Silent sickness at the heart of politics in Northern Ireland
Peter Robinson's proposal for a 'St Andrews Agreement II' is likely to accelerate the pace of reform at Stormont. But without a spirit of trust and accommodation among those who operate the institutions, they will continue to flounder, writes Richard Wilford
The First Minister's call for a fresh round of negotiations designed to make the devolved institutions fit – or fitter – for purpose should come as no surprise.
The DUP has long harboured the aspiration to reform the architecture and operating procedures established in 1998. Indeed, at St Andrews, it was motivated to accomplish what it styled "a new agreement", rather than a marginally tweaked version of its Good Friday predecessor.
To that end, it sought successfully a new procedure intended to prevent ministers embarking on solo policy runs, which, it contended, had been a hallmark of the first Assembly between 1999 and 2002.
It provided that, where ministerial consensus could not be achieved and a vote was required, three ministers could trigger a cross-community vote at the Executive to prevent unilateral action by another.
The introduction of this device can be understood in a number of ways: as a means of engineering consensus; of managing dissensus; or, more bleakly, of creating Executive gridlock – the view taken by the UUP, which opposed its adoption.
In the event, the latter view has prevailed, and it has provided a further brake on the wheel of devolution, rather than an additional gear to drive it forward.
At St Andrews, the DUP also achieved a another measure designed to bridle ministers, namely the opportunity for the Assembly, on a one-off basis per issue, to refer to the Executive for further consideration a ministerial decision relating to "an issue of public importance".
This measure reinforced the existing petition of concern procedure, which itself has worked to the benefit of the DUP, since it is the only party that has the number of MLAs required to move a petition under its own steam.
In fact, the DUP has attracted considerable criticism for the cavalier way with which it has used – some would even say abused – this procedure, most recently earlier this week, when it moved a petition of concern to defend the Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, from Assembly censure.
That there is a case for reforming the Assembly and the Executive is irrefutable. This was recognised by all parties at St Andrews, where they agreed to create an "institutional review committee" charged to examine the operational aspects of the Strand One institutions.
This proposed body, subsequently rebranded the Assembly and Executive review committee (AERC), was established following the reintroduction of devolution in 2007, with four DUP members, three from Sinn Fein, two from the UUP and one each from the SDLP and Alliance.
It began the process of reviewing the Assembly and the Executive in October 2011 and produced four reports, the last of which was published in March 2014.
The protracted nature of the committee's review is explained largely by the generosity of its scope. It included a potential reduction in the number of both MLAs and departments, a reduction in the range of responsibilities allocated to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and their transfer to newly reconfigured departments, the efficiency and effectiveness of the Assembly's committee system, whether the d'Hondt mechanism should be retained, or replaced, as a means of allocating both ministerial roles and committee chairs and deputy chairs, the abandonment of community designation by MLAs as nationalist, unionist or other, provision for an official Opposition and a review of the Petition of Concern procedure.
This was an exacting agenda, but the committee's labours proved to be a case of an elephant that yielded a mouse. There was, it should be said, an opportunity to implement agreed reform in the shape of the UK Government's commitment to legislate to that end via the Northern Ireland Miscellaneous Provisions Bill. It was, however, an opportunity missed.
The extent of inter-party agreement on institutional reform was minimal. In a nutshell, it comprised: agreement in principle to reduce the number of departments, though the parties could not agree on an exact number; to review and revise the functions discharged by OFMDFM; and a general disposition to reduce the total number of MLAs, though again the parties differed over the extent of the reduction.
All other matters under consideration either failed to achieve consensus or were deferred until the next Assembly, i.e. 2016-21 – at least nine years after the restoration of devolution.
As a result, the UK Government's legislation was almost devoid of institutional reform proposals. It provided a permissive power to reduce the Assembly to 90 members; signalled the end of dual mandates in 2016; and extended the Assembly mandate to five years, thereby putting it on a par with counterparts in Wales and Scotland.
That said, Peter Robinson's exasperated intervention seems likely to accelerate the timetable for a negotiated set of reforms, given the generally warm response it has elicited.
But what prospect is there of agreement to reshape the institutions bequeathed in 1998, themselves amended at both St Andrews in 2006 and, of course, Hillsborough four years later, which paved the way for the devolution of policing and justice?
Herein lies a point worth making. The 1998 model has not survived intact – it has already been significantly altered.
For instance, though it was a seemingly integral element of Strand One, the Civic Forum has become a dispensable feature of the political landscape because neither the DUP nor the UUP are receptive to its resurrection, unlike the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
Secondly, the formula for the allocation of the First Minister role was changed by the St Andrews Act, enabling the largest party, rather than only the largest party in the largest communal designation, to lay claim to the position – a change that was made by the UK Government at the behest of Sinn Fein during the drafting of the Bill.
This was included in the Bill without the foreknowledge, let alone the consent, of the DUP, though it did evaluate whether or not it amounted to a deal-breaker and then concluded that it was not.
Thirdly, the d'Hondt mechanism was abandoned in relation to the allocation of the Justice Ministry because the DUP could not countenance a minister drawn from Sinn Fein's ranks, while the latter was not prepared to endorse a DUP minister – the upshot being a compromise which required a cross-community vote to eventually usher David Ford into the position.
Finally, St Andrews dispensed with the original 1998 provision for a cross-community vote in the Assembly endorsing the nominees for First and Deputy First Minister because the DUP could not contemplate the prospect of requiring its MLAs to vote for a joint ticket that included a Sinn Fein nominee.
In effect, we now have a joint coronation of First and Deputy First Ministers, rather than a cross-community vote ratifying their nomination.
Whether or not one agrees with those changes, the fact is that the original template has not escaped unscathed. Nor was it intended to.
Indeed, from the first, a review of institutions and procedures was planned. Moreover, as far as both the UK and Irish governments are concerned – and Washington, too – there is currently an open door for agreed reform.
That said, the outcomes of the AERC review suggest that the extent of further change is heavily circumscribed, all other things being equal. On the other hand, the changes already implemented suggest that where there is a will, there is a way.
As far as the DUP is concerned, a reformed set of institutions would likely entail a smaller Executive, comprising six to eight departments that would include OFMDFM, which would be hollowed out.
This would enable it to act as the strategic policy and legislative hub of the Executive, rather than an office encumbered by a wide and diverse range of departmental responsibilities – in effect, it would steer ministers rather than row alongside them in a heavily freighted office.
The DUP favours a 90-strong Assembly, i.e. five MLAs per constituency. It also favours: the abandonment of the Petition of Concern procedure in favour of weighted majority voting on crucial issues, which, in turn, would dispense with the need for community designation; provision for an official Opposition, including the allocation of both financial and staffing resources and time on the Assembly floor; and forging a process that would enable a voluntary coalition of the willing to be formed.
For many – if not most – parties, this is an acceptable agenda of possible reform.
However, Sinn Fein and, to some extent, the SDLP will regard at least some of the proposals with grave suspicion. In particular, the voluntary coalition idea will be perceived as a means of simply trying to block Sinn Fein from the Executive.
From Sinn Fein's perspective, the proposal threatens the abandonment of the principle of inclusiveness that underpinned the 1998 agreement and which, to date, has remained intact.
And this fact highlights a crucial ingredient of any reform proposals, whatever their source, namely trust – which all too often has come to be a four rather than a five-letter word in Northern Ireland.
No matter how elegantly re-designed the architecture of devolution may become, without a spirit of trust and mutual accommodation among those who inhabit and animate the institutions, they will continue to founder and, ultimately, fail.
In that respect, agreed institutional reform would itself be a signal that trust can be built anew.
Dr Richard Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen's University Belfast