Stormont 'could have opposition'
A voluntary opposition could be established at Stormont as part of a gradual shift towards normal government structures, Northern Ireland's First Minister has said.
Peter Robinson said that he wants to make it easier for any party to go into opposition. The power-sharing arrangement between nationalists and unionists in the devolved Government has produced a five-party administration, and the Democratic Unionist Party leader said that should change.
"This approach allows a gradual move towards normality and because it only moves at a pace and direction that is capable of achieving cross-community support in the Assembly, it removes any fear that the interests of any section of the community would be bypassed," he said.
Mandatory power-sharing arrangements have been used in other former conflict zones like Lebanon to help mend deeply divided societies, although critics argue that this entrenches division by encouraging voting based upon community identity.
Nationalists have raised concern at any attempt by unionists to dilute protections for cross-community decision-making, recalling an era 40 years ago when they perceived Northern Ireland as a one-party state.
Mr Robinson said he wants to move to a weighted majority voting system which would ensure cross-community government but would give no party an automatic entitlement to it.
The party has previously proposed "modest" changes which would remove the veto in the Assembly and ministerial Executive from any single party, requiring all to cooperate and compromise, he said. That provoked a backlash from nationalists wary of any return to arrangements at the start of the violent conflict when Stormont was dominated by unionism.
"The simple reality is that there is no prospect that the form of government which existed before 1972 will return to Northern Ireland in the foreseeable future," Mr Robinson said. "This means that any adjustment to the current structures will have to command support right across the community."
At present the Executive, formed under the D'Hondt system for distributing portfolios according to strength in the Assembly, is dominated by the largest parties in unionism and nationalism: the DUP and Sinn Fein.
In August the Northern Ireland Office, which deals with Northern Ireland matters requiring legislation at Westminster, launched a consultation on measures to improve the operation of the Assembly.