Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

Permanent power is a barrier to real progress

Democratic deficit: the Executive must look at ways to improve devolution and allow an official Opposition

There are two ways in which an Opposition could be established at Stormont. The first is a rush of blood to the head, or a principled stance, by the smaller parties. The second is in a planned way, agreed by all.

The rush-of-blood scenario would occur if either the UUP or SDLP concluded that they could no longer work with the two bigger parties.

The SDLP thought long and hard about jumping back in 2007, when Margaret Ritchie was embroiled in a row over funding to a conflict transformation initiative in areas of UDA influence.

She clashed publicly with Peter Robinson, whose legal advice was that she was breaking the rules and resignation was briefly on the cards.

The SDLP stayed in government and, after that, it is unlikely to ever leave unilaterally.

Politicians stand in elections to get into government. Surrendering an Executive seat goes against the grain.

At Stormont, there is no funding for an Opposition and no guaranteed access to civil service research facilities.

In these circumstances, it would take a very big issue of conscience to make a party jump, but Westminster wants to change the rules and will do so - if asked by the local parties.

Yet we have got to move in the direction of voluntary coalitions. The system set up by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements has, as Alasdair McDonnell suggested, produced stability, but not progress. With no effective means of removing ministers and no agreed strategy uniting the Executive, there is deadlock.

As a result, public confidence is undermined and decisions are often taken at the last minute.

No other administration works like this. Brian Feeney gives the example of Belgium where a divided community is accommodated by a system in some way like ours.

It is true Belgium has a complicated political set-up, in which the two main ethnic groups must share power, but they do so by means of voluntary coalitions.

Negotiations to form a government are often tortuous but decisions are taken and budgets balanced. The old government has been in caretaker mode since June last year, while negotiations for its replacement continue.

That is too slow; it is not a model to adopt wholesale. But Belgium has developed a system of cross-community government which doesn't leave everyone permanently in office.

It is not democratic for parties who are trounced in an election to return to government alongside the victors. In a democratic system, defeated parties rebuild for a comeback on the opposition benches leaving the winners to get on with governing until they are ousted by the voters.

At Stormont, the Executive Review Committee is charged with making recommendations for improvement in devolution to the Secretary of State in 2015.

It will look like greed and complacency if our politicians cannot use these four years to devise a means to ensure representation for both main communities without keeping everyone permanently in office.

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