A reply to Mick’s Stormont reform article…

Stephen Stewart is a Faulknerite unionist currently living in exile from Norn Iron and proudly an analogue person in a digital age.

I read with interest Mick’s recent article on possible reform of Stormont, and while it was rather short on possible ideas and suggestions over how to overhaul our clearly-dysfunctional political institutions whilst simultaneously staying within the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, it nonetheless echoed much of what I’ve been thinking about for a while… and to it’s credit, has motivated me to pull the proverbial trigger and contribute my own two cents to the debate.

The current hyper-consociational format of devolved government in NI may have worked fine in the immediacy of the post-conflict landscape of 1998, it was a necessary move as the province stepped out of the bloody mayhem of the Troubles to a hopeful new dawn of consensus politics and reconciliation. Of course it hasn’t worked out that way, to a large degree, and right now it seems that the two traditions are as far apart politically as ever… mistrust and mutual loathing abound, with each side happy enough to create manufactured crises to elicit a tactical gain from Westminster, pocket said gain, and each side blaming themmuns for threatening to crash the Assembly unless their demands are met.

This is no way to run a government, no way to run a province, and certainly no way to engender any kind of faith in our institutions. It says it all that when SF crashed the Assembly for three years, very little changed in people’s day-to-day lives… if something similar happened in a region of the U.S. or Canada or Australia, there would be bedlam on the streets. The Strand One institutions of the GFA are clearly not working as intended; but is it because of abuse, mistrust, or because the system is inherently flawed and needing a makeover?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a little bit of both, actually… the system of NI governance post-GFA was not written on the back of a fag packet in 1998, it was clearly very thought through, and intensively negotiated, with check and balances, safety mechanisms, and fail-safe measures built in to ensure a post-conflict constitution acceptable to all participants (well, those who at least showed up for negotiations, that is!).

But that very system of uber-consociationalism is simply becoming an albatross around NI’s neck as we get further and further from the GFA signing and those halcyon days of optimism, with deadlock and dysfunction taking precedence over democracy and delivery. There is a way to keep the spirit of that aforementioned agreement whilst also allowing for a more flexible and efficient form of devolved government here.

To wit, let me offer a few suggestions;

  • Assembly membership… I believe that 108 MLA’s worked well, allowing for maximum representation within all shades of NI’s polity, and I believe we should return to that once again. Arguments that 108 members are far too large for a place as small as NI fail to take into consideration our recent history… in a normal country, that number would indeed be too large, but we’re NOT a normal country.
  • The Assembly… some have said that the community designations simply reflect realpolitik on the ground, that we still live in a highly binary political landscape largely continuing on the unionist-nationalist axis. I think that is correct, but it also has institutionalized sectarianism when we should be at least trying to move away from it. I would remove the community designations asap and allow the political parties to stand on their own respective policy platforms… call me naive but let ideas rather than identity define our legislature.
  • The Executive… following an election, an Executive should be formed which is both broadly cross-community in composition and able to garner a majority vote of approval in the Assembly. Common sense dictates what would define cross-community, you don’t need official designations to see what it should be and what it should not be (there were no designations for the 1974 Assembly or Executive)… a SF/SDLP/Alliance coalition (God forbid!) would not be sufficiently cross community; however, a SF/SDLP/UUP or a DUP/Alliance/SDLP would be… in other words, at least two of the coalition parties would need to be unionist and nationalist… whatever that configuration might be, who gets what ministerial portfolio (abolish d’Hondt), and the substance of the Programme for Government agreed to by coalition partners… well, that would be normal coalition politics. Mandatory coalitions should be consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs…
  • Keep the Petition of Concern as is… if we’re to have no second chamber at Stormont, then that parliamentary mechanism works as some kind of a check and balance to ensure neither tradition is steamrolled over, whatever your opinion of how it’s been deployed in the past.
  • Because of having no mandatory coalition, there will be parties that will not necessarily be on the Executive (as it should be)… so let’s have a strong cross-community Official Opposition coalition in the Assembly, properly salaried and resourced with sufficient time given in said Assembly for motions, debates, and proposed legislation. I would also rearrange seating in the Assembly chamber to reflect the Executive and Opposition factions, with each respective side facing each other across the chamber. If the recent election had returned 108 members, you’d have a SF/DUP majority coalition of 57 seats and an Alliance/SDLP/UUP official opposition of 39 seats, just for reference.
  • Keep the FM/DFM offices as is, with one minor change… return to the GFA factory settings whereby a cross-community majority of the Assembly must jointly approve the two heads of government as a singular office. The GFA makes no mention of the largest party within the largest designation having pick of the FM office, incidentally… whatever you may have heard otherwise of late.
  • One of the (very) few things that all sides in the Assembly agree upon is disdain for successive Secretaries of State… that tells you something. If effective reforms were enacted and a sense of permanent stability for NI’s political institutions came about, what need would remain for either the Northern Ireland Office or the SoS? In such a scenario, bring back the office of Governor and shutter the NIO permanently… not a moment too soon either if it came to pass.

Abraham Lincoln once said “the ballot is better than the bullet”… so let’s embrace the former so we don’t return to the latter because we didn’t have either the imagination or the magnanimity to reform our democracy (such as it is) for the betterment of all our people… the day we lose faith in democracy is the day we lose democracy itself.

I’m not sure anyone wants that… for in NI, we know where it will end.

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