Skip to main content

Lost in Transition: Governing Northern Ireland


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


  • Northern Ireland
  • Bureaucrat values
  • Administrative reform
  • Power-sharing

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  • Bleich, E., and R. Pekkanan. 2015. Data Access, Research Transparancy and Interviews. The Interview Methods Appendix. Qualitative and Multi Method Research 13 (1)

    Google Scholar 

  • Bloomfield, K. 1998. Central government. In People and government: Questions for Northern Ireland, ed. K. Bloomfield and C. Carter. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bollens, S. 2000. On narrow ground: Urban policy and conflict in Jerusalem and Belfast. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Braun, V., and V. Clarke. 2006. Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3 (2): 77–101.

  • Carmichael, P. 2002. The Northern Ireland civil service characteristics and trends since 1970. Public Administration 80 (1): 23–49.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Carmichael, P., and R. Osborne. 2003. The Northern Ireland civil service under direct rule and devolution. International Review of Administrative Sciences 69 (2): 205–217.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Chambers, J. 2010. Interview: Bruce Robinson. Civil Service World. 1 Dec 2010. Available at

  • Gordon, G. 2017. Ian Paisley’s warmth to Martin McGuinness was no one off. BBC News Online. 20 Jan 2017. Available at

  • Kaufman, H. 1956. Emerging conflicts in the doctrines of public administration. American Political Science Review 50 (4): 1057–1073.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kingsley, D.J. 1944. Representative bureaucracy. Yellow Springs: Antioch Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Knox, Colin. 2009. Sink or swim for the Northern Ireland civil service. Parliamentary Brief, 3pp.

    Google Scholar 

  • Knox, C. 2010. Devolution and the governance of Northern Ireland, 256. Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Knox, C., and P. Carmichael. 2005. Improving public services: Public administration reform in Northern Ireland. Journal of Social Policy 35 (1): 97–120.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Knox, C.G., and D. McMahon. 2014. Professionalising the civil service: The masters in public administration. Perspectives on Pedagogy and Practice 5: 43–64.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lijphart, A. 1969. Consociational democracy. World Politics 21 (2): 207–225.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Meier, K. J., and L.J. O’Toole. J. 2006. Political control versus bureaucratic values: Reframing the debate. Public Administration Review, 66: 177–192.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mengistu, B., and E. Vogel. 2006. Bureaucratic neutrality among competing bureaucratic values in an ethnic federalism. Public Administration Review 66: 205–216.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Morison, J., and S. Livingstone. 1995. Reshaping public power: Northern Ireland and the British constitutional problem. London: Sweet and Maxwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • O’Connor, K. 2012. Belfast revisited: Everyday policy making in a contested environment. Irish Political Studies 28 (1): 58–77.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2014. Public Administration in Contested Societies. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2017. What are the ideas and motivations of bureaucrats within a religiously contested society. International Review of Administrative Sciences 69 (2): 205–217.

    Google Scholar 

  • Renewable Heat Incentive. 2018a. Oral hearings. Day 110 Thursday 25 October 2018. Belfast: Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry. Available from Accessed 12 June 2019.

  • ———. 2018b. Oral hearings. Day 111 Friday 26 October 2018. Belfast: Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry. Available from Accessed 19 June 2019.

  • ———. 2018c. Oral hearings. Day 84 Wednesday 5th September 2018. Belfast: Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry. Available from Accessed 10 June 2019.

  • Svara, J. 2004. The complementary pursuit of sound governance. PA Times 27 (2): 6.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Karl O’Connor .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Section Editor information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2020 The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this entry

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this entry

Rouse, M., O’Connor, K. (2020). Lost in Transition: Governing Northern Ireland. In: Sullivan, H., Dickinson, H., Henderson, H. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of the Public Servant. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-030-03008-7

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-030-03008-7

  • eBook Packages: Springer Reference Political Science & International StudiesReference Module Humanities and Social Sciences

Chapter History

  1. Latest

    Lost in Transition: Governing Northern Ireland
    26 August 2020


  2. Original

    Lost in Transition: Governing Northern Ireland
    31 July 2020