considered ourselves to be among the world leaders and that is probably no longer true, so there is something that we can learn there.”

dog years and 10 years on the internet is probably more like 30 years in any other sphere. We need to look again at what the central paradigm is for digital services in the UK.”

Considering the recent social, political, technological, economic, and legal developments, Brember says that GDS asks the question: “What should the next generation of government digital services look like?” A redesign of the interface is thus central to GDS’ efforts to improve the citizen digital experience.

Central to the improvement of this paradigm are already existing GDS applications within the GOV.UK umbrella, such as GOV.UK Pay, which allows users to make a payment through a separate platform that does not appear to be separate at the point of use. Similar products such as GOV.UK Notify keep users updated on the status of applications.

“For many people, the main user interface is GOV.UK. The 2012 Digital Efficiency Report said that digital services are very often better for the users and cheaper for the taxpayer. However, internet years are sort of like

“GOV.UK remains a wonderful service despite the fact that we are a decade old, and it is something that we need to protect and develop,” Brember says. “Every time we meet peers from other


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“Services that require you to post in documents that we already have somewhere else are extremely frustrating. People who fill in these forms and send them in at their own expense have got to wait weeks or months for a decision, which is very poor. That being said, digital services across government are mostly good. So, why do we need to reconsider and challenge that paradigm?” The economic context that these changes are happening within is “obviously changing”, Brember says, with the victor of the next UK general election inheriting “a very challenging economic reality to deal with”, which will mean “continued pressure for more efficiency” in how the Civil Service delivers services. Against these pressures, the “promise of transformational efficiencies through digital services has not been fully realised”, Brember says. “The Civil Service has continued to grow and the cost of running services is still far too high. This is partly because of Brexit, partly because of Covid-19, and the gradual increase in the UK population. It is also partly because we have made the front-end services better while not fundamentally fixing the back end. It takes too long, is too hard, and takes too much energy to do simple things.”

Pointing to broader trends of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with politics and the very concept of democracy, Brember states that there is also a growing satisfaction gap with regard to GOV.UK. This gap does not surprise him: “The in-browser/onplatform experience of the web is a declining medium. Younger audiences are used to apps, personalised experiences, and short-form videos. A large website with forms is fundamentally not a good user experience. “This trend is not surprising: in 2016, most visits to GOV.UK were on a desktop computer; but by 2021, 65 per cent of visits were on a mobile phone, and for major services such as Universal Credit today, that number is as high as 90 per cent. “A great digital experience is often mobile app-based, highly personalised, ruthlessly simple for the user – which in practice means fewer than 10 clicks to do whatever it is you need to do – and finally, integration with user data, particularly the data the organisation already holds about the user.”

digital government report

nations, they are envious of the fact that we have managed to consolidate a single user experience for the many government services and websites that could potentially exist. There are still thousands of services where a user has to download a PDF and post it. Imagine that you are extremely low income, with no laptop or printer, and you are faced with forms with over 100 questions.

“A great digital experience is often mobile app-based, highly personalised, ruthlessly simple for the user – which in practice means fewer than 10 clicks to do whatever it is you need to do.” Falling behind in this regard has led to the UK falling from first in the UN’s eGovernment Index to 11th, and Brember says that GDS’ “big bet” is a pivot towards a single GOV.UK app. “In GDS, we talk a lot about user needs, asking what the specific problem is that we have to solve. We have had to pivot slightly, and we are now thinking around user utilities: what are the common things that people need to do with government that we can provide through an app?” Such common things would include identification, passport and driving license renewals, MOT, booking for appointments as is already seen on the NHS app, and notifications to remind citizens of pressing matters such as upcoming appointments or Universal Credit balance. “There is nothing more personal, intrinsic, commonly used by people than their native smartphone, so why can we not release the benefits of that to support people to do things more quickly?” Brember asks, before concluding: “These are the things that we have already got the power to do, we just need to bring things together to make it happen.”

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digital government report

AI in the public sector Statements have shown that AI is an innovation which has a broadly collaborative and consistent approach between Northern Ireland Executive departments, following the publication of the NICS – Use of Generative AI guidance for civil service staff in June 2023. Published in July 2023, the NICS – Use of Generative AI guidance aims to ensure a consistent approach on the use of Generative AI – ChatGPT across the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). The Civil Service states that it “recognises the potential benefits of using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve efficiency and productivity in the workplace”. However, the NICS also states the importance of using AI “responsibly and ethically, particularly when it comes to generating content”. With broad guidelines for the use of generative AI in place, there is a broad agreement in principles of the use of AI. However, its utilisation differs between departments. agendaNi asked the following three questions to all nine Executive departments, as well as the Northern Ireland Office.

the Department have guidelines regarding the use 1) Does of AI by department officials?

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2)

To what extent is the Department using ChatGPT or other artificial intelligence (AI) applications to conduct business?

3)

What is the Department’s rationale for the use of ChatGPT and/or other AI applications by officials?


Take control of your data

Department for the Economy (DfE)

“Civil servants are encouraged to use new technology that improves the productivity of government, so we can deliver more for less. Use of tools such as ChatGPT must be done in a way that protects against any bias in AI and complies with all data protection and security protocols.

digital government report

Northern Ireland Office

“The Department for the Economy has used artificial intelligence (AI) tools to aid the analysis of consultation responses. These have proved very useful for identifying key topics and themes from the responses. Natural language processing (nlp), and large language models (LLM) are two of the AI tools used to clarify topics and group them. By employing AI techniques, we aimed to enhance the efficiency and accuracy of extracting valuable insights from the consultation data as well as adding an element of quantification to otherwise qualitative analysis. These methods have been used alongside conventional methods including review by subject – matter experts. “In addition, DfE is investigating how AI could be used to query documents and perform analysis to assist with measuring achievement, driving policy development and, in turn, the delivery of the Department’s 10X economic vision.”

“The Cabinet Office has published guidance [Guidance to civil servants on use of generative AI, published in September 2023] for civil servants on the use of publicly available generative AI tools.”

Department for Infrastructure agendaNi received no response from the Department for Infrastructure.

Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA)

Department of Finance

“DAERA is not currently using generative AI (ChatGPT). To a limited extent it is using other AI applications, for example Azure AI services, for document checks and image recognition.

“AI is currently being informally investigated by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, exploring its use in coding and answering of FAQs.

“The Department will consider the safe and controlled use of AI (following proof of concepts) where it is shown it can deliver efficiencies or improved customer service.

“NICS departments are committed to identifying and capturing opportunities arising from emerging technologies. For all new technologies it is important to be both aware of risks and the opportunities they offer.”

“AI is only used to provide recommendations, with no automated decision making, and there is always an element of consideration or assessment by officials.”

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AI in the public sector The Executive Office “At the time of this response, The Executive Office has a single use case for AI based applications. “For our current use case, an AI based tool is used to produce accurate subtitles to improve the accessibility of social media videos. The resulting subtitles are vetted before videos are released. “The potential of this emerging technology for future use cases has been recognised. There is a commitment to explore the benefits that can be derived from AI, while ensuring there is awareness of the associated risks.”

Department of Justice “The Department of Justice does not use ChatGPT/AI to conduct its business. This is in line with the NICS policy on the use of generative AI and ChatGPT.”

Department of Health “In line with NICS guidance access to AI services, such as ChatGPT, Google AI or the earlier IBM Watson, are restricted whilst the limitations of these maturing technologies are researched. “The Department, and the HSC recognise the potential for AI and other developing technologies to contribute to the provision of health and social care in Northern Ireland. However, as with all health or social care services patient safety and confidentiality is paramount and exploration of the limitations of the immature technologies must be undertaken. Some earlier experimental use by other health bodies within the UK have provided useful insights and we will continue to monitor developments to help inform our decisions on its use.”

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Department for Communities “The Department for Communities does not currently use AI applications to conduct business. “The Department relies upon the digital systems of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for the delivery of social security services in Northern Ireland. The use of AI or ChatGPT solutions within the social security systems would be a matter for DWP to consider.”

Department of Education “At this time, the Department of Education does not use Chat GPT or other AI applications to conduct business.”


Mid Ulster celebrates the birth of a new registration appointment booking system digital government report

transformation and includes a commitment to collaboration in service design and evidencing improvements with data. “Everything was collaboratively designed, built, and tested by a multidisciplinary team, including colleagues from communications, ICT, our reception team, all our registrars, and our digital partners Tailwind Digital,” comments Joseph McGuckin, Head of Strategic Services and Engagement.

A new arrival is always a reason to celebrate, a little citizen, a fresh life full of promise and possibilities. For the excited sleep-deprived parents, finding their feet in the foray of nappies, nursing, and naptime, there is a lot to think about. Thankfully, for new mums and dads in Mid Ulster District Council, the visiting community midwives now hand out a ‘How to register your baby’ leaflet complete with a QR code to easily send in their information and book their appointment, all on their mobile phone. Directly from the webpage, they can see the distance and availability at each of the registry offices. Then fill in the form one question at a time, and they only see the information and questions that are relevant to their family situation. The new online booking process for birth registrations is proving popular with families, leading to more than half of the customers completing the form in less than 10 minutes, and 90 per cent of them filling it in on their phone. The easy online process saves them time and makes things easy when they arrive at the registration office. The time saved is something that new parents are no doubt very grateful for.

appointments in Mid Ulster can all be booked online. It is just one of many signs that the Council is dialling up the digital and doing so with residents’ needs at the heart of things. “Our citizens’ expectations are higher than ever,” explains Mid Ulster District Council Chief Executive Adrian McCreesh. “We have an ambition to be a leading digital council and make accessing our services as straight forward as online shopping.” This ambition is captured in the Digital Transformation Strategy that the council launched in July 2022. It underpins the authority’s approach to service

“The online booking processes have completely changed the registration service. Based on our figures from 2023 we have reduced calls into and out of the team by over 32 per cent, that is over 5,000 fewer phone calls annually. We also get 40 per cent fewer emails, nearly 2,500 fewer annually, as all the information that is needed is on the web for anyone to access at any time. It has allowed our staff to offer a better service online and offline to all our customers.” Tailwind Digital are a small team of local government focused digital consultants. They have a proven track record of leading and delivering service transformation. Speaking to Principal Consultant Tom Styles his enthusiasm for the transformative potential of technology is clear: “We are incredibly proud of the work we have done with Mid Ulster District Council, and excited to support other authorities in Northern Ireland wherever they are on their digital journey.”

Tom Styles T: 07753 827702 E: tom.styles@tailwinddigital.io W: www.tailwinddigital.io

As well as birth registration, notice to marry, and legal capacity to marry

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digital government report

Take control of your data

Scottish Government:

Delivering public services in the digital age Geoff Huggins, Director of the Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate, discusses the creation of a unified digital infrastructure for public services. Huggins’s work takes place in the context of the mandate of Scottish First Minister Humza Yousef MSP, who wrote to each of his cabinet members upon his appointment in March 2023, outlining his expectations of the ministers between now and the end of the current mandate. To his Deputy First Minister, Scottish National Party colleague Shona Robison MSP, he wrote that he expected her to “target both short-term efficiencies and wider, deeper, and longer-term reform, including through rolling out modern digital services that are easy to access, reliable, and effective” which would “remove the need for manual processing, reduce failure demand, and meet people’s expectations of how they want to interact with government, securely and in a manner which protects their privacy”. “You could probably write this for any government in terms of digital public services; all of us in government are pretty

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much in the same business,” Huggins says. “We are all generally using the same technologies, working across the same fields, and we are not doing particularly different things.” Having taken up his post in 2021, Huggins was asked to review the Scottish Government’s digital infrastructure and found a fragmented system lacking in system-level overview, meaning that new digital services could be created by a variety of organisations with little to no oversight. Having gained access to better information about what projects were in development as well as those at a planning stage, Huggins found 250 live projects and 250 projects in the pipeline. “There was a lot of commonalities, but nobody could see what was going on or planned elsewhere. As we went into the list, it began to throw up large amounts of money. We identified around £1.8 billion in lifetime costs, which are quite


Take control of your data

difficult to work with, and when we dug harder, we found that there was no business case or senior responsible officer for many of these items, so the basics of doing government were not always being followed.” The Scottish Government’s directorate model “works quite well in a number of ways but where it does not do well is those areas where you need an essential guiding hand such as digital infrastructure”, Huggins says. “We have been working over the last 12 months now on how we do digital at portfolio level as opposed to project level to begin to create common understanding of how teams work and how we build in the specialist commercial services we have got into that process.” As part of this work, Huggins and his staff will enact two proposals in 2024, one concerned with pipeline management that will centralise control over which projects go forward, and the other concerned with delivery management, which will bring senior responsible officers together for “the key 20 to 30 projects happening at any one point in time”. Central management capability has also been an area of recent reform, with an emphasis placed on recruitment. “If we go back two years, our strike rate for hiring at first try was around 40 per cent and we were carrying a bill of around £60 million per year in contractor costs across the organisation,” Huggins

explains. “As of 2023, we are currently at 90 per cent first try hire. That is because we have changed how we do recruitment, not because recruiting digital people is hard, but because we were bad at it. We have transformed that and probably saved £3 million in 2023 by replacing contractor costs with full-time staff.” Across such upheaval, Huggins explains a key principle of working on digital in the public service: “We are working with a number of ecosystems and public bodies. We tend to reorganise bits of government regularly, and if you hardwire your technology to individual organisational structures, that means that with every organisational restructure, you have got to reorganise your technology.” He points to areas such as education and justice and how his team have begun to build workflows with a service model rather than within organisations in order to reflect the “end-to-end process” that people encounter that “often crosses organisations”. All of these improvements will be built upon common cloud infrastructure, through which Huggins’s team have identified savings of between 40 and 70 per cent when compared to the cost of individual teams building this element themselves. “Increasingly what we are going to do is mandate that new work with private sector partners who use this

digital government report

“We tend to reorganise bits of government regularly, and if you hardwire your technology to individual organisational structures, that means that with every organisational restructure, you have got to reorganise your technology.” environment. We do not want to be paying a private sector partner to use their own environment and do work which we have already done,” he says. “We spent quite a lot of time with colleagues from Denmark in the last years and fundamentally what they have is a really firm infrastructure layer on which it becomes easy to iterate lots of services. That is good because having got that in place, that iteration process is the fun bit; you are talking to people, seeing what works and what does not. Getting the infrastructure right enables that iterative process to become the main part of the business.” In doing this, 2024 will see Huggins supporting new processes that determine whether projects will be going ahead due to priority ordering or will need to be done in a different way than originally envisioned, a process that he approaches with a degree of caution: “The offer has to be better than the alternative. We have stopped thinking about why we think cloud is a good idea and designed a service that people are going to use it think is a good idea. “The second step is ensuring that we had high-level buy-in at the beginning of the process by sitting down with ministers and telling them that this would be hard and that they would need to be there when people resist. That high-level buy-in to the nature of these changes is the key takeaway.”

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digital government report

Take control of your data

Digital solutions to supporting delivery of prison frontline services Robbie Burrows, Head of ICT Services at the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), outlines some of the digital solutions that are supporting NIPS frontline services in their efforts to rehabilitate prisoners. He describes two innovative ICT work strands, mobile devices apps for officers and Prisoner Portal, that have been integral in these efforts. Burrows describes the wider use of mobile device apps for staff as being transformational for the officers, giving them the ability to work more closely with prisoners and record more accurate information in a shorter timeframe. “Officers have incredibly busy posts and this technology supports NIPS in their efforts to effectively manage interventions, help with inmate care, manage prisoner rewards more accurately, thus providing better support for their rehabilitation and care and reducing the administrative burden on officers,” he says. An example of a tablet app is for Prisoner Rewards and Earnings. Burrows states that a challenge faced by staff was that records of positive things a prisoner would do was recorded on paper and then was input into the system later. The app changed this 62

process and improved the accuracy of the data as it is now recorded immediately. “Quite often in the past, what was happening was prisoners would do positive things and this would get written onto a bit of paper and it could be forgotten about because a staff member might have an emergency to deal with at that time,” he says. “Staff have a high level of demand placed on them and so this cycle would often repeat itself. This increases tension in a jail and can eventually culminate in serious safety issues for both inmates and officers.” The other project is the introduction of Prisoner Portal, a platform that allows prisoners to buy their own tuck shop products, choose their own meals, and look


Take control of your data

“Suppliers are now involved in all of our digital government report

developments and as a result, the developments are getting a lot better because they are working very closely with the business and our ICT Services team.”

Robbie Burrows, Head of ICT Services at the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS)

up their cash balance. This application is used in approximately 500 cells and the use of the platform is useful for the inmate as it introduces them to technology and gives them a chance to learn some transferrable skills. However, it also helps the business processes in the prison work more effectively, again reducing the administrative burden on officers. While Burrows is cognisant of the risks of such devices being available to prisoners, and the project has some issues to deal with, including inmate damage and delays during Covid, he says there is much to gain of enabling some prisoners to gain transferrable ICT skills to assist with their rehabilitation. Emphasising the importance of rehabilitation Burrows states that the digital solutions being used by the Prison Service, especially the tablet apps and Prisoner Portal, are having the important effect of increasing prisoners’ responsibilities for their own lives.

of ICT Services at the Prison Service since 2012, gives a statistical overview of reoffending rates in Northern Ireland. In the 2019/2020 year, Department of Justice figures show that almost half, over 45 per cent, of prisoners released reoffended within one year of being released. Of these reoffending prisoners, more than half reoffended within three months of their release, and more than two thirds, 70 per cent, of released prisoners reoffended within six months of their release. This ICT progress has been enabled by a “gentle culture change” from the ICT Strategy agreed in 2017. Under the NIPS ICT Governance Board NIPS operational managers assumed responsibility for the business and Burrows takes the lead role for the ICT Services, so the projects that come together in the NIPS strategic work programme can work in a safe place to develop.

“In Northern Ireland, there are no full life term inmates, which means that every prisoner is scheduled for eventual release, so the importance of rehabilitation being at the heart of the digital strategy developed by and for the Northern Ireland Prison Service cannot be underestimated.”

This direct responsibility for leading projects “taking the pressure off the people involved in projects” and the environment created of “the project team comes together from different organisations, but work as one to work together to achieve a common aim for NIPS” has accelerated progress and digital development in NIPS.

Burrows, who has held the role of Head

In addition to this, the Northern Ireland

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“The project team comes together from different organisations, but work as one to work together to achieve a common aim for NIPS.”

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Prison Service ICT/Digital Strategies since 2017 meant that there was a formalised approach to ICT and digital development, and a work programme agreed with the business, which more closely aligns and supports the delivery of NIPS business targets. NIPS leadership has been and continues to play a key role in this work, and their support has been appreciated throughout both strategic periods. Burrows states that the NIPS leadership support has very much increased the pace and scale of the progress.

projects have been developed working closely with NIPS staff who have brought significant business knowledge and developed a digital skillset. “Within a prison, having these skills is very important because in prison it is a very different environment from your normal office environment,” he says. The ICT Services branch also play an essential role bringing the business and technology together, who he believes have “a set of business analysis and technical skills which are second to none”.

Burrows states that the increased use of digital technology has been “transformational” for the frontline Prison Service staff and the help and skills of these same staff have been vital to the developments. These

He further highlights the role played in the suppliers of the technology as “they bring a different set of skills to us which we do not have internally”. “Suppliers are now involved in all of our developments and as a result, the

developments are getting a lot better because they are working very closely with the business and our ICT services team. That has been absolutely brilliant for us,” Burrows says. With an increased appetite from NIPS for digital projects, a leadership team that supports digital development, a growing set of skills from their ICT services, very close relationships with the business and strong support from suppliers, as well as a supportive culture and approach to use of digital technology, Burrows is optimistic that success can continue to be achieved and that the Prison Service can be supported further to continuously improve rehabilitation of prisoners. Some of the other ICT projects successfully implemented in NIPS demonstrate the approach and spirit of working together. An example was the use of video calls for prisoners through the Covid-19 pandemic, which was ready for use within one month of the first lockdown. The Prison Service took the view that the ability to remain in contact with family members had a positive effect on prisoner and family morale during the pandemic. Burrows anecdotally cites an example of a male prisoner who he says was “in tears” after seeing his dog “for the first time in years”.


Driving digital public services in Northern Ireland Department of Justice for Northern Ireland for its AccessNI Disclosure System was one such example.

digital government report

Version 1 transitioned support from the incumbent supplier, with a review of the in-scope application, ensuring that the key line of business application continued to run efficiently and maintain maximum levels of operation, which was essential to AccessNI’s overall operations. Other contracts include Land and Property Services to deliver digitally integrated solutions, and work with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and Education Authority to deliver on their vision to enhance digital public services.

Mairead Hylands, Commercial Director Public Services.

Digital transformation in the public sector is at the heart of everyday delivery of efficient, cost-effective public services, writes Mairead Hylands, Commercial Director Public Services Northern Ireland. To be a trusted partner for such a critical sector means that innovative thinking and expert guidance on decisions for the right technology choices is a given. With AI growing in adoption, the UK Government has recently published a Generative AI Framework for HMG, which acts as a guide for safe and responsible implementation of generative AI, and it is imperative that technology suppliers are aligned to this. This should not be at the sacrifice of innovation, so partners should provide counsel on the complexities and the achievable. Version 1 has been working at the heart of government in Northern Ireland and across the UK and Ireland for more than 26 years, specifically driving digitalisation of central and local government processes to improve efficiency, drive

down costs and enhance access to services for an ever-growing user base. Skills, expertise, and innovation is indeed a given, but what sets the organisation apart is the people. Comprising of leading global experts in the fields of data and AI, cloud transformation, managed services, application modernisation, digital integration, enterprise applications, and security and identity, the Version 1 team is focused on successful customer outcomes, on time and on budget. A customer retention rate of 98 per cent is testament to this.

Much of the expertise within Version 1 to complete these projects on time and within budget is based at its Belfast headquarters in Lanyon Place, which counts over 500 staff, but it also calls on expertise from the wider organisation which totals over 3,200. In fact, the company has digital transformation expertise replicated throughout the rest of the UK and Ireland, where it works on similar government projects with public service customers such as the Department of Education in Dublin and National Highways and the Ministry of Justice in Great Britain.

Mairead Hylands Commercial Director Public Service NI T: +44 7495 873956 E: Mairead.hylands@version1.com W: www.version1.com

Much of that work in Northern Ireland has been on significant, complex, and largescale projects which, in the truest sense of the word, have proved transformational. A five-year application development and maintenance contract with the

www.version1.com

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digital government report

Take control of your data

ICT skills gap evident in Northern Ireland Almost one in five people in Northern Ireland have no digital skills, according to figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). Published in November 2023, the Digital Skills in Northern Ireland report states that 18 per cent of the population have no digital skills, with NISRA’s metric being that they have not having accessed or performed any of its listed online functions. The listed online functions are: 1. use of online services; 2. finding information online;

This meant they had used the internet for more than one online service, found different types of information online, communicated online in more than one way, and were aware of multiple internet safety features. Similarly, almost two out of five respondents had a basic level of digital skills (38 per cent), meaning they had accessed the internet for at least one function. However, respondents for this category did not use a range of functions across all four aspects of digital use.

3. communicating online; and 4. using the internet safely and securely. Although there is undoubtedly a skills gap to be overcome in ICT, decision-makers can take solace in that the largest proportion of respondents were at the other end of the scale with an above basic level of digital skills (44 per cent).

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Dividing factors There were large differences in digital skill levels between those aged under 50 and those aged 50 and over. Almost half (47 per cent) of those aged 65 and over had no digital skills, compared to less than one in 10 people aged 16 to 49. Given that economic experts have warned that there will be a need for an older workforce as


Take control of your data Digital skill level

% of people aged 16 and above 18.1

Basic skills

38.3

Above basic skills

43.6

digital government report

No skills

Source: NISRA

Northern Ireland’s average age continues to increase, ensuring that older workers are equipped with digital skills will be a major challenge for decisionmakers. The largest proportion of those aged 50 and over had basic digital skills (44 per cent) while for those under 50, the majority of respondents had above basic digital skills (59 per cent). A further challenge exists in the form of a disparity between the ICT skillset of those living in economically prosperous areas of Northern Ireland and those living in economically deprived areas. Differences in digital skill levels were evident between those who were in the least deprived areas and those in the most deprived areas. A higher proportion of those in the most deprived areas had no digital skills (25 per cent) compared to those in the least deprived (11 per cent). The largest difference (24 per cent) was recorded between those with above basic skills. The most deprived areas in Northern Ireland had lower levels of above basic digital skills (34 per cent) than the least deprived areas (58 per cent). This deprivation gap is broadly mirrored in a qualification gap. Over half (55 per cent) of respondents with no qualifications reported having no digital skills. This is almost 10 times greater than the proportion of people who have at least a degree level qualification and no digital skills (5.9 per cent). The proportion of those with no qualifications and no digital skills varied with age; 20 per cent of those under 50 had no qualifications and no digital skills compared to 64 per cent of those aged 50 and over. Those whose highest qualification was degree level or above reported the highest proportion of above basic digital skills (64 per cent), which is in contrast to the 6 per cent of people with no qualifications. Similar proportions of males and females had an above basic level of digital skills (44 per cent and 43 per cent respectively). A higher proportion of females reported having no digital skills (21 per cent), and a lower proportion reported having basic digital skills (36 per cent) when compared to males (15 per cent and 40 per cent respectively).

Broad analysis NISRA states that 81.3 per cent of people aged 16 and above have at least basic ICT skills, which places Northern Ireland above the rate in the Republic of Ireland (70 per cent) and the EU average of 54 per cent. However, Northern Ireland’s average age (38.9) is higher in Northern Ireland than in the Republic of Ireland, which has an average age of 37.3. In addition, Northern Ireland’s productivity rate is 11 per cent lower than the UK average and 8 per cent lower than that of the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, this disparity is necessary if Northern Ireland is to remain economically competitive.

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Northern Ireland Housing Conference 2024 Wednesday 20 March The Europa Hotel, Belfast

Digital

Events

Publications

The annual Northern Ireland Housing Conference has become well established as a major annual event for all those with an interest or role in housing in Northern Ireland. As with previous years, it will have a genuine, in depth understanding of the key issues via a high-level panel of local and visiting speakers and will bring together key stakeholders to discuss the latest in housing policy and look at how we can fulfil the need for safe, affordable housing both now and in the future. The conference is an important date in the diary of housing professionals across the region.

Expert speaker panel includes: Mark O’Donnell

Grainia Long

Deputy Secretary, Housing and

Chief Executive

Sustainability

Northern Ireland Housing Executive

Department for Communities

Key issues to be examined:

Ad Hereijgers Fiona McAnespie Director of Care and Support

Director of Business Development

Executive Director of Customer and Communities

Future housing policy outlook in Northern Ireland

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Housing Investment Plans (HIPs) to meet local housing need

4

Shared housing delivery: The Housing for All programme

4

Managing risk for Housing Associations

4

The future outlook for the housing market

4

ESG reporting in the social housing sector

4

Raising professionalism in the housing sector

4

The evolution of customer service: Making resident involvement meaningful and accessible

4

Innovative technology platforms to manage assets and deliver better, more simplified services

4

Supporting people: Blending assistive technology with traditional models of delivery

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The decarbonisation of social housing

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Innovation in housing: Reimagining better ways to live

4

Collaboration for better results

RITTERWALD

Radius Housing Pól Callaghan

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Ceri Victory-Rowe Director Campbell Tickell

Clanmil Housing Justin Cartwright Richard Ramsey

National Director, Northern Ireland

Chief Economist

Chartered Institute of Housing

Ulster Bank Pat Austin Paddy Gray

Director, Northern Ireland

Professor of Housing

National Energy Action

Ulster University Clára Robinson Robert Clements Head of Sustainable Development Northern Ireland Housing Executive Michael McDonnell Chief Executive

Policy and Research Executive Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations

Kevin McGarry Programme Manager, Northern Ireland Energy Saving Trust

Choice Housing

To reserve a space: Online www.northernirelandhousing.com

By Telephone +44 (0)28 9261 9933

By email registration@agendaNi.com


Policing and justice report

Sponsored by


policing and justice report

Victims of sexual crime forced to choose between healthcare and justice Victims of sexual crime in Northern Ireland are effectively having to choose between access to justice or healthcare, with some describing the disclosure and handling of their private information by the justice system as being as painful as the crime itself. To address this the report makes four key recommendations:

That is the key finding of a new report by the Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime in Northern Ireland, Geraldine Hanna. The report examines how personal information such as medical and counselling records are currently being used as part of criminal investigations and specifically how this disclosure impacts victims of sexual violence.

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Key recommendations Hanna’s findings make for difficult reading: “After speaking to victims of sexual crime who had been affected by the disclosure process, I have found that not only are our laws not robust enough in protecting the privacy needs of victims, but we are also failing to deliver the level of protection for victims that our legislation and guidance currently dictates.”

key criminal justice agencies and other relevant stakeholders should explore nonlegislative practice changes, guidance and training to improve adherence to law and policy regarding the handling and disclosure of third party material as a matter of urgency;

the PSNI, PPS, and the Sexual Offence Legal Advisor (SOLA) service should work together on the referral process to ensure that victims are made aware of the SOLA service at the earliest opportunity;

the judiciary should fully implement the Gillen Review recommendation to ensure that any applications to access or introduce evidence relating to criminal injuries compensation is duly scrutinised before the trial; and

Northern Ireland should seek to introduce new legislation governing the access and disclosure of third party material.

Hanna describes how this has been raised with her since she took up the post: “In my first week as Commissioner Designate I was introduced to the story of a young female who had been groomed, abused, and seriously sexually assaulted from the ages of 14 to 17.


“She knew if she went to counselling, anything she said there might be disclosed as part of the investigation into her case. Cathy waited five long years for this case to reach court and the offender to plead guilty to six counts of sexual assault. That is five Christmases, five birthdays, with this hanging over her head before she felt like she could get the help she needed. “The young woman I met in mid-2022 shared a heart-breaking story of abuse, neglect and state failure to protect, which ultimately culminated in a criminal justice experience which left her feeling angry and further harmed by the process.”

The impact on victims of sexual abuse It is this sense of further harm being caused to victims of sexual crime that is so strongly captured in Hanna’s recent report. Titled A Second Assault – The Impact of Third Party Disclosure Practice on Victims of Sexual Abuse in Northern Ireland the report details the devastating impact disclosure can have on victims of sexual crime. “One victim told me the most important people in her life, and even her abuser, could hear all this information without her knowing the details of what was shared,” she explains. Hanna also heard from a victim who reported that she had no recollection of agreeing to the disclosure of her private information. She was taken aback when she was challenged by the defence barrister at court who used the record of a call that she had made to Lifeline to dispute her assertion that she had not disclosed the abuse to anyone before reporting to the police. As Hanna explains: “She felt that this

“The uncertainty over which parts of her records would be shared and fear that the accused could potentially read notes that had been captured regarding her private thoughts and experiences that were shared with mental health professionals, led the victim to withdraw support for the prosecution and the case was dropped.”

information was used to undermine her at one of the most vulnerable moments of her life.” Outlining the fact that third party disclosure arises most frequently in sexual violence cases Hanna states: “Figures from the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service (NICTS) in 2022 showed that 46 per cent of Crown Court cases that included a disclosure order were for sexual offence cases with 30 per cent related to cases involving a multitude of charges, which were also likely to include sexual offences.”

How the system is failing victims To understand how victims of sexual crime are being failed, it is important to understand how the disclosure process works.

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“Cathy (not her real name) shared a lot of issues with me and one in particular caused alarm. The fact that our current practice for the handling of third party material led this vulnerable young woman to decide to forgo therapeutic support whilst she waited for the criminal justice system to investigate and prosecute her offender.

If it undermines the prosecution case or assists the defence case, it will be disclosed to the defence. If the material has not been obtained at the initial investigation stage, it may be sought at a later stage by defence representatives via a court order. The safeguards in place to protect the privacy rights of victims during this process are not working, as Hanna explains: “We are failing to protect the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) Article 8 rights of the victim.” When the police are investigating a crime, any personal data generated or acquired as part of the investigation process should be limited to that which is sufficient for the progression of the investigation and which might be ‘reasonably believed to be relevant’. 4

The police, as part of any ongoing investigation, are obliged to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry. This can include requesting access to information such as counselling records, education records, medical records etc. This information must be shared with the prosecution where it is deemed relevant.

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disclosure test and advised the victim against seeking a copy of her own personal records in case this was used against her in court.

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“The uncertainty over which parts of her records would be shared and fear that the accused could potentially read notes that had been captured regarding her private thoughts and experiences that were shared with mental health professionals, led the victim to withdraw support for the prosecution and the case was dropped.” Issues also arise in court. Feedback to the Commissioner Designate has shown that disclosure applications are being made late in the process, causing additional delay. “The legal parameters governing such disclosure, even when complied with, are not strong enough. We risk undermining the confidence of victims in the criminal justice system and causing secondary victimisation and harm. “We need to do everything we can within the current procedures and guidance – but that is not enough. Even if the current safeguards were being implemented properly, there still are not rigorous enough protections in place.”

However, as Hanna details in her report: “Victims have told me there is a trend whereby third party material, including therapy notes, are routinely sought at initial investigation stages without any clear explanation as to the reasonable line of inquiry being pursued.” This feedback echoes findings from an Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) report in 2022, which found that the volume of material being sought by UK police forces was unnecessary and disproportionate. The ICO report also raised concerns about the police practice of relying on a victim’s consent as the lawful basis for obtaining and processing third party material. Hanna explains: “The ICO raised concerns about the ability of an individual to give free and informed consent at the point of trauma, the power imbalance between the police and the victim and the absence in any real sense for a victim to withdraw their consent at a later point.” 72

Hanna acknowledges that steps are being taken by the PSNI to address the ICO findings however she is concerned that the pace of progress is too slow with limited positive change being seen by victims to date. Hanna’s recent report also identifies issues at the prosecution stage of the criminal justice process. “Victims have a right to be informed about the collection and use of their personal data under UK GDPR. However, the exemptions which can be relied upon can mean the prosecution do not have to notify the victim of the detail of any material they believe meets the test for disclosure to the defence. “One victim who spoke to my office outlined her concerns that her detailed mental health records were deemed by the PPS to meet the disclosure test to be shared with defence. “The PPS refused to provide further information as to which details met the

International comparisons Hanna’s team looked at how this issue has been tackled elsewhere “other jurisdictions are considering this, or have introduced relevant legislation”. In Tasmania, there is an absolute ban on the use of pre-trial therapy notes which means that, unless the victim consents, the introduction of any counselling communication as part of trial proceedings is prohibited. In the Republic of Ireland, The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 means that in cases where the victim is unwilling for their counselling notes to be shared, the final decision on disclosure will be made by a judge. In Canada, the victim can invoke legislation to defend their privacy rights and oppose defence applications for the disclosure of their personal records. The threshold for disclosure requires the


defence to set out the grounds for relevancy.

Better compliance, stronger safeguards One of the key recommendations from Hanna’s report is that the devolved government in Stormont should seek to strengthen legislation governing the access and disclosure of third party material.

“We could have led on this if not for the last few years of political stalemate here. MLAs could and should introduce a law that means no future victim has to ever consider choosing between healthcare and justice again.”

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This issue has been highlighted as a cause for concern at Westminster as Hanna explains: “The Westminster government are keen to increase protections in this area with proposed amendments to the current Victims and Prisoner’s Bill which is progressing through Parliament.”

However, the last few years of political stalemate means Northern Ireland risks being left behind those in other jurisdictions. “We could have led on this if not for the last few years of political stalemate here. MLAs could and should introduce a law that means no future victim has to ever consider choosing between healthcare and justice again.”

Profile: Geraldine Hanna Before being appointed as Commissioner Designate for Victims of Crime in June 2022, Hanna was Chief Executive of Victim Support

Before any new legislation is introduced, Hanna is also looking ways to improve the system within current guidelines.

NI since 2015. She has over 21 years’ experience in the victims’ sector and has been

“I am putting together a working group of criminal justice organisations and other stakeholders to address the fact that across the criminal justice system there is not compliance with the current safeguards.

the driving force in establishing Victim Support NI’s Witness Service

“I have been pleased how willing criminal justice organisations have been to come forward to address this, and improve the experience of victims.

appointed to the role of President of Victim Support Europe in May

in all criminal courts across Northern Ireland and introducing improvements in support for victims of sexual violence. Hanna has also worked for several years at a European level and was

2021. She holds a BSc in sociology and MBA in Business Administration.

“But without new legislation, without stronger protections, I fear that for some victims the price to be paid in pursuing a justice outcome will remain too high.” Office Address T: 028 9052 6607 E: office@cvocni.org W: https://www.cvocni.org X: @CVOCNI Facebook: www.facebook.com/cvocni

Commissioner for Victims of Crime Block 4, Knockview Buildings Stormont Estate Belfast BT4 3SJ

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A renewed focus on rehabilitation change in this regard from my first involvement in the Prison Service. “Higher numbers of prisoners struggling with drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and a history of poor mental health is a huge challenge right across all of our establishments.” Northern Ireland has three operational prisons in the form of Maghaberry Prison, Magilligan Prison, and Hydebank Wood College and Women’s Prison. Currently, close to 2,000 people are in the care of prisons in Northern Ireland, more than is funded for, and the scale of the rise can be seen in a 500 person increase between 2021 to 2024. The rise is the equivalent of the population of Magilligan.

Six months into her new role, Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Beverley Wall talks to David Whelan about the challenges of a growing prison population and a renewed focus on rehabilitation. Although less than a year into her new role, Wall attests that her position is not one that enjoys the luxury of a long settling in period. Having worked in the Prison Service almost 30 years ago, her career has spanned a number of roles across the civil service, most recently as Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Department for Communities. She highlights that she has been involved in heavy engagement with the criminal justice sector and criminal justice policy in that time. 74

Wall explains a feeling of having come “full circle”, achieving an early career aspiration to hold the role, but admits that much has changed from those early days. Explaining that managing those changes has now become a core component of her work, she explains: “The pressing issues for me and my staff are the rapid increase and continued upward trajectory of our prison population, alongside a growing complexity of the needs of that population. There has been significant

Wall believes that previous justice ministers registered the importance of adequately resourcing the Prison Service, but the service “does not currently have adequate resources to deliver the full rehabilitative regime that we are tasked with delivering”.

Prisons 25 by 25 Wall’s predecessor, Ronnie Armour, oversaw the rollout of Prisons 25 by 25, an ambitious continuous improvement programme aimed at tackling some of the major challenges within prisons. Quizzed on whether she would be putting her own stamp on the programme, Wall says: “Prisons 25 by 25 provides for me a strong framework and strategy for the year ahead and is something I am happy to sign up to. “However, what I have done is begun a programme of engagement with our senior leadership team, our staff, and our partners to ensure that that strategy was meeting their needs. As a result, I have agreed some additional work to the programme, which centres on leadership development within the service and reviewing and refocusing


how we deliver rehabilitation within prisons.”

Outside of the two major challenges in the form of prison population rise and a greater diversity in the complexity of need of prisoners, Wall faces other challenges. In 2022, the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland was highly critical of the operation of care and supervision units (CSU) in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, highlighting that some prisoners within the units experienced regimes “amounting to solitary confinement” and that their treatment did not meet the expected United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules. A review in 2023 found that “impressive progress” had been made. Wall says that she takes assurance from the review but says that work continues in this area for further improvement. “I am glad that the inspectors have recognised the significant strides made to improve the care and support that is provided prisoners that are within our care and supervision unit, many of whom are vulnerable. We are continuing to work on how we can best support our staff who work in that difficult environment, and also support prisoners with complex needs.”

Beverley Wall, Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, makes a final selection for a new exhibition of photographs featuring Sport in Prison, which ran throughout Prisons Week. Credit: MCOOPER.

into all three prisons as a “gamechanger”. “Drugs are an issue. They are an issue across society and prisons are often a reflection of that society. The new technology has helped to rapidly reduce the flow of drugs and other illicit substances, but we cannot be complacent about it. Our staff are constantly vigilant of the risk and closing down opportunities for drugs to be brought into the prisons. “We are working closely with the PSNI to develop joint programmes and that is a relationship I hope to build on in my tenure.” Beyond illegal drugs, much like in society, the abuse and trading of prescription drugs has become more prominent. Wall explains that alongside its health delivery partners, the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, the Northern Ireland Prison Service is committed to reducing the trading of prescription drugs within prisons.

Drug prevention

Education

Another Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland report in June 2023 identified a serious drug problem at Maghaberry Prison. A total of 28 per cent of prisoners surveyed said that they had developed a drug problem within the prison and inspectors “identified a number of concerns which included access to drugs and significant areas for improvement in the delivery of education, skills, and work activities”.

On the topic of education, Wall is aware of the challenge that exists in the high volumes of on-remand or shortsentence prisoners, many of whom choose not to engage in rehabilitative education programmes.

Responding to the report, Wall says that a follow up inspection has been largely positive of the work being done within the prison, pointing to the introduction of X-ray body scanners

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Wall explains that the prisoner development model, the framework used for delivering rehabilitation in prisons, has been in place for a significant number of years, and it is her belief that prisoners can benefit from a renewed approach, with the terms of reference for a review having already been established.

Highlighting a trend where shortsentence prisoners are making up a greater portion of those likely to reoffend, Wall says: “In my view, that is partly due to the fact that we do not have the opportunity to deliver learning and skill development. “Previously, many of our offered courses ran over a 12-month period and in response, we are working

alongside Belfast Met, who deliver education in prisons, to deliver more tailored programmes but also establish a pathway for prisoners leaving prison to continue their education within a further education college.” Recently, the Northern Ireland Prison Service tasked Belfast Met with delivering a full curriculum review for each of the prisons in Northern Ireland. Wall says this is a key step in ensuring that the Prison Service continues to meet the rehabilitation needs of prisoners and prepares them for employment post release. In addition, the Prison Service is keen to establish employment advisory boards, and has worked with the Department for Communities to pilot work coaches within Maghaberry prison, helping to ensure that prisoners are best equipped to enter the labour market upon their release. Wall outlines plans for that approach to be rolled out across all establishments following initial success. Tied into ensuring prisoners are equipped to reintegrate with their community, the Prison Service has engaged the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to pilot the use of housing advisors to ensure prisoners exiting prison are supported with suitable and secure accommodation. “These supports are critical in ensuring prisoners can reintegrate and add value to their local community. We know that when prisoners are supported in this process, they are less likely to reoffend, and hopefully our work now can start to see an overall reduction in the prisoner population.”

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years ago and I am delighted to see a dramatic increase in the number of female staff, particularly within our male prisons. That is work I hope to continue, recognising the changed environment and dynamic females can bring to the role.

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“I also aim to see the Prison Service being more representative of the population we serve and more reflective as a whole.” 'Biking Exercise at Maghaberry Prison' was among the sporting images captured in an exhibition of photographs featuring Sport in Prison, which ran throughout Prisons Week. Credit: MCOOPER.

Staff wellbeing Turning to staff wellbeing, Wall says that better supporting staff’s health and wellbeing is a key ambition of her role going forward. Outlining her pride in the work of staff that “do a very difficult job dealing with really complex individuals”, Wall believes that a part of her role is to increase the profile of the work which goes on within Northern Ireland’s prisons. “By their very nature, prisons are segregated structures. They are surrounded by walls to keep people inside and outside of those walls safe. However, I think we need to metaphorically reduce those walls to enable people to fully appreciate and help address the factors that contribute to criminality and people invariably ending up in prison. “Looking at things like poor mental health, drug addiction, and securing steady meaningful employment, I believe more can be done upstream to address these issues and prevent people going to prison. I am keen to work with our partners across government and within the community and voluntary sector to see how we can best deliver preventative measures to stop people interacting with the criminal justice system.

“We have seen recognisable success in our interactions with the Youth Justice Agency, where early interventions are leading to a significant decline in young people ending up in the juvenile justice centre. I have a focus to raise the profile of our work outside the prison walls.” This raising of awareness of the diversity of roles with the Prison Service also plays into Wall’s desire to increase recruitment. Throughout 2023 the Northern Ireland Prison Service carried out a significant recruitment drive and will continue that work into 2024, seeking to fill up to 100 positions. Quizzed on the scale of the challenge of attracting people to a service, which faces funding pressures and increased complexity, Wall says that the rewards of such a job must not be underestimated. “Testament to the rewards of the job is the fact that we enjoy high retention rates, based on the progression pathways that we offer, and in the last few years we have also had a notable uptick in people who previously worked for the Prison Service returning to various roles. “Massive strides have been made since I worked in the prison service almost 30

For Wall, greater diversity means attracting more people from a catholic community background to the role, something that has been historically difficult, but also ensuring that a wider ethnic diversity is represented. To this end, the Prison Service is conducting outreach work with Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University to raise awareness of the variety and diversity of career opportunities that exist within the Northern Ireland Prison Service. “We need to seize those opportunities to raise awareness of the career potential within the Prison Service because while our roles are difficult and challenging, they are really rewarding and bring with them the significant improvement of individuals’ lives.”

Future Concluding on her aspirations for her role in the time ahead, Wall says that she is intent to build on the opportunities technology presents for greater wellbeing and efficiency within the prison estate. She points specifically to the recent roll out of an online booking system for prison visits, which saw over 700 bookings in the first week, and the continued use of virtual visits in prisons. She adds: “In my first few months, I have observed a lot of positives about the Northern Ireland Prison Service and equally identified areas where I believe we can improve. “Together with my leadership team, we have agreed that our focus in the coming years will be on supporting our people, improving our rehabilitation efforts, and optimising technology use to provide a better service. “I will be working with my senior team to not only ensure that we are doing all we can to maximise our improvement framework out to 2025, but also to plan beyond that timeframe to ensure a Prison Service that is fit for the future.”

Prisoners at Maghaberry took part in a GAA coaching course hosted by Ulster GAA over a six-week period, focusing on key skills of the game as well as encouraging healthy minds and bodies. Picture: MCOOPER. 76


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Sexual offences and trafficking legislation a ‘major milestone’ Changes to sexual offences laws introduced in November 2023 that create offences of upskirting, downblousing, and cyber flashing mark the final stage of the implementation of the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. The changes to the law represent a major attempt to get to grips with sexual offences in the modern digital age by including the introduction of four new offences “to capture the specific and highly intrusive behaviours of, what is commonly known as, ‘up-skirting’ and ‘downblousing’”, defined as “observing or recording of a person’s genitals, buttocks, breasts, or underwear without a person’s consent”. The legislation also creates a new offence of ‘cyber flashing’, identified as capturing the behaviour of people who “intentionally send an image of their genitals or sexual activity to another person without that person’s consent”. Four new offences have also been created to tackle adults pretending to be children in order to communicate with children under the age of consent with a view to sexual grooming. Outside of the digital and communications realm, the legislation also extends “the scope of the established abuse of position of trust offences to capture those adults in a position of trust who knowingly coach, teach, train, supervise, or instruct a child on a regular basis in the area of sport, or religion” and amends “the existing

offence of disclosing a private sexual photograph and film with intent to cause distress to bring the behaviour of threatening to disclose a private sexual photograph and film with intent to cause distress within its scope”. The Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 received royal assent in April 2022, with its provisions implemented in three key stages. The above implementations introduced in November 2023 mark the third and final stage of the Act’s implementation. Department of Justice Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly said that the implementation of the final tranche of provisions was a “major milestone”. Pengelly said: “The creation of new offences and the bolstering of existing offences makes it clear that these behaviours are totally unacceptable, and it sends an important message that they will not be tolerated in our society. “Those who would carry out these behaviours should be aware that there are serious consequences to their actions, with a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment applying to the offences, as well as the potential to be placed on the sex offender register.”

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Seizing opportunities to enshrine access to justice and the rule of law protect access to justice and the rights of all involved. Technology has improved the efficient disposal of straightforward matters and has a role to play. However, the use of technology in this way must always be measured and appropriate. And technology is not a panacea. Justice must be done and be seen to be done. It must not be a distant, compromised, or a remote experience for those involved in complex cases.

Access to justice

Chief Executive of the Bar of Northern Ireland, David Mulholland, outlines the role of the barrister profession in advocating for access to justice and the importance of the rule of law. The Bar of Northern Ireland comprises over 650 self-employed barristers in independent practice. Serving the public interest, without fear or favour, barristers draw on their expert knowledge of the law, advocacy, and litigation to represent the best interests of clients. As independent experts, our barristers practice across all areas of law in all courts and tribunals in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. Increasingly, barristers act in cases outside the conventional courtroom setting such as alternative dispute resolution, arbitrations, tribunals, and a broad spectrum of public and private inquiries. 78

A system under pressure Barristers are expert and dedicated legal professionals. From their unique position at the frontline of representing clients in complex and important legal matters, they witness and experience a justice system under significant pressure. Waiting lists for court appearances have reached chronic proportions. There is real concern that many across society will experience the reality that justice delayed is justice denied. Although there is a general awareness that the system should therefore be reviewed and improvements sought, care must be taken when doing so. Any review must focus on the right areas and

Access to justice is a fundamental principle of the rule of law which protects society’s most vulnerable and enables citizens to effectively exercise their rights. Our courts must be accessible to all, not simply because individual parties in a dispute can afford it or are somehow considered to deserve the benefit. For too long the legal aid conversation in Northern Ireland has focused on cost. This has overlooked the wider societal and economic benefits brought about by appropriate investment in our justice system. Rather than adopting a narrow focus on cost alone, overlooking the human value of those requiring help to face legal issues, local policy makers should observe how other jurisdictions have analysed the social benefits and public expenditure savings that are derived by investing in legal aid. Building on conclusions that had previously been published by the World Bank, PwC conducted research in Australia which in 2023 concluded that: •

for every dollar spent on legal aid the state received 2.5 times as much in public expenditure benefits; and

in addition, a host of nonquantifiable benefits were also delivered, and costs avoided.


Given the fiscal and public service challenges faced by Northern Ireland, it would be an act of gross negligence to spurn proven opportunities to harvest these same benefits in this jurisdiction.

Policy warnings As a jurisdiction, we can look to England and Wales for evidence of the impact of the implementation of policies that are still being developed and considered here.

The examples provided to support this conclusion included cuts to legal aid which have decimated universal access to justice and left victims, witnesses, small businesses waiting months if not years for a trial. In recent days, the Chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales has highlighted that the criminal and family justice systems are at the point of structural failure. He called for urgent and significant investment, warning that: “…what we are witnessing is a breakdown in the compact essential to any effective criminal justice system governed by the rule of law”.

Opportunity for Northern Ireland The Bar of Northern Ireland is a profession which upholds the rule of law and advocates for access to justice. Our members play an important role in supporting the economic and social wellbeing of the jurisdiction and unlocking potential problems and difficulties. Through regular engagement with our local politicians and Stormont

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JUSTICE is a cross-party law reform and human rights organisation working to strengthen the justice system in the United Kingdom. In its September 2023 report, JUSTICE found that recent developments within the UK have been “corrosive to the rule of law”.

“Justice must be done and be seen to be done. It must not be a distant, compromised, or a remote experience for those involved in complex cases.” departments we are advocating for a positive, proud, and strategic vision for the justice sector in Northern Ireland.

Doing so will enhance the economic prospects and public services available to people living in this jurisdiction.

Where necessary we will take direct action in support of these aims.

Legal aid is a means to address deserving and fundamental matters of real human concern that impact across all communities and that have far reaching societal and economic impact if not properly addressed.

It is incumbent upon our local policy makers to heed the warnings, lessons, and research available from neighbouring jurisdictions and seize the opportunity presented by investment in the justice sector.

There must be a strategic direction for legal aid policy to ensure that it is properly recognised as an indispensable part of our justice system, an integrated part of our social welfare provision and a key component of embedding the rule of law.

The Bar Library 91 Chichester St, Belfast BT1 3JQ T: +44(0) 28 9024 1523 E: contact@barlibrary.com W: www.barofni.com DX 002 NR Belfast X: @TheBarofNI The Bar of Northern Ireland

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Jon Boutcher assumes his position as Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) at a time that is difficult to interpret for the justice sector: public confidence has arguably never been lower in the PSNI, but 2023 also marked the first year without a security-related death since the beginning of records in 1969, writes Odrán Waldron. Dissatisfaction with the current state of policing in Northern Ireland is not exclusive to the public, with the sentiment of rank-and-file police officers expressed by Liam Kelly, Chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, who stated that the UK Government needs to “get a grip” on the “deepening crisis in policing”. Amidst the resignation of former Chief Constable Simon Byrne, budgetary issues that have seen officer numbers fall to a record low, and the worst data breach in UK policing history that saw the surnames and initials of members of the PSNI released by mistake, Kelly stated that the UK Government is presiding over “appalling damage” to local policing.

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The data breach has perhaps been the defining aspect of a damaged relationship between PSNI rank-and-file and leadership structure, with one officer having resigned as a direct result of the breach, 50 having gone on sick leave since the breach, and over 4,000 officers and civilian staff having contacted a threat assessment group, with a similar number of over 4,000 (not necessarily the same 4,000) having signed up to legal action against the PSNI over the breach. A review into the breach headed by former temporary commissioner of the City of London Police Pete O’Doherty stated that the leak stemmed from a legitimate freedom of information request related to the breakdown of

staff roles within the PSNI, with an individual failing to remove a hidden tab in the spreadsheet given as a response that contained raw data that included surnames, first initials, ranks or grades, location, gender, and unit. The report found that the breach occurred as “a consequence of many factors, and fundamentally a result of PSNI as an organisation not seizing opportunities to better and more proactively secure and protect its data, to identify and prevent risk earlier on, or to do so in an agile and modern way”. With the assuaging of workforce complaints among the first items on his agenda upon taking office, Boutcher used his first appearance before the Policing Board in December 2023 to

Credit: X/Chris Heaton-Harris

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New PSNI chief faces twin crises in public and staff confidence


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promise that a 7 per cent pay rise for officers will be implemented at a cost of £20 million to the PSNI despite the force facing an end-of-year deficit of £52 million. “We have to find out how we pay it, not that we are not going to pay it,” Boutcher said. “If I have to step into a position where I am breaching my accounting officer responsibilities and the board and the Department of Justice decide they will have to sanction me, then we will get into that territory if we need to.” Also prominent on Boutcher’s list of priorities will be tackling the crisis in public confidence in the PSNI, which has been “hugely rocked by one blow after another” according to Policing Board member Mark Durkan MLA. Policing relations with the public took several blows during the reign of Boutcher’s predecessor Simon Byrne, with incidents such as Byrne posing for a Christmas Day photograph in Crossmaglen with officers carrying automatic rifles, the death of teenager Noah Donohoe and subsequent investigation into his death, the arrest of mourners at a south Belfast commemoration for those killed in the 1992 Sean Graham bookmakers massacre, the subsequent disciplining of the officers involved and further High Court ruling that said discipline was

unlawful, and the data breach all raising concerns about PSNI leadership. Further adding to this was Byrne’s initial refusal to resign in the days immediately following the data breach despite a LucidTalk poll finding that only 16 per cent of people in Northern Ireland had any confidence in the PSNI, with 60 per cent expressing no confidence. Addressing this crisis in confidence will be a challenge for Boutcher given the PSNI’s simultaneous budgetary crisis. Speaking to Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee in November 2023, Liam Kelly said that there is a reduction of up to 40 officers in police service per year, meaning that policing does not have the budget to deliver a full service. “Policing does not have the budget to provide the full services that it can, and we are starting to see the consequences of that now,” Kelly said. “From April this year [2023], we have had no recruitment of officers, as well officers leaving due to retirement or those early and mid-career leaving because we can’t pay competitive salaries. “It is also a sad reflection that, some 25

years after the Good Friday Agreement, that we still have a terrorist threat to officers both on and off duty. The attacks, compounded by the data breach in summer, has resulted in spiralling sickness levels and reduced resources.” Despite this threat, which culminated in the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in February 2023, 2023 was the first year since records began in 1969 in which a security-related death was not recorded. Such a situation leaves Boutcher with an unenviable web to disentangle: budgetary constraints and issues outside of his control from the breach mean that public and staff morale are low, while the threat to officers has been increased by the breach, but the safest year on record for officers has also just been recorded. Boutcher is an experienced policeman, having led the investigation into the 7/7 bombings in London and the Operation Kenova team, which investigated the British intelligence agent Stakeknife but led to no prosecutions, and he will need to lean on that experience for what may well be the biggest challenge of his career to date.

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Embracing technology for successful prisoner reintegration CGI is heavily committed to corporate social responsibility (CSR), and through its services seeks to support victims, witnesses, and professionals involved in the justice system, as well as supporting successful rehabilitation.

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Reintegration challenges posed to the individual Leaving prison and trying to rejoin society can prove difficult with many challenges and hurdles along the way. However, with support networks delivered through innovative and accessible technology, the integration process can be made easier. These include:

1) E-learning and skills development

Michelle Sherrard, Director, Northern Ireland.

As we strive for a more compassionate and effective criminal justice system, the valuable role that technology and innovation has to play cannot be overstated. Imprisonment is punishment and deterrent, but it is equally important for us to focus on rehabilitation to minimise the chance of reoffending and to ensure successful reintegration into society on release. This can ultimately contribute to safer communities and a more equitable society. Many challenges are faced by individuals who are imprisoned, including a lack of skills development, learning opportunities, inability to navigate technology and potential stigma when applying for job vacancies. This is where innovation and technology can support the various stakeholders involved in prisoner rehabilitation 82

processes, from individual prison leavers through to the professionals tasked with supporting their rehabilitation. CGI, a leading global IT and consulting services firm with a Centre of Excellence in Northern Ireland, recognises the importance of working with prison leavers and how successful integration back into the community must be effective. For over 20 years, CGI has been at the forefront of helping the UK justice system to adopt new technology and employ modern, innovative, and robust systems to help transform how justice is administered across the nation.

We know that individuals who can find employment are half as likely to reoffend as their unemployed peers, however, only 16 per cent of leavers are employed within 12 months of release, thereby highlighting the need to support individuals in their journey. One of the key challenges faced when leaving the prison system is a lack of marketable skills, which hinder their chances of finding meaningful employment. Technology can help bridge this gap by providing access to e-learning platforms that offer a range of educational courses. Individuals can make use of the online courses to acquire valuable skills, certifications, and degrees that enhance their employability upon release. Not only does this prepare them for the job market but can also instil a sense of accomplishment and belonging. The latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI) make ‘hyperpersonalisation’ of training materials possible, to ensure learning reflects individuals’ specific circumstances and needs. In addition to employment, there are many who lack general life skills and knowledge to help them in the world outside of prison. For example, some may struggle to navigate the property market and how to obtain housing upon release. Others may not be as technically savvy and fully understand how to use the latest technology such as online banking, WhatsApp, video calls and other mobile applications. By integrating help videos and tutorials, these individuals can pick up new skills and be better equipped to integrate successfully back into society.


With virtual reality (VR) technology, there is the potential to revolutionise rehabilitation by providing realistic simulations of various scenarios that they may encounter upon re-entry into society. This is particularly useful for those with extended prison sentences. Such simulations could include job interviews, social interactions e.g. supermarkets, in the workplace and other everyday situations. By immersing people in these virtual environments, they can develop and practice essential life skills and learnings in a controlled environment. CGI has experience in such technologies in other settings such as special educational needs, and can vouch for their positive impact in delivering safe spaces to gain new experiences before progressing into the real-world equivalent.

3) Digital job platform For those with a conviction, finding employment can be daunting, especially with prejudices often acting as barriers to employment. However, via job placement platforms, employers can access potential candidates based on their skills and qualifications rather than their criminal history. Additionally, online platforms can offer resources such as CV building, tips for interviews and networking opportunities, all of which enhance the chances of securing employment. CGI is committed to being an inclusive employer and believes in leading positive change in both business and society. In 2023, CGI furthered this commitment by partnering with Breakthrough to provide preapprenticeship programmes for prison

leavers and those who are at risk of entering the criminal justice system. This eight-week programme supports people as they enter a long term, stable career within the technology and digital industries.

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2) Real-world simulations

Having a holistic, streamlined approach that supports information sharing, can accelerate decision-making throughout the criminal justice system, allowing justice to be served quicker.

Conclusion 4) Reoffending Arguably the biggest challenge comes once people leave prison and transition back to the real-world. It is imperative that they are supported, especially with their mental health. Technology can be a powerful tool in delivering remote counselling and mental health support. Having applications that gives access to timely information ensures that individuals have ongoing support to address any issues and maintain their wellbeing. There is also the potential for VR to be employed to help individuals manage stress, anxiety and anger through guided simulations and mindfulness exercises. Personalised rehabilitation programmes are also important in this respect as they create transparency and accountability to the individual. Keeping track of their records can highlight rehabilitation efforts and achievements, and can even proactively help to pinpoint where intervention may be necessary. Powered by technology this helps build trust and provides a measure of the success of reintegration, but also provides extremely beneficial data for future rehabilitation programmes.

Technology has the potential to be a transformative force in the successful rehabilitation and reintegration of people with previous justice system history into society. From education and skills development to post-prison mental health support and job placement, the use of technology in the justice system can break down barriers, empower individuals and foster a sense of responsibility, purpose and belonging. CGI is committed to building relationships and fostering a culture of inclusivity. Through innovative technology applications across the justice sector and our continued support for initiatives such as Breakthrough, we believe that together we can create a positive community for everyone.

323 – 3rd Floor Scottish Provident Building 7 Donegall Square West Belfast BT1 6JH T: +44 (0)75 1370 9012 E: Michelle.Sherrard@cgi.com W: www.cgi.com/uk/en-gb

Data obtained can be used to improve best practises across the justice system, by highlighting commonalities amongst data sets, for example, is there a certain geographical location where reoffending is higher, are there certain careers where people are not getting job opportunities and so forth. 83


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Courts and Tribunals Service launches new estates strategy The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service (NICTS) has launched a new estates strategy up to the year 2030 which aims to rectify what it describes as “historically low levels of maintenance spend and investment”. Published in December 2023, the strategy outlines that, currently, many of the buildings owned by the service are in an end of life status, meaning that significant investment will be required to ensure that the buildings are fit for use, amid challenges such as meeting Northern Ireland’s climate ambitions. The NICTS estate currently comprises 24 properties across Northern Ireland, with buildings in every county and local government district. The estate has a spatial footprint of 850,000 ft2 and a carbon footprint of 3,000 tonnes of CO2. In comparison with other government estates, NICTS operates an ageing property portfolio, with nearly two thirds of its buildings constructed before 1960.

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‘Historic underinvestment’

“Those investments that have been made in property and facilities have often been more reactive than strategic in nature,” the NICTS states. As a result, the NICTS says that many of its buildings lack the “flexibility and accessibility” expected of public buildings and “poorly support the welfare and wellbeing of different user groups”. “Improvements will be difficult to achieve without investment, and require new design solutions and innovative thinking to overcome practical constraints.” NICTS has identified four improvement aims and 12 strategic outcomes, that it hopes will result in an “improved and modernised” courts and tribunals estate.

Aim one: Improved user experience This aims for the NICTS estate to provide quality facilities for the judiciary, its staff, service users, and other justice and legal partners. Improving user experience also means that the estate must become inclusive and accessible for everyone, supporting the needs of victims and vulnerable users, and that it provides the physical infrastructure to support a modern digital environment. Metrics of success in meeting this objective include ensuring that all buildings are compliant with DDA provisions for mobility and cognitive impairment, all judicial chambers, hearing rooms and consultation rooms are digitally enabled, and that there is an agreed specification and layout for court and tribunal facilities at each court and tribunal tier.

Aim two: Improved resilience The NICTS aims to ensure that its estate is actively maintained to reduce risks and ensure statutory and regulatory compliance, so that it can provide a safe and secure environment for its staff, the judiciary, and all court users. The service further aims to ensure that its estate provides operational resilience that supports continuity of service and can readily adapt to change.

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Historic underinvestment in NICTS buildings has led to what the service describes as “a widely held view” that the facilities in its “ageing and fragmented” estate fall short of the standards expected by users of the justice system in Northern Ireland.

Ensuring improved resilience means that future building improvements must take account of the need to ensure adaptability in the case of future pandemics, climate change, and capacity changes. The service further states that health and safety audits and fire risk assessments must be regularly undertaken, with any remedial action completed promptly, and that regular cycles of condition surveys must be undertaken, with lifecycle replacements planned in advance.

Aim three: Improved value for money The NICTS says that its estate must be operated and maintained in a financially sustainable manner in order to ensure that investments facilitate the delivery of services that are proportionate and accessible. The service further outlines its objective of ensuring that, through efficiencies, its estate supports innovation in service delivery, by both enabling, and availing of, co-location opportunities. To measure the success of this objective, the service states that there is a need to prioritise capital investments that result in reduced revenue expenditure, and that its major capital works projects all include social value clauses that support external job creation. Efficiencies can be further facilitated if the NICTS establishes relationships with property colleagues across justice and the wider public sector to deliver viable and financially sustainable accommodation solutions. When required, and when it is in the interests of justice, it will be able to facilitate non-criminal business outside of the freehold estate.

Aim four: Increased sustainability The NICTS aims to ensure that its estate has the “minimum possible impact on the environment” and contributes to the Executive’s targets to achieve net zero. It further specifies objectives of ensuring that it facilitates sustainable ways of working and supports active travel and wellbeing, as well as ensuring that its estate embodies “best practice in the care and protection of our heritage assets”. To achieve these objectives, the strategy states that, if successful, the NICTS estate will meet the sectoral emissions targets within the Climate Action Plan, all energy and water consumption will be actively and automatically monitored, and that fossil fuels are not used in the estate for space or water heating.

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Restorative justice: Progress hampered

The latest progress report for the Adult Restorative Justice Strategy reports that the lack of political leadership and funding cuts have meant that key targets for restorative justice have not been implemented as planned. The Department of Justice has been operating without political leadership since October 2022, meaning that civil servants are being left with the task of implementing policies which may require review. The Adult Restorative Justice Strategy was released by the then-outgoing Minister for Justice, Naomi Long MLA, prior to the collapse of the Executive due to the DUP’s boycott of the institutions over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The inability of the Department to proceed as planned is acknowledged in the progress report itself, with the Department outlining that the lack of a minister and Executive over the second part of the year should be seen as

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“mitigating circumstances”, as this meant that some decisions were delayed or postponed, and the comprehensive review of the Protocol took far longer than initially projected. A further “mitigating circumstance” stated by the Department of Justice to progress was the finite resources associated with the Strategy, both in terms of staffing and funding. “There is clearly a need for secure, long-term funding for restorative justice: lack of funding was recognised by the Fresh Start Panel as a major factor inhibiting the expansion of restorative approaches, hence their recommendation A9 around the creation of a dedicated fund for this work, which was also to be used as the

source of funding for the creation and operation of a centre of restorative excellence,” the report states. To date, this fund is yet to be established, which the Department says restricts the potential for strategic and innovative developments from being established and upscaled. “The current financial climate has meant that baselines across government are under increasing pressure, seemingly with no good news on the horizon,” the report asserts.

Potential benefits Although there is a broad level of dissatisfaction at progress thus far, the Department insists that the underlying principles of restorative justice remain the best path forward for the sector in


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“The current financial climate has meant that baselines across government are under increasing pressure, seemingly with no good news on the horizon.”

Northern Ireland, with victim engagement and satisfaction in the process was seen by the majority of stakeholders as the most important factor to measuring success. However, the report notes that a successful restorative justice system is one which balances the needs of victims, offenders, and the community. The report also cites a number of other measures which “could be useful to focus on,” including increased referral numbers; reduction in court cases and admissions to custody; improved public confidence; and changes in behaviour or reoffending.

Broad analysis The report states that, while the original strategy was supposed to be a final

document, that the action plan is a living and breathing document. Success and progress have been limited, as acknowledged by the Department itself. Decision-makers await the return of political leadership to the Department of Justice in order to provide vision, rather than what can be a characterised as continuous firefighting by senior civil servants. Central to this, upon the future return of an Executive, will be an increase of funding to the Department of Justice, especially given the disparity in funding allocated to the local department and the UK Ministry of Justice, with the UK ministry receiving an increase in funding of almost £4 billion since 2020, whilst the “punishment budget” for Northern Ireland saw the Department of Justice

lose 1.7 per cent of its real terms funding. Questions remain as to when this will happen. The DUP, in addition to its stance on the Windsor Framework, has also used its Stormont boycott to call for a reform of the Barnett formula and an increase in the Northern Ireland budget. Despite this effort, the party’s ongoing absence, especially given the arguably cynical approach to funding being adopted by the Northern Ireland Secretary, mean that, in the immediate term, department officials will have to continue adopting policies which cannot be updated with the political leadership and funding necessary for success.

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Building for a bright future

Newly elected President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, Darren Toombs, talks about his and the Law Society’s priorities for the year ahead, with a focus on skills, education, and the network of solicitors supporting Northern Ireland’s communities and businesses. Education and access to the profession

bursaries of around £10,000 to assist in their training to become solicitors.

Toombs, a partner in local law firm Carson McDowell, explains his top priority is investing in the next generation: “I have always been passionate about legal education and training. As President of the Law Society I am committed to identifying ways to improve access to the legal profession and supporting those wishing to follow a career in law.

“We know that Northern Ireland’s legal economy has changed dramatically over recent years with our excellent local talent attracting international firms to these shores. While this has grown the sector and is an economic success story, it has also led to a shortage of solicitors in the jurisdiction and many firms are struggling to recruit.

“I was first co-opted to the Society’s education committee having served on the Northern Ireland Young Solicitors Association for several years. I think my interest stems from a personal feeling, that at all of my sliding door moments, the door just happened to slide the right way for me.

“As the professional body for the solicitor profession, the onus is on the Law Society to be responsive to the changes happening in the economy and society. This includes looking at our legal education system to ensure it is fit for the future and produces the pipeline of new talent required to meet the needs of Northern Ireland’s people and businesses.

“It should not have to be like that. I hope that I can gently push open the door to broaden the entry and access points to more individuals and also to a more diverse range of applicants. That is why I was very proud last year to lead a group which created a new Centenary bursary scheme, which resulted in two very worthy applicants receiving

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“The Institute of Professional Legal Studies will continue to be the cornerstone of legal education here and we have worked with the IPLS to increase their capacity in recent years. But I see a need to look wider and consider what additional pathways are appropriate. That might include higher level apprenticeships or bringing back the ‘clerking route’ to becoming a solicitor.”


“As the professional body for the solicitor profession, the onus is on the Law Society to be responsive to the changes happening in the economy and society.”

After graduating in 1998, the Warrenpoint native undertook an apprenticeship with MacElhatton & Company Solicitors in Belfast, experience which he explains he will be drawing on during his presidency: “I am very familiar with the challenges for solicitors working in general practice solicitor firms across the province. “My predecessor, Brian Archer, a sole practitioner, worked tirelessly on the issue of legal aid. From my own days working in general practice, I recall the challenges of legal aid work and it has become much worse since then. The additional funds announced towards the end of 2023 for the legal aid budget are welcome, following our engagement with the Department of Justice and the Legal Services Agency. But while getting the right budget in place is vital, there is a clear need to look at the wider picture. “I am hopeful that the Fundamental Review of Criminal Legal Aid, being led by Tom Burgess, will bring about real and lasting results for the firms struggling to provide this vital service and uphold access to justice for their clients in constrained times. A big focus for the Society in the year ahead will be providing evidence to support this review and demonstrate the importance and value of the work done by solicitors in the criminal justice system.

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Access to justice and community legal services

are both the regulatory and the representative body for solicitors in Northern Ireland. That brings with it a huge amount of responsibility which we take very seriously. “Recently, the Law Society Council agreed a transformation programme that will ensure that we build on our strengths as an effective regulator and also be responsive to the needs of our members. So, a key part of my work as President will be to listen and engage proactively with stakeholders, decisionmakers, and members, to address their issues and identify how they can be best supported moving forward.”

A busy year ahead Reflecting on the year ahead Toombs says: “I am all too aware that this year will fly by and I am determined to make the most of it. I will continue to champion the excellence of our profession at home and abroad as well as promoting the importance of maintaining the network of solicitor firms, large and small, across Northern Ireland, who provide advice – and most importantly, access to justice to the local community and to business.”

T: 028 9023 1614 E: policy@lawsoc-ni.org W: www.lawsoc-ni.org

“Of course, the Society’s work to make the case for investment in access to justice and in the wider justice system is not helped by the absence of the Assembly and Executive at Stormont. While we would hope to see political decisionmakers back in position shortly, the Society will continue to engage with the parties and with officials in the Department of Justice, making the case for access to justice and reform of our justice system.”

A modernised Law Society In addition to influencing externally, the Law Society also has an ambitious programme of reform internally: “The Law Society is quite unique in that we

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Consensus for extending use of live court links

The Department of Justice has outlined that there is vast support from experts and the wider public alike to extend the use of live links in courts and tribunals in Northern Ireland. Since the 2020 Coronavirus Act came into force in March 2020, live links have been more extensively used. Use of live links for courts and tribunal services was not extensive prior to the outbreak of coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns which began in March 2020. At the time, then Minister of Justice, Naomi Long MLA, obtained agreement from the Executive that the provisions included within schedule 27 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 would be extended beyond 24 March 2022 to support and facilitate continued use of live links in courts and tribunals, with particular emphasis on addressing any impact on the progression of cases through the courts as a result of the pandemic. Long stated that there would be a need for a public consultation on future use of live links within the courts and tribunals before there would be an opportunity to introduce primary

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legislation within the Assembly. In October 2021, it was anticipated, that at least three extensions of the Schedule 27 live links provisions may be required. In September 2022, then-Minister Long made a second Statutory Rule extending these ‘live links’ provisions to March 2023. The Department considered and concluded there was a public interest in making a further statutory rule days before the September 2022 extension was due to expire. The approach for these pre-pandemic legislative provisions, within the civil and criminal courts, has been to identify proceedings which could be facilitated by live video link, or the receipt of evidence by video link, provided specified conditions were satisfied and the use of video link was approved by a relevant judge.

Engagement with stakeholders The Department of Justice received 42 submissions on the continued use of video link. Of the 42 submissions, 41 of these proposed continuing the initiative, with one opposed. Most responses went on to make additional comment with over 10 per cent specifically recording that they disagreed with any suggestion there should be only one additional extension following the September 2023 statutory rule. The majority of responses, including in particular those specifically working with children or victims engaged in court proceedings, were positive about the wider use of live links. One of the prominent reasons summarised by the Department for support is the saving of public money. The report outlines how most legal practices, as well as organisations


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Evidence

regularly engaging with courts or tribunals, had reorganised how they approached attendance at or for court. They expressed the desire to retain benefits such as:

Although there is a general consensus for retaining the feature, challenges remain with the specifics, with reform proposed by many stakeholders. The most prominent of these were:

reduced costs of travel;

more productive use of time and personnel by avoiding the unproductive waiting around in court buildings;

being able to provide attention to client/case care or complete tasks essential to the delivery of a public service while waiting to be called remotely to give evidence; allowing to “more efficiently manage time and resources”; and “enabling the involvement of experts outside of the jurisdiction without incurring the cost of them physically attending court” in this jurisdiction.

reducing the impact on people, especially those who are vulnerable, when going through what is already a stressful event;

attending court in this manner allows better management of time and resources for solicitor practices;

savings in time, cost, and impact on the environment (reducing the carbon footprint) with the reduction in travelling to and from court;

the benefit for children in giving evidence remotely in a child friendly and neutral environment;

reducing the risk of unplanned encounters with defendants or their relatives;

potential saving in costs of staff engaged in transportation; and

the saving in waiting time for practitioners, police, expert witnesses as well as making it cost effective to use expert witnesses from outside this jurisdiction.

Next steps The Department of Justice states that it will reflect on the responses as some of the comments received go beyond the responsibilities of the Department. The immediate need for a further extension of the Schedule 27 provisions to assist with addressing the backlog and throughput of cases has been accounted for in the short term via a statutory rule made on 21 September 2023 extending the live links provision until and including 24 March 2024.

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CRIME AND JUSTICE IN NORTHERN IRELAND These figures have been put together using statistical releases from the PSNI and the Department of Justice. Crime in Northern Ireland 107,639 crimes recorded in Northern Ireland from 1 December 2022 to 30 November 2023 • A decrease of 1,918 (-1.8%) when compared with the previous 12 months. Crime levels in each of the months December 2022 to April 2023 were higher than the same months in December 2021 to April 2022. • The largest increase was in February (14%) with the smallest increase in March (2.4%). All policing districts, with the exceptions of Belfast City, Ards and North Down, and Fermanagh and Omagh experienced a lower level of crime compared with the previous 12 months. Higher crime levels were recorded in sexual offences, robbery, theft offences, burglary, drug offences, possession of weapons, and miscellaneous crimes against society. Lower crime levels were recorded in violence against the person, criminal damage, and public order offences. Source: PSNI, December 2023

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Adult and youth reoffending Of the 15,631 people in the 2020/21 cohort, 18.8% (2,935)

reoffended during the one-year observation period (adults 18.5%, youths

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25.0%)

20.1% of males and 13.1% of females reoffended •

adult males 19.9% and adult females 12.6%, youth males 25.8% and youth females 22.5%

Of those who reoffended, 45.8% committed their first reoffence within the first three months (adults 45.6%, youths 48.6%) One-year proven reoffending rate: •

custody releases 49.1% (adults 48.9%, 7 of 10 youths);

community disposal (supervision) 28.8% (adults 27.4%, youths 49.5%);

community disposal (no supervision) was 17.5% (adults 17.3%, youths 52.1%); and

diversionary disposal 17.3% (adults 16.2%, youths 21.5%).

Source: Department of Justice, October 2023

Crown Court

Magistrates Court

In 2022, there were 2,753 Crown Court sittings with

sitting days during the year,

1,297 cases and 1,587

Within the 4,358 Magistrates’

72% were adult criminal, 6% youth criminal and 22% civil and family days.

defendants received and 1,409 cases and 1,765 defendants disposed.

There were 319 new civil applications, 3,579 new

Average time from committal to hearing was 173 days and from conviction to disposal was 82 days.

286 civil and 3,308 family applications and 36,554 adult and 982 youth defendants disposed.

In comparison to 2021, the number of cases and defendants received decreased, and the number of disposals increased.

disposal in the adult and youth criminal courts were 16

Source: Department of Justice, June 2023

family applications and 37,339 new adult and 1,031 new youth defendants received.

The average waiting times from summons/charge to and 20 weeks respectively; from date of receipt to

disposal the average waiting time was 34 weeks for

civil applications and 9 weeks for family applications. Source: Department of Justice, June 2023 93


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Need to tackle domestic abuse failure The draft Domestic and Sexual Abuse Strategy 2023-2030 will be the latest strategy which aims to tackle domestic and sexual abuse, following the conclusion of the Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse Strategy. The original strategy, published jointly by former Minister for Health Simon Hamilton and former Minister for Justice David Ford in March 2016, can be characterised as a failure, with domestic incidents having increased from 28,392 in 2015/16 to 32,875 in 2022/23, according to statistics from the PSNI. The original strategy had been published with the intention of reducing domestic incidents. When approached for comment on these figures, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice told agendaNi: “While awaiting the finalisation and publication of a new Domestic and Sexual Abuse Strategy by the Executive, both departments [Justice and Health] continue to provide support to victims.” The spokesperson also said: “An ongoing priority is to address underreporting in order to bring this 94

previously hidden issue out into the open by encouraging and supporting victims to come forward and report abuse and access help.”

New draft strategy The new draft strategy, published in February 2023, acknowledges this failure of delivery, although it claims that part of the reason for the increase in cases is “increased confidence in reporting”. Whereas the Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse Strategy formally targeted a reduction in domestic and sexual abuse incidents, a metric which is already vague, the draft Domestic and Sexual Abuse Strategy 2023-2030 instead makes a revision of the underlying philosophy of the approach needed. In its ‘learning and review’ section, the strategy promotes the domestic

homicide reviews which have been in place since 2020 as well as the lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic which contributed to significant increases in the rates of domestic abuse. Rather than setting specific targets, other than a general ambition to reduce domestic abuse cases, the strategy outlines the following objectives: •

increased co-operation and more effective collaboration across government, working in partnership with others;

addressing social attitudes, while promoting awareness and knowledge of healthy relationships;

providing support for those affected by domestic and sexual abuse, informed by their experience and the needs of particular groups;

working to prevent domestic and


Domestic abuse incidents in Northern Ireland Year

28,392

2016/17

29,166

2017/18

29,913

2018/19

31,682

2019/20

31,817

2020/20

31,196

2021/22

33,186

2022/23

32,875

providing a more robust and effective justice response, increasing protection and safety for those affected.

The draft strategy further calls for a “stronger system” which improves “how we respond to domestic and sexual abuse and working together to support those affected with a trauma informed approach”. “We also want to harness every opportunity for positive intervention, so that abusive behaviour can be called out and addressed, with improved outcomes for all,” the strategy document states. Of further importance, according to the draft strategy, is defining domestic abuse, which it states is: “Threatening, controlling, coercive behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, virtual, physical, verbal, sexual, financial or emotional) inflicted on anyone (irrespective of age, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any form of disability) by a current or former intimate partner or family member.”

Eight outcomes The draft strategy outlines eight outcomes which would be achieved by full implementation of the strategy. These are: •

a coordinated response to domestic and sexual abuse informed by victims’ voices and community engagement;

the public is informed about the different types of domestic and sexual abuse and its impact on victims including children;

an increase in the knowledge and skills of children, young people, and adults about forming healthy relationships;

domestic and sexual abuse is identified and responded to earlier;

victims including children are supported and feel safe regardless of diversity of need;

all victims of domestic abuse including children can access safe accommodation-based services;

individuals are responsible for their abusive behaviour, are held to account and supported to change, with the risk of harm reduced and victim safety enhanced; and

victims feel confident to report domestic and sexual abuse, barriers to participating in the justice system are reduced and justice responses are effective.

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2015/16

sexual abuse taking place, identifying, and disrupting abusive behaviour while holding offenders to account; and •

Domestic incidents

Political instability Less than nine months after the Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse Strategy was introduced, the Executive collapsed amid the fallout of the RHI scandal and remained inactive for almost three years. The new Executive then itself collapsed after only two years, during which time there was a crisis of leadership in the DUP, the Covid-19 pandemic, and continued Brexit challenges. With the Executive having been inactive for around five of the last eight years, it is hard not to conclude that a lack of political leadership has left the Civil Service and relevant stakeholders rudderless in tackling domestic violence and abuse. The failure to reduce domestic incidents can be partly explained by Covid, and partially attributed to an increase in reporting, but the statistics give no reason to believe that, as was intended, there has been any decrease in domestic incidents. Some initiatives, such as domestic homicide reviews, which have been taken up will be of note if and when political leaders return to the Executive. However, the fact that, according to the PSNI, more than one-infour women in Northern Ireland experience domestic abuse means reduction of domestic and sexual abuse is a challenge which will require considerable effort. 95


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Northern Ireland Economic Conference Speakers: Paul Grocott, Department for the Economy; Gareth Hetherington, Ulster University Economic Policy Centre; John Campbell, BBC Northern Ireland; Chris Giles, FT; Rosie Kinnear, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council; and Richard Baker, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.

The 28th annual Northern Ireland Economic Conference took place in the Hilton, Templepatrick in December 2023. Hosted by Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, Northern Ireland’s premier economic analysis event brought together key players in the economy, across all sectors including policymakers, business leaders, and economic stakeholders to discuss economic priorities for Northern Ireland, closing the skills gaps in the local economy and addressing the challenges of the cost of living crisis. Delegates in attendance heard from a number of local and visiting expert speakers including Chris Giles, economic commentator, Financial Times; Sandra McNally, Professor of Economics, University of Surrey and Director, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics; and Frank O’Donnell, Public Sector Lead, Microsoft Ireland. We would like to take this opportunity to thank our conference host, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, all speakers and delegates who joined us in the Hilton, Templepatrick and made the conference a huge success.

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Speaker: Lisa Wilson, Nevin Economic Research Institute presents on sustainable public finances and fiscal devolution.

Mark Cosgrove, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council asks the panel a question.


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Speakers: Helen Johnston, National Economic and Social Council; Richard Rodgers, Department for the Economy; Frank O’Donnell, Microsoft Ireland, and John Campbell, BBC Northern Ireland.

Ross Morrow, Department of Justice and George Sampson, Department for Communities.

Gail Kinkead, agendaNi and Karen McDowell, Bank of Ireland.

Karen Smyth, NI Local Government Association asks the panel a question.

Helen Johnston, National Economic and Social Council and Gina McIntyre, SEUPB.

Kehinde Olagunju, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs asks the panel a question.

David Jordan, Queen’s Business School and The Productivity Institute.

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Opening up the archives One hundred years after the formation of an official public record office for Northern Ireland, David Whelan talks to Acting Director of PRONI, David Huddleston, about receiving, preserving, and making available the public record.

David Huddleston, Acting Director of PRONI.

Spacious, well-lit, and welcoming, first impressions of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) are a far cry from what might be expected of a facility trusted with preserving a Papal Bull by Pope Honorius III dating back to 1219, correspondence from Theobald Wolfe Tone from 1798, and notebooks and letters accounting individual experiences of the Battle of the Boyne and the Easter Rising. Custom built in 2011 to succeed a former Balmoral Avenue site which had grown unsuitable in its size and functionality, the Titanic Boulevard building boasts large exhibition space, an onsite cafe, a large public search room, as well as specific reading rooms, purposely set to entice the public in. The building’s modern and inviting design cloaks its primary function, to receive, preserve, and make available

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the public records of government and the wider public sector over the past 100 years. Describing the layout as “like a medieval castle”, whereby the core of the building acts as its stores, Huddleston explains that the public-facing areas serve as a protective layer for the vast array of documents that lie within. While the majority of PRONI’s public records date from the partition of Ireland in 1921 to the current day, older documents dating back to the late 18th and 19th centuries are also held. As well as acting as the official place of deposit for public records in Northern Ireland, PRONI also collects a wide range of archives from private sources. Set up post-partition, PRONI has set about using its centenary to raise awareness of the public accessibility of the historical treasure trove it holds.

Huddleston has spent his whole career (25 years) working in the public record office across a range of divisions including record management to cataloguing and spent the last 14 months as Acting Director. Quizzed on the fascination PRONI holds for him, he explains: “For some, the idea of a public record can sound mundane, but it is not the case. These records have a unique ability to transport you to a moment in time and give you a personal experience of history. “One example is a piece that resonates with me a lot, a piece that I catalogued and one that would not instantly jump out as historically significant. They were the diaries of a mid-19th century County Down farmer called James Harshaw, from Donaghmore. Through his account you hear of his family ties to unionism


A patent creating James Hamilton 1st Viscount Clandeboye,

and nationalism, of sickness in the community, and tales of those emigrating. He shares relatable emotions, but I was reading them in the context that this timeframe was the rise of the Young Irelanders and also the blight first appearing on the potato. We had the opportunity to read a first-hand account of the personal experiences of someone who lived through the famine, which I consider a real privilege.”

Official files PRONI is most popularly known for its work in the annual release of selected official files. Every year since 1976, official records held by PRONI which are 30 years old have been reviewed, with some made publicly available. In September 2011, the time limit for the release changed from 30 years to 20 years and this change is being phased in over 10 years, with two years’ worth of records being reviewed and released each year.

4 May 1622.

children, and those families that found themselves in workhouses. “There is a very diverse range of people who are represented in the records, and most people will find a connection or something to resonate with within a particular story.” PRONI coordinates the annual release on behalf of the Department for Communities and files are put through an extensive scrutiny process for data protection. While the public body transferring the file must assess its suitability to be released, Huddleston highlights that there “is no exemption for embarrassment”, meaning that some of the information lends itself to media headlines.

“Our approach is for openness and transparency. We want as much information as possible to be publicly available and so, where a public body is recommending closures, we will review those files against Freedom of Information Act exemptions and contest any areas where we believe the request is too conservative.”

Centenary PRONI’s centenary celebrations have centered on raising awareness of the public accessibility of many of the records it holds. Unlike in a museum, where many artifacts are displayed behind protective cases, much of PRONI’s documents are available to touch, feel, and read.

4

These files often give an interesting insight into official thinking at the time of historical events and make for interesting headlines in the media, but as Huddleston explains, the offering of public records is much broader. “A lot of the stories recounted often involve what you might call the great and the good, or the various elites and they are very interesting, but I think the real gold lies in the accounts of the labourers, farm workers, school ey protection

prior and convent of Paisl of Pope Honorius III granting the PRONI's oldest document, the Bull 12 June 1219. etc., ion of the churches of Katkert, for all their goods and confirmat

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from discussions with the Orange Order in November 1998. In April 2023, PRONI was also able to borrow and display one of 26 original remaining copies of the American Declaration of Independence from the National Archives (UK), celebrating the role of Scotch-Irish American people in the declaration.

Recovery

e e been reviewed, with som which are 30 years old hav ial records held by PRONI 30 years to 20 years. offic 6, from d 197 e nge sinc cha r ase yea ry rele Eve time limit for the In September 2011, the made publicly available.

They have hosted a range of activities, exhibitions and events to reconnect with users in a post-Covid-19 era and encourage new users to engage with their content. In November 2023, PRONI partnered with Libraries NI to launch a programme which saw historical documents specific to the region put on display at a local library. As a result, one example was at Derry Central Library which played host to a letter from Seamus Heaney to fellow renowned poet John Hewitt in September 1966 following the publication of Death of a Naturalist; a highly decorated map depicting the siege of Derry in 1689; and an 1800s passenger book of those leaving Foyle Port for Philadelphia, Québec, and St John, New Brunswick. Discussing the project, Huddleston says: “It was a great experience to take these unique and original records on the road to local communities where they were first created. Archives are for everyone.

They tell us about our people, and our places, so this was a fantastic opportunity to see original historical records up close in a local library.” PRONI has extensive engagement with neighbouring archives such as The National Archives of Ireland, and the National Archives (UK). It is through these relationships that in April 2023, PRONI was able to play host to the UK Government’s original signed copy of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. On loan from The National Archives, the first public appearance of the document in Northern Ireland coincided with the 25th anniversary of the signing and was hosted as part of an exhibition which also included a record of the first official NIO meeting with Sinn Féin delegation led by Martin McGuinness in December 1994; plans by the then Secretary of State to change the public image of Parliament Buildings at Stormont; notes from meetings with the late John Hume and David Trimble in April 1998; and

Equally, PRONI, alongside Trinity College Dublin, was central to the recovery of centuries of lost Irish history as part of a digital project to recover records lost during the 1922 fire which destroyed the Public Record Office in Dublin. Part of the Civil War destruction, the office lost countless records, some dating back to the famine era and the Beyond 2022: Ireland's Virtual Record Treasury project sought to make a 3D digital reconstruction of the original building and digitally refill its shelves in time to mark the 100th anniversary of the blaze. Prior to partition, the Public Record Office in Dublin was an island-wide archive and so pre-1901 census records destroyed during the fire meant a rich genealogical source had been destroyed. As part of its centenary, PRONI established a partnership with high-profile genealogy online platform Ancestry, allowing for approximately 3.2 million name indexes, relating to valuation records for the period 1864 to 1933, being free to access online. The indexes represent a major enhancement to existing digitised records that have been available on the PRONI website, but which were previously only searchable by geographic location. Huddleston explains that as well as opening up their archives to a wider audience, the relationships between archives also allow for good working relationships, such as establishing best practices in preserving and cataloguing. To this end, he believes that the digitisation of records will go some way to assisting with a challenge currently felt by the like of museums around repatriation.

er ciation poster promoting the 5 Octob A Northern Ireland Civil Rights Asso Troubles’. many to mark the beginning of 'the

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d by

march in 1968, a date considere

Digitisation presents both opportunities and challenges for PRONI. Around 100 civil servants work at PRONI across a variety of jobs, including conservation staff. The Acting Director explains that a fine line exists between preserving documents, and ensuring the public has access to these important pieces of history.


Interestingly, Huddleston explains, that older documents, often written on expensive paper have proven more resilient and easier to maintain than those on more modern paper. To this end, offering digital access to these documents can help slow any deterioration. On 31 March 2015, PRONI launched its Digital Preservation System. The primary aim of this system is to store, preserve, and provide access where possible to digital records. The records that PRONI receive are created by government departments, public sector bodies, and private depositors. Explaining its necessity, Huddleston says: “The emergence of email, and then widespread use across the public sector posed a challenge in that our traditional records were now being ‘born digital’. As the official archive, we have a duty to take the records that are created, and the content quality of those records is really for historians, journalists, and commentators to judge. On the additional volume, Huddleston says: “The tsunami of digital records is a problem but not one we are grappling with alone. National archives across the globe are also working through challenges, which is allowing us to learn from and share our learnings. Our job is to take those records, store them, and present them in the best way possible and that is work ongoing as we develop our digital retention and disposal tools.”

Father Martin Magill is a

regular user of PRONI, a

Future Turning to the future, Huddleston believes that as well as promoting the public accessibility of over 100 years of public record history, PRONI has a role to ensure that those accessing records in the next century have an accurate reflection of today. On PRONI’s ambitions for the years ahead, he concludes: “I think a major challenge will be addressing the archiving of digital records, to ensure that records being made in the 21st century are preserved and made available.

ast Street Names project.

useful resource for his Belf

“It is also about breaking down the barriers and misconceptions about archives and ensuring they are opened up to as wide an audience as possible, both onsite and online. “Most importantly, we want to fulfil our core function as a national cultural institution, working with our partners across the public and private sectors to ensure that we are receiving, preserving and making available the written and photographic memory of Northern Ireland.”

Only between 5 and 10 per cent of an organisation’s records are transferred to archives. The Acting Director explains that a set criterion is established to try and ensure that perspective is applied to documents to judge how relevant they might be in the years ahead but accepts that no process is “infallible”. On archiving in a divided society, Huddleston says: “From an archival perspective, we are not trying to interpret the record, we are presenting it and making it available, and it is then for members of the public to make their own judgement. Different documents will present the accounts of different communities, in history and more recently, and some of them may prove contentious, but we aim to be a shared space that provides a lens to history. “One of the most interesting things to see in PRONI is when you meet someone who has a conception of their community roots, but when they dig a bit deeper, discover the complexity of family history in our society.” premises in Titanic Quarter, In March 2011 PRONI reopened after its move to new Belfast with a focus on public accessibility.

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2024: The year of elections 2024 is set to be a year of elections, with over 40 general elections scheduled or highly likely to take place around the world in 2024, including in the UK, Ireland, the United States, and the EU. agendaNi looks ahead to some of the polls to take place in 2024. The Executive Formation Act sets a legal deadline of 8 February 2024 for the calling of an Assembly election by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP. However, previous ‘deadlines’ have been shifted to deal with the current stalemate at Stormont, and although there is a formal prospect of a looming Assembly election, the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland will be a political development which will likely not end up requiring a new election. Although an Assembly election is unlikely, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak MP said on 4 January 2024 that there will likely be a UK general election in “the second part” of 2024, with some commentators having speculated that the UK Government was planning to hold the election in May.

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Political trends have evolved significantly in Northern Ireland since 2019, when a poll was held following almost three years of an inactive Assembly. The Assembly has since collapsed again, with the DUP stating that it is refusing to re-enter Stormont in the short term as a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework. Whereas Sinn Féin faced a challenge from the SDLP in Foyle and saw its vote share decline in every constituency apart from north Belfast in 2019, it will be entering this election with the objective of becoming the biggest Northern Irish party in Westminster, a feat which would cap a highly successful electoral period since the turn of the last decade, with the republican party now the largest political force in the Assembly, local government, and in Dáil Éireann.

Unionists will be confident in retaining their eight MPs and will aim to put up a steadfast challenge to nationalists in north Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as well as the Alliance Party in North Down. With recent boundary changes favouring incumbents in their re-election bids, the only hope for unionists in the general election may be unionist pacts. However, even pacts may not be enough for unionists to outpoll nationalists and others in these constituencies. The relative success of the Alliance Party and the SDLP in 2019, characterised by a ‘remain swing’, will face a significant challenge to avoid a complete return to the Sinn Féin-DUP dominant duopoly, with Sinn Féin reportedly prepared to mount a challenge to gain SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s Foyle seat, and


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Trump, who was found liable for battery, a civil tort, in a civil court and is currently on trial on counts of civil fraud, theft of classified documents, and conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election, is as much as 10 per cent above Biden in the polling. Although in the United States polling tends to narrow closer to election day, Biden will face an uphill challenge, especially as independent Robert Kennedy Jr, son of the assassinated former Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, is polling the highest for any third-party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992 and could potentially qualify for the presidential debates. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP won in Foyle by a record majority in 2019, but may face an uphill challenge to retain his seat as Sinn Féin has since outpolled the SDLP in Assembly and council elections in Derry.

Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party facing a potential unionist pact. In the Republic, there will be elections held for local government and the European Parliament in the Republic in May and June 2024 respectively. It is also likely there will be a general election held towards the end of 2024. Fine Gael (through its preceding organisation, Cumann na nGaedheal) and Fianna Fáil have lead government in one format or another since the State was founded more than 100 years ago, whilst Sinn Féin, the second oldest party on the island (after the Ulster Unionist Party) seemingly stands on the edge of ending its century in the wilderness of southern politics. If consistant opinion polling is to be believed, the shift in Irish politics will be perhaps the most seismic since the historic 1918 election which culminated in the partition of the country. However, if the tide is turned and Fine Gael manages to remain in office, it will be the fourth consecutive term for the party in government, a feat which, despite its prominence in Irish politics, was once unimaginable. Across the water in Britain, if polls are to be believed, the Tories are likely to be removed from office for the first time since 2010, and a Labour government under Keir Starmer MP will be setting the agenda for relations between these islands. If this were to happen, there would be an undoubted change in the approach taken by the UK Government

to Northern Ireland, with Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn MP a well-received figure from a unionist perspective, who may be able to better negotiate with the DUP, with Benn’s appointment to the role having been welcomed by both Jeffrey Donaldson MP and Doug Beattie MLA. Although there may be a Labour government to come, this will not constitute a significant move to the left for British politics, with Keir Starmer MP emphasising his credentials of having “changed the Labour Party”. Although Starmer became the Labour leader by presenting himself as a supporter of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn MP, the leader of the opposition has embarked on a journey which has seen left-wing MPs expelled and deselected, political positions (such as the Labour Party’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict) shift, all in the name of increasing the party’s electability. Starmer is undoubtedly well-received by mainstream media in Britain and may become only the fifth Labour prime minister.

Around the world US President Joe Biden was given a hero’s welcome when he ‘returned home’ to Ireland in April 2023, but he is currently struggling in his re-election bid against Republican Donald Trump, who is aiming to become the second US president to win a non-consecutive term, and the first since Grover Cleveland in 1892.

However, as some state supreme courts are removing Trump from their ballots, Trump will face the US Supreme Court in order to decide whether he is guilty of inciting an insurrection which, if he were to be found guilty, would remove him from the federal ballot and create a constitutional crisis in the United States. In addition to the elections to the European Parliament, 2024 will also see elections being held throughout Europe, with the people of Croatia, Iceland, Finland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Georgia, Moldova, and Romania to elect their presidents, and new parliaments to be elected in Portugal, Belgium, Austria, Croatia, Georgia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, and Romania. With rightwing populism on the rise again in many EU member states, observers in both Britain and Ireland, two nations where the far-right has yet to enter the political mainstream, will be watching with interest. 2024 is the year of elections, with the trends which rippled the political landscape in the mid-2010s returning in a much more profound manner in this decade, with right-wing populists taking power in Italy, and significant growth of the far-right having been witnessed in both France and Germany. Ireland and Britain, although they have witnessed populist waves in their own distinctive ways, have yet to face a wave of rightwing populism, but a political trend to come in 2024 in both of these states may be the burgeoning growth of these forces.

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TRADE UNION DESK The next scandal(s) The extraordinary success of Mr Bates vs the Post Office has highlighted the truth of an adage used previously in this column: the real scandals are perfectly legal, writes the ICTU’s John O’Farrell The great American radical hack IF Stone used to say of his local newspaper that “you had to read every page of The Washington Post, so you did not miss stories that belonged on the front page”. The Post Office scandal falls into that category. Most of the UK’s national media missed it entirely or mentioned in passing, then dismissed it, with the usual exception of Private Eye and specialist press such as Computer Weekly. The political culture of Westminster depends upon an easily distracted lobby with highly limited attention spans and the indulgence of the offshore ownership of Fleet Street’s finest content providers. We can see this on the odd occasion when Northern Ireland becomes ‘serious’ enough for the attention of the Prime Minister’s travelling court, with the expertise of local journalists elbowed aside in favour of those who get to ‘speak truth to power’: ‘Let me through – I am in the lobby!’ That style of ‘gentlemanly generalist’ is part of the problem with the trivial and policy-free style which dominates political journalism in the UK and perfected at The Sunday Times. The moral or ethical, let alone practical, value of a policy is sideswiped by the consideration of it as good/bad for the career prospects of the politician associated with it. To mention as an example, consider a policy which is almost entirely framed around the stability of Rishi Sunak’s leadership – his morally squalid,

performatively cruel, and completely unworkable wheeze to ship out asylum seekers to a Rwanda. The framing of this has been as the latest instalment of Tory psychodrama, the latest act in a long run of internal party squabbles since the Brexiters accidently won their referendum. Treating politics as a soap opera is nothing new, going right back to Suetonious and his hugely entertaining ‘history’ of The 12 Caesars, but unless we want to leave little else but magnificent ruins, we really ought to examine the actions of rulers through the lenses of economics, justice, and even basic ethics. Here are some other examples of stories hidden away in the middle pages of old printed papers or buried beneath clickbait on news aggregation sites. Grenfell, the fire, the deaths, the contracts, and the grief are being forensically detailed in the ongoing public inquiry. Almost ignored by the ‘nationals’, it is being comprehensively covered by insidehousing.co.uk. Another inquiry underway and delivering real insights into the ethics of our rulers and the shockingly diminished capacity of our health system is the UK Covid-19 inquiry. Huge amounts of evidence are being gathered and published on its website. Private Eye is good at covering it when the less famous are giving crucial evidence.

construction industry blacklist, barring them from getting work for carrying out legitimate trade union activities, such as health and safety. In May 2016, Unite succeeded in winning compensation for 256 members with more than £10 million in compensation as a result. Unite, working with Thompsons Solicitors, waged a five-year fight against Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd and Balfour Beatty Engineering Services as well as more than 30 other firms. That one is still ongoing. Deaths by Welfare is a campaign group trying to expose the thousands of premature deaths of people with disabilities linked to welfare ‘reform’ over the last decade. One piece of their research connects just one area of the 2010 coalition government’s welfare reforms with an extra 590 suicides between 2010 and 2013. 555 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses formed the core of the campaign dramatised by ITV and Toby Jones last month. Like the disability cases, each one was technical, complicated to explain and perfectly legal. Only when a pattern emerged of similarities and common obstructions did their activity get noticed and belatedly addressed. Only when working together, could the victims attain justice. Only then were they considered ‘interesting’ enough for national attention. And that is a problem for all of us.

The names and personal details of 3,213 workers were held covertly on a

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UK legacy legislation: Ireland pursues legal avenue

Houses of Parliament, London. Credit: Amnesty International

Ireland has initiated its first interstate case against the British Government at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) since the ‘hooded men’ torture case in 1971. In December 2023, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD announced that his Government would pursue a legal challenge against British Government legislation relating to ‘Troubles’ legacy under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Indicating that all political options had been exhausted and expressing regret that “such a choice had to be made”, Tánaiste Micheál Martin TD asserted: “The decision by the British Government not to proceed with the 2014 Stormont House Agreement and instead pursue legislation unilaterally, without effective engagement with the legitimate concerns that we, and many others, raised left us with few options. The British Government removed the political option and has left us only this legal avenue. “The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Northern Ireland law is a specific

Kathryn Bigger, Stride and Sarah Topley, Haldane Fisher Ltd. 106

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and fundamental requirement of the Good Friday Agreement. Since the UK legislation was first tabled, the Government have been consistent that it is not compatible with the Convention.” Following the unilateral pursuit and enactment of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 in September 2023, the Irish Government has decided to challenge the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights. Commonly referred to as the Legacy Act, the legislation is ostensibly intended to “address the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles and promote reconciliation” by: •

creating an Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery;

limiting criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests, and police complaints;

Speaker: Carla Brogan, PropertyPal.com.

Social Media Belfast delegates at the 2023 Conference.

www.socialmediabelfast.com


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extending the prisoner release scheme in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998; and

providing for “experiences to be recorded and preserved and for events to be studied and memorialised, and to provide for the validity of interim custody orders”.

However, the Act has succeeded in unifying victims’ groups and political parties of all shades in their opposition. Indeed, the Irish Government has noted the “near universal opposition to the Legacy Act on the island of Ireland”. To date, in spite of five multilateral agreements – from the Good Friday Agreement 1998 to New Decade New Approach 2020 – consensus on the investigation of unsolved serious crimes during the ‘Troubles’ has not been reached. Disparate inquests, investigations, and civil litigations filled the vacuum. Speaking in Dublin in December 2023, Varadkar insisted: “We would prefer not to be in this position. But we did make a commitment to survivors in Northern Ireland and to the families and victims, that we would stand by them. respect their wishes, and also stand by the Good Friday agreements, which specifically references the European Convention of Human Rights... we really have no option but to ask the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to carry out a judicial review of this legislation.” Before the legislation’s enactment, and following a visit to the UK in June 2022, the Council of Europe suggested that the UK Government should “consider withdrawing the Legacy Bill in view of the widespread opposition in Northern Ireland and the serious issues of compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights it raises”. In her December 2022 report, Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović observed: “Any further steps on legacy must place the rights and needs of victims at its heart.” That same month, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers also “strongly reiterated” calls for the legislation to be amended “to allay... concerns about compatibility with the European Convention”. In January 2023, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk echoed Mijatović’s observations and indicated: “Respect for rights of victims, survivors, and their families to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence is essential for reconciliation. Their rights must be placed at the heart of all attempts to address the legacy of the ‘Troubles’.” Urging the UK Government to “engage in further meaningful and inclusive consultations” to address the ‘Troubles’ legacy, he noted that the draft legislation – which was subsequently enacted – “appears to be incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations”.

“Introducing conditional immunity in this manner would likely be at variance with the UK’s obligations under international human rights law to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute and punish those found responsible for serious human rights violations... “Concerns remain that the Bill would obstruct the rights of victims, survivors and their families to effective judicial remedy and reparations, including by prohibiting most criminal prosecutions and civil actions for ‘Troubles’-related offences,” he said. Welcoming the “state-level” legal challenge, Amnesty International’s Gráinne Teggart asserted: “The Irish Government is doing the right thing for victims, for the rule of law and for the upholding of human rights. Victims’ rights to truth, reparations, and justice must be realised. This challenge is vital for victims here and around the world, who face the prospect of similar state-gifted impunity. “The UK Government doggedly pursued this legislation which shields perpetrators of serious human rights violations from being held accountable. It is important that the Irish Government takes this stand... We hope this critical litigation will bring all Troubles victims closer to the justice they deserve.” Speaking at the International Academy of Trial Lawyers Conference in Killarney, County Kerry in April 2023, the current President of the ECtHR, Síofra O’Leary warned: “Our rulings do not always please, either the respondent governments to which they are addressed, or members of the public,” adding: “As a court of law we are charged with interpreting and applying the law of the Convention whilst often navigating very choppy political waters... politics are never far from our courtroom, but politics is not what we do.” The Strasbourg Court is, O’Leary suggests: “A judicial canary in Europe’s democratic mine; an early warning signaller which points to where European States are failing with reference to their commitments to democracy, the rule of law and the protection of human rights.” As of January 2024, the ECtHR has now confirmed that it has formally received Ireland’s case in which it contends that provisions of the UK legislation are incompatible with Articles 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment), 6 (right to a fair trial), 13 (right to an effective remedy), and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the ECHR. However, with the metaphorical and actual clock ticking for victims and survivors, and a backlog of some 76,000 cases pending according to O’Leary, it remains to be seen whether the legal process against the UK will reach a timely conclusion.

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Local parties back end to mandatory powersharing The Alliance Party and the SDLP have endorsed a new report which has recommended a new process requiring a ‘supermajority’ rather than a cross-community vote for electing a Stormont speaker and rebranding the titles of First Minister and deputy First Minister, both of which would end the requirement for the DUP and Sinn Féin to formally work together. The persistent collapse of the Assembly prompted a review into the process of establishing an Executive, with the two largest parties able to unilaterally either collapse or inhibit the formation of an Executive. As a result, the Assembly has spent around 11 of its almost 26 years inactive. Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs committee, Robert Buckland MP, has conceded that the proposed reforms by the committee are unlikely to come to fruition, as they are opposed by both Sinn Féin and the DUP. Buckland became the new chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in December 2023 following Rishi Sunak’s autumn cabinet reshuffle which saw former chair Simon Hoare MP appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government and Building Safety.

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Buckland briefly served as the Secretary of State for Wales during Liz Truss’s illfated premiership, was Justice Secretary under Boris Johnson, and was Solicitor General for England and Wales under David Cameron and Theresa May.

Proposals The report calls for the new nomination process for electing a speaker in the Assembly. Currently, either the DUP or Sinn Féin can effectively veto the nomination of a speaker even if a majority of the Assembly votes in favour of a candidate for speaker. For instance, in January 2024, a majority of MLAs voted for SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone to be the new speaker, but since the DUP opposed his candidacy, it meant that McGlone was not appointed.

Stormont can only be established if a speaker is elected. Due to procedural technicalities, Sinn Féin member Alex Maskey, who has not been an MLA since May 2022, formally remains the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, representing the institution at events. The report recommends that a two-thirds ‘supermajority’ be the threshold for the election of a speaker, a measure which would make it highly unlikely for a single party to be able to veto a candidacy for speakership. Another headline-grabbing proposal is the changing of the names of the roles of First Minister and deputy First Minister to ‘Joint First Ministers’, which is already the de facto situation as the Executive Office is a joint political office. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP, in supporting the recommendations made by the committee, clarified that he believes that Michelle O’Neill MLA should be granted the title of First Minister for the duration of this term of the Assembly, and that the re-naming of the roles should take place in future terms. Noteworthy is the fact that Sinn Féin, when O’Neill and her predecessor, the late Martin McGuinness, served as deputy First Minister, frequently referred to them as ‘joint first minister’, but this practice had no legal weight. The report further recommends that the nominees for ‘Joint First Minister’ should, in an analogous manner to an election for speaker, be voted for through a ‘supermajority’, and that these people


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can be from any party, rather than the largest two as is currently the case. In practice, this would mean that the combined votes of the Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party, and the SDLP would be sufficient to keep either Sinn Féin or the DUP out of government.

Case for reform Under the St Andrews Agreement, the First Minister and deputy First Minister must be nominees from the largest party within the largest bloc (unionist, nationalist, and others) within the Assembly, with the nominee for First Minister being from the largest party. Under the current political makeup of the Assembly, this means that Sinn Féin is entitled to nominate a First Minister as it is the largest party, although it is not from the largest bloc, as there are 37 unionist MLAs (DUP, UUP, TUV and two independent unionists) and 35 nationalist MLAs (Sinn Féin and SDLP). The centrist Alliance Party (17 seats) and left-wing People Before Profit (one seat) designate as ‘other’ in the Assembly. Under these rules, if the Alliance Party was to win more seats than the DUP but have less MLAs than combined unionist parties, it would not be entitled to hold the role of deputy First Minister, with that

entitlement falling to the largest unionist party in the Assembly in that scenario.

DUP will not be in any rush to endorse

A further point of contention for proponents of reform is the fact that the Executive can be collapsed if either the First Minister or deputy First Minister wishes to, regardless of the views of other parties in Stormont or even in the Executive.

which it can utilise under the current rules

The DUP has historically criticised this mechanism following Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minister in 2017, which led to the collapse of the Executive for three years. However, as the DUP is currently boycotting Stormont, its position on this requirement has seemingly receded as this now aligns with the party’s interest.

Government. The Irish Government has

the report as it has a strategic advantage to keep the Assembly inactive. The report has been endorsed by the Alliance Party (which published a policy document in 2023 calling for Stormont reform), the SDLP, the UUP, and the UK not endorsed the report, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying that there is a need to be “careful” about reforming the Good Friday Agreement. The report states that implementation of these recommended changes would require consultation with the Irish

Political fallout Sinn Féin and the DUP have not commented on the findings of the committee. However, previous statements have shown that Sinn Féin does not support a change to the rules of the Assembly while Northern Ireland remains part of the UK. The DUP, on the other hand, has traditionally supported measures akin to those suggested into the report, including the end of ‘mandatory coalition’. The

Government as co-guarantors to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as well as the parties of Northern Ireland and would require tweaking the 1998 Northern Ireland Act that came from the Agreement. As the Irish Government, Sinn Féin, and the DUP all oppose changing the rules in the immediate term, it is highly unlikely that these recommendations will be implemented in the foreseeable future.

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conference report

Northern Ireland Energy Forum 2023 Niall Martindale, firmus energy; Jayne Brady, Northern Ireland Civil Service; Derek Hynes, NIE Networks; Kevin Murphy, TLT LLP; and John French, Utility Regulator.

The Northern Ireland Energy Forum took place in November 2023 at Titanic Belfast. The event brought together 230 delegates, both from within Northern Ireland and further afield, to focus on the most important aspects of energy policy and latest developments from across the sector. Expert speakers included Jayne Brady, Northern Ireland Civil Service; John French, Utility Regulator; Derek Hynes, NIE Networks; Niall Martindale, firmus energy; Brian Ó Gallachóir, University College Cork; Clare Jackson, Hydrogen UK; and Marie Cowan, Geological Survey of Northern Ireland. A massive thank you to our sponsors, NIE Networks, TLT LLP, firmus Energy, and SSE, our exhibitors, the speakers and delegates who joined us and made the conference a huge success.

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Mary O’Mahoney, Gas Networks Ireland and Tracey Donnery, Skillnet Ireland.

Alex Blanckley, AFRY Management Consulting asks the panel a question.

Sam McCloskey, Simply Blue Group addresses delegates.

Richard Rodgers, Department for the Economy.

Jacqueline Walls, British Harbour Commissioners and Mary O’Kane, Evolve.

Gerard Hegarty, Statkraft and Lisa O’Neill, NIE Networks.


public affairs agenda

Stephen Farry MP: Fiscal floor must be increased to reflect need rises have yet to be made and workers have been forced to engage in strike action. I have been lobbying the NIO, Treasury, and Prime Minister for significant time for a financial package for Northern Ireland to give this region the opportunity to recover, restructure, and rebuild. This should entail stabilising the current financial crisis and then driving transformation on an investto-save basis. Northern Ireland cannot become more efficient and effective in terms of achieving better outcomes from a burning platform of cuts and further cuts.

Alliance MP Stephen Farry argues that the 124 per cent fiscal floor included in Chris Heaton-Harris MP’s financial package for Northern Ireland should be increased to 127 per cent. It is clear this region has been structurally under-funded by almost £400 million per annum. However, this is compounded by significant inefficiencies in how money is spent in Northern Ireland, including the slow rate of reform in many areas and the distortions that come from trying to manage a divided society. This places disproportionate pressure on local government departments to balance the books, and leads to underfunding of crucial public services, addressing climate change, and supporting our economy. Long overdue public sector pay

Alliance has been clear; lessons must be learned from the poor implementation of previous financial packages and some degree of conditionality would be a reality. Beneath this lies the structural challenge of how Northern Ireland is funded. In December 2023, the UK Government conceded on this point in its acknowledgment of the requirement for a fiscal floor. Essentially, a fiscal floor for Northern Ireland would ensure we are fairly funded in relation to our specific level of relative social and economic need, and funding could not fall below that level. The Fiscal Council suggests we have been structurally underfunded by between £300 million and £400 million per year since 2022, versus the level we would receive if an appropriate fiscal floor were in place. This is based on a relative need of 124 per cent in Northern Ireland, i.e. for every £100 spent in England, £124 must be spent here to ensure equivalent funding. However, Alliance is also concerned that the 124 per cent measure may not be sufficient to adequately reflect our true underlying relative need. In order to account for the devolution of policing and justice powers, the Fiscal Council used funding allocated to these services over the 2017-2022 period. In our view, the preceding ringfenced funding period from 2010-2015 is arguably a more accurate reflection of policing and justice need, as indicated by

the UK Government when the powers were first devolved. Gerry Holtham, Hodge Professor of Regional Economy, Cardiff Metropolitan University, recently endorsed Alliance's argument on this at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. We estimate the level of relative need, based on this different period, would be closer to 127 per cent for Northern Ireland. It would be higher again if other issues such as relative taxable capacity and extent of benefit reliance were factored in on top of this. These key methodological differences imply huge amounts of extra funding entitlement for Northern Ireland, and we will continue to make representations to the UK Government on this. The financial package offered in December 2023 by the UK Government to any restored Executive is, on the surface, significant at £3.3 billion. However, it is only really a glass half-full. What is on offer would only provide stability for about two years before we face another cliff edge. Essentially, the UK Government is reluctant to make long-term financial commitments to Northern Ireland in light of one of the Prime Minister’s tests of reducing debt as a share of GDP over the next five years. In practice, addressing Northern Ireland’s needs would barely impact on this at all. Alliance’s view is that a revised financial settlement for Northern Ireland should be driven by an independent review to provide a revised evidence base to the incoming government. For now, the major question is whether or not we will soon see a restored Executive that can draw down the £3.3 billion package. If this does not happen, then yet another budget would be set by the Secretary of State. A major consideration must be how much of the offered financial package can be deployed in the absence of an Executive. Northern Ireland has to be governed, and public services must be funded.

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Credit: Noel Hillis

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All-island education cooperation While she follows in a long line of Fianna Fáil education ministers, Minister for Education Norma Foley TD became the first Kerry woman to sit at Cabinet when she was appointed in June 2020. The Minister sits down with Ciarán Galway discuss how the Irish Government is working to deepen all-island education connections and cooperation. 112

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“Look, we are one island at the end of the day.” Sitting at a large conference table at the centre of her office off the ministerial corridor in Leinster House, Dublin, the Education Minister is overlooked by select scattering of children’s artwork exhibited on the walls, not least an homage to the woman herself. Naturally enough, these are complemented by picturesque County Kerry landscapes. Norma Foley is equipped with over 20 years of teaching experience – first as an Irish and English teacher at St Aloysius in Carrigtwohill, County Cork and then at Presentation Secondary School in her hometown of Tralee. Acknowledging that she has brought “a particular perspective” to the role, the Minister recalls: “I would always say to my own students that my ambition for them is limitless, there is nothing that they cannot do, and nothing that they should feel that they could not achieve. We need to make sure that they have the support and the opportunity, at all times, to realise whatever their dreams or ambitions might be.” Discussing the Irish Government’s efforts to deepen all-island education connections and cooperation, Minister Foley indicates that “a significant body of work is underway under the auspices of the Shared Island Programme”. “We are currently working on a north/south programme – and more of those details will unfold – but it is specifically in the area of education, and specifically in the area of [tackling]

disadvantage in education and promoting equality of education. “I am a huge believer in the wisdom of the collective. We can garner so much more when we work with others and there are great opportunities in education for us to share expertise and wisdom and experience. “We are in the throes of doing that now, and you can see it from a higher education point of view in terms of research and an infrastructure point of view. Financial supports have already been put in place. There is enormous scope. Look, we are one island at the end of the day.” Asked if she has given consideration to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation’s (INTO) calls for an all-Ireland teaching council to be established within the Department of the Taoiseach’s Shared Island Unit amid the “erosion of teachers’ conditions in the North”, the Minister is reticent. “I am not going to comment on that,” she says, before adding: “Look, we have young people from Northern Ireland who are [living] on the border and working in the south, and we have people [living] in the south and working and crossing over. “Obviously, the more closely we can work together, learn from each other, and support each other [the better]… Opportunities going forward in terms of the teaching council and all of that, I have no doubt that all these opportunities can be looked at going forward.”

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Political Platform Outline your background/career to date My wife is Cristina and, so far, we have one son, Setanta, who is two years old. I am from the townland of Aghmakane on the foothills of Slieve Gullion where I had a wonderful country farming upbringing with my two sisters and three brothers (I am a twin!). Some of my fondest early memories were on the farm taking in the hay, milking cows, calving, or the silage time. I am so grateful to my wife, to my parents, Joe and Mary, who are both still healthy and well, together with my aunties, uncles, cousins, friends, teammates, coaches, neighbours, and community who have all been a huge influence on my life and have helped shape me into the man I am today. Sport has been an important part in my life as I have a huge passion and have had wonderful experiences playing, coaching and being a fan of Gaelic games.

Justin McNulty MLA Three times elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, SDLP Newry and Armagh representative, former Armagh GAA star, and current County Laois football manager Justin McNulty MLA, talks to agendaNi about his political inspiration, his personal passions, and priorities for his constituency.

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My broad experiences in sport, working on the farm, working as a civil engineer, project manager, performance coach, and financial consultant have given me a good grounding for my position as a politician, together with a huge appreciation of the daily grind and the good fortune I have had in having the opportunities and the good health to be able to fulfil those roles.

What inspired you to get into politics? Politics has been a backdrop of my life. All through my childhood and youth, my mum and dad were very active members of the SDLP. Dad was on the first civil rights committee in Newry. Former SDLP deputy leader Séamus Mallon was a family friend and at every election time mum canvassed and knocked doors for


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I want to help to address the challenges faced by people, families, businesses, and communities as a consequence of a spiralling cost of living and doing business, political statement and brutal cuts to vital public services including in education, health, and social security. We want a world class city park in Newry that this region and Ireland can be proud of, and support and enhance the tourism reach and appeal of south Armagh, an area with a rich and diverse mythological, historical, musical, and cultural heritage. Whilst us locals may not fully appreciate it; our landscape is spectacularly beautiful and should be celebrated and protected.

Before entering politics, McNulty was a Gaelic football star, winning the All-Ireland Championship with Armagh in 2002.

our party. I have always had huge admiration for Séamus Mallon, and I feel very strongly and proud about what the SDLP has achieved and are determined to achieve. The SDLP’s values are my values and my family’s values. We have always believed in the transformative power of our people spilling their sweat, rather than their blood, in pursuit of better, more fulfilled lives, a healthier population and a shared homeplace in a new Ireland where everyone can meet their full potential. I love helping people and wanted to do my bit and I felt it was the right time.

Who are your political role models? Séamus Mallon, John Hume, John Fee, Geraldine Donnelly, Rory O’Hanlon, Dominic Bradley, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Daniel O’Connell.

What are your key priorities for Newry and Armagh?

I want to see completion of important infrastructural projects including the Armagh East and West Link Roads; the Southern Relief Road, Newry; the Armagh-Portadown Rail Link; and securing an hourly Belfast-Dublin Enterprise Service that gets people in in time for work. We want to build a culture that recognises the value of exercise and sport, and that encourages and celebrates lifetime active participation for people of every ability.

What are your interests outside work? I am passionate about sport, and I guess outside of family and friends, the GAA most defines who I am. I love our south Armagh countryside and could spend forever wandering on Slieve Gullion or our country roads and fields. Playing and swimming at the beach with my son is a wonderful escape and we are blessed with close access to so many wonderful beaches, however, it is hard to beat the Atlantic waves. I love travelling around rural Ireland being immersed in our music, landscape, culture, and heritage. I particularly like spending time in my wife’s country of Bolivia (I have been there twice). Working out, reading, and learning are nourishment for my soul as well.

There are several. The first is securing Daisy Hill Hospital’s future in the short term and working to expand the hospital to serve its natural hinterland on a crossborder basis with the hospital serving as a world class centre of excellence in at least one medical specialism.

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Betting on Barnett? Lessons for Northern Ireland from Wales’ funding floor The £3.3 billion “final offer” to restore devolution in Northern Ireland has made the Welsh Government’s Fiscal Framework a hot topic – not something that happens often, writes Guto Ifan, lecturer in politics and international relations at Cardiff University. (L-R): Guto Ifan and Ed Poole.

While overspending write-offs and public sector pay restoration are the headline parts of the deal, the “Welsh-style fiscal floor” will likely prove the most significant element over the medium term. A funding floor was a longstanding clarion call in Welsh politics. The Holtham Commission’s report in 2010 estimated that relative spending need per person in Wales was approximately 115 per cent of England’s level. At the time, funding per person had fallen below this, due to the so-called “Barnett squeeze”. Higher initial funding means that the same pounds per person change in funding as in England – provided by the Barnett formula – is a smaller percentage increase, narrowing the difference in funding over time. However, post-2010 austerity measures and a slower-growing population led to relative funding diverging to around 120 per cent of England’s level (i.e. above the estimate of relative need). But the Welsh Government still wanted protection against the Barnett squeeze. In 2015, the UK Government promised that funding would not fall below the 115 per cent level – a promise that never had an impact in practice.

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This was quickly superseded by the introduction of a ‘needs-based factor’ as part of the 2016 Fiscal Framework Agreement. Increments in funding have since been multiplied by 105 per cent, slowing any convergence in relative funding. If funding per person ever falls to 115 per cent of England’s level in future, this multiplier will switch to 115 per cent. Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre estimates that the needs-based factor has been worth £1.2 billion for the Welsh budget (around £390 per person) and £240 million for next year’s budget.

What might similar arrangements mean for Northern Ireland? The Barnett squeeze has had a massive impact on relative funding levels in Northern Ireland since 2018. Barnettbased funding now appears to be below the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council’s estimate of relative need (of 124 per cent of England’s level). One-off, non-Barnett funding deals have just about kept spending above this level. It is not entirely clear which version of Wales’ fiscal floor (the 2015 promise or

the 2016 multiplier) has been offered in talks to restore Stormont. If a multiplier is introduced, it would likely be set at 124 per cent (rather than at a lower ‘transitional’ level as agreed for Wales). The eventual impact on funding and relative spending levels is uncertain – it depends on assumptions of future spending growth in England and relative population growth. We can safely say, however, that it would be a good deal compared to the status quo. It would stop further funding convergence down to England’s level, and over coming years would be worth billions of pounds in additional funding. One-off political deals may boost funding in a given year. But perhaps the main lesson from Wales is that reforming underlying funding formula can prove a more significant and sustainable benefit in the longer term.

This article was co-written with Ed Poole, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Cardiff University.


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