What sort of Assembly do we want?

What sort of people keep holding elections to a body they aren’t sure they even want to survive?  We’ve been doing it for ever. Since 1973 at least, as long in politics as Joe Biden.  That’s without taking account of old time Sinn Fein’s northern abstention.  As they contemplate the embarrassing cycle of abandoned fresh starts since 1998, who could blame the voters of Northern Ireland if they finally lost confidence in the very idea of the Assembly?  However the question itself is an act of dissociation they can’t afford.  Nobody outside is offering a different landing zone.  A united Ireland, joint authority or some hazy notion of a new unionist majority are blurred visions which stubbornly refuse to take shape.   Even the gnarled old default of direct rule no longer functions automatically.  In New Decade New Approach, Westminster neutered the wrecking ball of Assembly withdrawal by taking on powers to stall full blown Assembly collapse for almost a year. That the parties consented to it after three years’ suspension offers a glimmer of hope  given form in the Assembly half life since the DUP FM quit.

So Health minister Robin Swann protested he couldn’t lift Covid restrictions without a full meeting of the Executive?  As Newton Emerson observed: The question was resolved by other Ministers writing to Swann to say they did not consider it significant or controversial. Caretaker devolution had produced its first stand-off and ridiculous fudge.

There is now a conspiracy to keep the Assembly in being. The pleasure of others excoriating the DUP over their Protocol tantrums will begin to pall. Surely we have to do better. The Liverpool university poll offers cautious encouragement for real world politics over the obsession with identity. But it’s surely completely clear that the architecture of the designations has served only to strengthen sectarianism and has stifled any more generous development of the people’s will.  So there is deep and justified foreboding about the outcome of the Assembly election.  Emerson often describes a reality before it happens. He predicts that…

Realistically, a second failure to form an Executive would lead to a major renegotiation of power sharing. Removing the requirement for the largest unionist and nationalist parties to be in office is the obvious change.

I hope he’s right. The single seat that made it the DUP the largest party by a whisker in 2017 is set to disappear altogether in May.  Rather than accept the dreaded deputy tag the DUP may fulfil their hint to go into opposition. Yet If all parties play their cards right, this is blessing not a disaster.  There’s still  a snag to deal with first.  If a cross community vote was required – like as in an immediate vote of confidence in a new Executive – the veto springs back to life.

The conclusion is obvious; the other parties should vote to form a provisional voluntary coalition with a weighted majority that tears off the corset of the designations. This would require amending primary legislation at Westminster with Dublin’s blessing and would surely be forthcoming .

Is it too much to hope for that parties across the community would campaign for a voluntary coalition in the election campaign?   Almost certainly.  Sinn Fein compliance cannot be taken for granted any more than the DUP’s. They have never knowingly abandoned a position of strength. Removing the architecture of the designation blocs creates a level playing field,  leaving all parties more at the mercy of the vagaries of the voters. Sinn Fein might revive primeval fears of  “unionist triumphalism” all over again.  Greater Assembly resilience would fill a vacuum SF might prefer to leave open for a border poll campaign.

Across the aisle the DUP as still largest unionist party would save face by going into opposition which is temperamentally their natural home. They could do so safe in the knowledge that the election results would probably not significantly reduce the pro-Union head count in a border poll.  Sinn Fein would be denied the excuse of DUP provocation for flouncing out of the Assembly themselves. The door would remain open for the DUP  to negotiate their way back into the Executive again.

Balancing the pros and cons, this is surely the Assembly’s best route to resilience. Will the voters encourage the parties to take it, if not in May, soon afterwards?

 

 

 

 

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