Stormont's system is broken, it is now time to remodel it
A reconvened Independent Monitoring Commission will not be enough to rescue the Assembly, says its Northern Ireland-born architect, Michael HC McDowell. Nothing less than a root-and-branch reform of the set-up at Stormont can save power-sharing.
The latest crisis in the Northern Ireland Executive brings calls for the return of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). That is not a solution, but merely an unsatisfactory short-term "fix" for a political system that is broken and needs major repairs.
The IMC was my brainchild back in the summer of 2002. I was frustrated that paramilitary arms and criminality were allowed to continue with impunity by London and Dublin in the interest of not endangering the "peace process". Almost two decades on that weak argument no longer works.
Why did I suggest the IMC was needed? Primarily, I had no confidence that the so-called de Chastelain commission would act on breaches of the Mitchell Principles on non-violence by either the Provisional IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries.
John de Chastelain, from the start, took a totally passive approach to breaches. But an original member of the IICD, US Ambassador Donald Johnson, had wanted de Chastelain to take an active role against breaches - arguing that the commissioners should personally go to the paramilitaries and put pressure on them.
De Chastelain rejected that advice and waited - long years - for the miscreants to come to him, and Don Johnson departed in frustration.
My IMC concept grew out of a successful programme in Sicily - A Culture Of Lawfulness - which had successfully ridden the capital Palermo of the Mafia, naming and shaming those carrying out assassinations, paramilitary attacks, racketeering, bank robberies, extortion, blackmail and intimidation.
This programme was run in close co-operation with the mass media, the key support of the Pope and the Catholic Cardinal of Sicily, the education system, which was controlled by the Church, and the police.
I ran a private conference in Gleneagles, Scotland, in the autumn of 2001, flying over the Italian players plus senior figures in the British and Irish governments, the Northern political parties, high-level PSNI and Garda officers and those close to the paramilitaries, such as Father Alex Reid and the Rev Roy Magee.
The thinking which grew out of the Gleneagles meeting led me, months later, in the summer of 2002 to write a detailed memo to Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair, who I had known well during Powell's time at the UK Embassy in Washington, outlining how what became the IMC might work.
I wanted a mechanism that built back public confidence into the Good Friday Agreement when outrages like the murder of Robert McCartney and the Northern Bank robbery occurred. Powell quickly supported this concept.
I then gave the blueprint, first, to the Alliance Party, which I felt closest to politically, and soon after to David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists. Things moved quickly from then on.
Alliance and the UUP supported the concept and, later, the SDLP and the Irish Government (with some inevitable foot-dragging by the Sinn Fein-enabling Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, which was countered by the Minister of Justice, my namesake). The Northern Ireland Office was against the proposal, but was overruled by Blair.
Ian Paisley and the DUP ridiculed the idea - but they later welcomed the IMC when it was up and running. It must be noted, too, that US official Richard Haass was against the creation of the IMC. It was his far more robust successor, Mitchell Reiss, who saw the value of it and did more than any other US envoy barring George Mitchell to bolster power-sharing in any real sense.
It was Reiss who brought over the McCartney sisters to Washington on the St Patrick's Day after their brother's murder, and it was Reiss who persuaded President Bush and major figures like Ted Kennedy to shun Sinn Fein.
I envisaged the IMC pushing the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries into totally peaceful methods so that they could then qualify to participate in a power-sharing administration with the rest of the democratic parties.
I originally envisaged a totally independent single commissioner who would shine a spotlight on wrongdoing. I had recommended a brilliant retired US Army general, who had in fact married a Trinity College, Dublin, classmate of mine from Northern Ireland - but London and Dublin opted for four commissioners.
I had already written about establishing "an independent auditor/overseer/observer/monitor" who could recommend sanctions against parties whose operatives had committed acts of violence and criminality.
I also persuaded Trimble to accept John Alderdice, the former Alliance leader and Speaker of the Assembly, and a close friend of mine and godfather to my son Conor, as the Northern Ireland commissioner.
The IMC was late in being set up, but by 2011 had achieved major progress, using intelligence and security force information from all jurisdictions and, importantly, from the general public, given in confidence, and anonymously if preferred, on breaches in the Mitchell Principles.
In short, using naming-and-shaming the four commissioners from the north, the south, London and Washington were key in getting us to "Yes" and devolved government and building confidence within the majority and minority communities that illegality would no longer be swept under the carpet. I believed that closing down the IMC in 2011 was too early.
I have one caveat, however. I envisaged the commissioners calling it like it is and not under any circumstances pulling their punches for "political reasons" lest the Executive collapse because of the seriousness of any IMC findings.
The chips, I believed, had to fall where they might and the commissioners, all unelected, had no political mandate to "preserve" the Executive.
I believe punches were pulled, though not that often, to stop the Executive collapsing. If, as some politicians are suggesting, the IMC is resurrected short or medium-term, pulling punches to preserve the Executive must not be allowed.
What I had hoped originally, though, was that the new power-sharing Executive would in the main comprise the UUP and the SDLP, plus Alliance. But Assembly elections saw the DUP and Sinn Fein as the major winners.
The St Andrews Agreement was in no significant way different from the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 in spite of the smoke-and-mirrors attempt by Ian Paisley in particular to say this was a huge improvement on what had been negotiated by David Trimble and Seamus Mallon before.
That was an utter canard.
What we have ended up with is not power-sharing at all, but power-carving-up of the most cynical variety, with the most important decisions being taken in advance just before Executive meetings by the DUP and SF and excluding the SDLP, UUP and Alliance.
We have seen appalling nepotism, a jobs-for-the-lads-and-ladies, overgenerous remuneration and expense system, political patronage shared out among the DUP and Sinn Fein, and major overuse of petitions of concern to protect errant ministers whose bad actions should have led to their resignation or dismissal.
In short, bringing back the IMC, in smaller form or as it was set up originally, won't build back confidence in the system, except on a very short-term basis.
Rather, it is the very system which set up the Executive and Assembly that is broken and until London and Dublin and the Northern Ireland parties agree on reforms, or the latter have reforms thrust on them on a take-it-or-leave it basis, it is not worth having the devolved institutions as they are presently constituted.
Similarly, new elections without deep constitutional reform will only produce roughly the same gridlock-like results we have had to date. London and Dublin and the Northern Ireland parties need to arrive at a new system of government where accountability and responsibility are paramount. And any US role must be strictly limited to supporting a deal agreed by the non-US players.
So-called "constructive ambiguity" has become "destructive ambiguity". A new, constructive, fully democratic power-sharing Executive and Assembly (and with safeguards for minorities) without "ambiguities" is what is needed today.
A "new" IMC is not enough.
- Michael HC McDowell, a former Northern Ireland journalist, is an international affairs consultant based in Washington, DC