The Stormont merry-go-round: How it works now, and how it might change
The prospect of a re-drawing of the St Andrews Agreement has shone a spotlight on how Stormont is governed now. Noel McAdam looks at its current complicated mechanisms... and how they could change.
Q. Stormont's current system of government is called a mandatory coalition. What does this mean?
A. It means that the five main parties – the DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance – all have a right to seats on the Executive, the central decision-making group. There are two main parties in power, Sinn Fein and the DUP, which share the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Q. What is the problem with this system?
A. Its make-up means there is a continual need to secure as broad a consensus as possible between all five parties for any decision that needs to be taken. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have an automatic power of veto on any Executive decision.
Q. So the Executive is made up of five parties, but dominated by just two of them, Sinn Fein and the DUP?
A. Correct, although the Executive ministers who are members of other parties take control of their own departments and can sometimes make decisions which often go against the wishes of the big parties. An example of this occurred this week when the SDLP Environment Minister Mark H Durkan adopted the long-delayed Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan, a move which annoyed the DUP, who said the plan was "not worth the paper it is written on".
Q. How is the Executive organised?
A. Ministers meet once a fortnight, usually on Thursdays, but much of the negotiations between the parties on issues takes place outside the Executive, with a lot of the detail worked out by special advisers – people with expert knowledge who give advice and assistance to ministers in the Executive. Ministers finally rubber-stamp whatever agreements are reached.
Q. How are the ministers held to account for their actions in government?
A. In the Stormont system, which is unique in the context of the UK and Ireland, each minister is answerable to a scrutiny committee which is made up of MLAs. However, the rules state that a minister of a certain department and the chair of their oversight committee must not belong to the same party. Thus, for example, the DUP Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland faces a committee chaired by Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey and Sinn Fein Education chief John O'Dowd is scrutinised by a committee led by the DUP's Mervyn Storey. Ministers also face regular direct question sessions from MLAs in the Assembly which now include spontaneous questions, rather than ministers being given advance notice of what they will be asked.
Q. And what is the function of the Assembly ?
A. MLA stands for Member of the Legislative Assembly. In the Assembly, legislation proposed by ministers is debated and changed and, finally, rejected or passed. One issue MLAs will spend much time on this current session is the legislation to transfer powers to our 11 new councils.
Q. Some experts have suggested that Stormont could be run by a voluntary coalition. What is this?
A. This is what the unionist parties and Alliance would like to replace the current system. Basically a number of parties would form a coalition as willing partners with an overall majority in the Assembly. The other parties then form an opposition.
Q. What change would having an opposition bring?
A. Voters would have the benefit of a constant alternative point of view being put forward, and parties forming an opposition in one term could aspire to form the Executive in the next election.
Q. How would the current checks and balances that prevent unionist or nationalist dominance change?
A. The unionist parties favour the introduction of a 'weighted majority system' rather than the current mutual veto provided by what are known as 'Petitions of Concern'.
Q. So what is a weighted majority?
A. This is an idea, supported by the DUP among others, that for any vote to be passed in the Assembly it would have to achieve a 65% majority rather than a simple 51%. This would mean that any unionist proposal, for example, would be unlikely to get through without support from Sinn Fein.
Q. What are Petitions of Concern?
A. Once viewed as an essential part of the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement, as a guarantee that representatives of one community could not override the other, Petitions of Concern can only be invoked if 30 MLAs vote for one to be brought into play during an Assembly vote. Once they do that, it means that any decision reached in the Stormont chamber has to have the approval of a majority of both unionists and nationalists. This system has been criticised for being used to protect party interests rather than community interests by acting as a method of ensuring that a proposal fails. This week the mechanism was used twice. Firstly, the DUP, which with 38 members is the only party big enough to trigger it alone, used it to protect Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland from censure, and then Sinn Fein and the SDLP employed it during a debate over remarks by the Druids group at the Ardoyne Fleadh calling for funding to be withdrawn.
Q. Are there any other ideas?
A. A similar proposal is what is called a 'qualified' majority, in which the level of support required to pass a measure is specified. A vote might need a two-thirds majority for it to be passed, for example.