We really don't want something out of this world, just one small step towards a fit for purpose Assembly
Peter Robinson has called for St Andrews 2 while Martin McGuinness wants to cut the number of MLAs. Alex Kane says creating a formal Opposition wouldn't take long but is key to getting Stormont back to business
Sometimes politicians are just plain silly: silly to the point of being thoroughly condescending. Like when Martin McGuinness announced that he favours a cut in the number of MLAs and government departments "because I think if pain has been inflicted on our people as a result of the budgetary measures taken by the British government in London – a government made up of multi-millionaires – then I think that the political process politicians have to accept part of the pain of them".
Seriously! He actually thinks that the removal of 18 MLAs (most of whom will be taken on in constituency offices or party HQs) and a few departments (which means more power for silo ministers and probably no reduction in staff) is anything like the pain, belt-tightening, negative equity and cancelled holidays that hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland have had to deal with since around 2007? Seriously!
So yes, a condescending, patronising proposal. And downright silly, too, because a reduction in MLAs and departments won't, in itself, make a button of difference to the nature of the relationship between the parties. Waving goodbye to eight or nine Sinn Fein and DUP MLAs doesn't mean that the remaining 60 will suddenly decide to get their act together and start governing collectively, effectively and with common purpose.
Peter Robinson has already mentioned the need for a St Andrews 2 (seemingly unaware that most sequels are far worse than the original) to tackle the dysfunctional nature of the Assembly and Executive: but with so many parties involved and what's likely to be an enormous and probably conflicting list of issues on the agenda, there's every likelihood that we'll end up with more sticking plaster and a mountain of make-of-it-what-you-want-to compromises.
My real concern is that the parties will spend so much time trying to tick their own particular boxes (and let's not forget that there is a general election due in just eight months' time, and maybe even an early Assembly election) that they will forget all about the reform they came to talk about. So here are some suggestions, albeit in no particular order of priority.
Create a formal, funded, empowered Opposition. And that means the existence of a 'shadow' Executive. This is not rocket science, either: it can be done pretty speedily, with a minimum of legislation. It's not like we're asking them to create something totally bizarre and out of this world, after all!
At the moment there are only two types of debate in Northern Ireland: members of parties in the same Executive (that's 102 of 108 MLAs) shouting at each other across the chamber, or members of the same Executive shouting at each other in a television or radio studio. What is required is a debate between Government and Opposition. There is no better accountability than Opposition and no greater spur to good government than the prospect of being replaced at an election. The bedrock of democracy is choice and, at the moment, the electorate here is denied the fundamental choice of being able to remove and replace their government.
There needs to be a new barrier for entry to the Executive. In other words, if a party fails to win a specific number of seats it will not be in the Executive. And the same rule would apply to those parties wishing to form the Opposition. The 'mandatory coalition' aspect of the present arrangements, along with the d'Hondt process, means that the five big parties can usually squeeze themselves into the Executive. But the problem – and we see it almost every day – is that they have all come to regard membership of the Executive as an automatic right. Removing that right, as well as providing structures of Opposition, will force a radical rethink on both the shape and cohesion of the Executive. There needs to be a legal requirement for the parties forming the Executive to present an agreed, costed Programme for Government within 21 days of an election.
That programme would then be the subject of detailed scrutiny and debate between the Executive and the Opposition and, having been voted through, that programme would become the template by which the Executive is measured and judged. Executive ministers would be collectively responsible, jointly accountable and supporting each other on behalf of the Executive, rather than running their departments as silos and pursuing their own policies and agendas.
With a properly, co-operatively functioning Executive and Opposition the ongoing abuse of Petitions-of-Concern should be less of a problem. That said, how they are used needs to be overhauled. The Standing Orders relating to them are wonderfully vague, hence the abuse. So it will be necessary to establish new and very clear guidelines for their use: maybe to the extent of insisting that they cannot be deployed by just one party, as well as limiting the number of times an MLA can sign a petition in the lifetime of an Assembly.
The argument for reducing the number of MLAs (I would actually favour a reduction to 72) and departments (six is probably enough) is a strong one, particularly since we now have 11 new super-councils with increased powers.
The original case for 108 MLAs was based on ensuring that smaller or new parties wouldn't fall at the first hurdle. But after four Assembly elections the big five parties have simply consolidated their position. Anyway, the new super-councils have provided a stronger, wider base for new parties to emerge and grow.
I'm not pretending that this is a panacea for the structural problems, I'm merely suggesting that these changes (and more would be required as a consequence of implementing them) could, at the very least, begin to bridge that present disconnect – of Grand Canyon proportions – between the Assembly and the electorate. I'm not sensing that there's a huge demand to swap devolution for direct rule: but there is a huge demand for a devolved government that is seen to be coherent and functional. And it's important to stress that neither these changes, nor any other changes for that matter, will be of significance, let alone actually work, in the continuing absence of trust and goodwill between the parties.
The problem, of course, is that the big-ticket issues – like flags, parades, the past and competing narratives – will still retain the power to undermine progress, particularly if the parties themselves try, yet again, to resolve them.
So maybe they should consider rebooting the Civic Forum and tasking it to look at each of those problems individually and for a maximum of six months: at the end of which it could produce a report for consideration by the Executive and Opposition. Yes, it's a long-term process, but it can't be any worse than all the time-limited, hothouse exercises which try to tie everything down in one messy, ambiguous package.
It's pretty clear that all of the parties have accepted that the Executive/Assembly structures are dysfunctional and need reformed. But that reform will not happen if they allow the agenda to be swamped with issues which are not, in fact, connected to structural reform. Get the structures right and nearly everything else can be dealt with. Then get the trust established and we can yet produce a form of government in which we could, finally, take collective pride.
Follow Alex Kane on Twitter @Alex Kane 221b