Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Proposed voting changes would build on success of the Assembly

First Minister Peter Robinson insists that the debate on Stormont reforms which he launched last week - to the chagrin of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness - will not finish until changes are made

Few people should be surprised that, after 40 years of conflict, an Executive made up of parties with very different political outlooks faces challenges and operational difficulties.

However, in spite of the problems, Stormont has been good for the people of Northern Ireland.

We now have the longest period of continuous devolution in almost 40 years, constitutional stability, a united response from the Assembly to terrorism and a platform for long-term peace and prosperity.

In addition, the Executive has made people's lives better by freezing the Regional Rate, deferring water charges - the average householder will be £500 better off next year alone than would have been the case under Direct Rule - investing more than ever before in schools, roads and hospitals, providing free public transport to everyone over 60 and is abolishing prescription charges for everyone, to name but a few achievements.

In spite of our differences and the difficulties of working in a four-party enforced coalition we have made real progress.

I am proud of what we achieved through the negotiations leading up to the restoration of devolution and at St Andrews, including ensuring that all important decisions require cross-community support.

But we have always said that the present arrangements are merely a staging post to a more normal form of devolution.

It is foolish to suggest that, as a society, we are not better off than we were five years ago. But it is equally wrong to maintain that we have the best form of administration possible. While much has been achieved, no one can pretend that things are perfect.

Some of the problems that exist are inherent in the structures that have been created. Indeed, deadlock is the almost inevitable outcome of effectively giving two parties a permanent veto and no incentive to agree. But a modest change to the arrangements at Stormont could make a big difference to decision-making.

I have consistently - before, during and after St Andrews - advocated a freely-formed coalition rather than a mandatory coalition, but that is not what these proposals are about.

Equally, the proposals I outlined are manifestly not a return to 'unionist majority rule' as some have dishonestly suggested.

I merely proposed that we should replace the present community designation form of voting, which in effect gives a veto to both the DUP and Sinn Fein, with a weighted majority system of voting which would require a 65% vote, still ensuring cross-community support without giving any single party the power of veto.

This would be a first step to normalising politics here, and under this system compromise would be encouraged and deadlock could be avoided.

I believe that such a voting system could re-energise politics and could potentially unlock many of the issues that are presently stalled.

Rather than sit back and refuse to move, parties would have to rely on the strength of their arguments and their capacity to build a coalition.

Pending a change in the arrangements, I will do all that I can to make the present system work as well as possible, but the experience of the last two years would indicate that the changes I have proposed could play a significant role in improving the operation of the Executive.

The reaction of my detractors amounts to no more than a feeble attempt to question my motives. They have not addressed the core issues nor as much as put a dent in the validity of my argument.

Those who criticise my proposals come from two very different positions.

On the one hand are those who want no change. They are so tied to party political diktats that they want the arrangements, even though they are not working optimally, to remain intact.

The DUP will relentlessly press for improvements in the devolved arrangements. We do not believe that political dogma should hinder parties from seeking to overhaul and reform deficiencies within the system.

On the other hand there are those who say that because the present arrangements are not perfect we should abandon devolution altogether and return to Direct Rule. These people would place us in worse arrangements because of the imperfections of the present arrangements.

Only a fool would make imperfection a barrier to improvement. The greater absurdity is that these people have no strategy capable of reaching any suitable and acceptable outcome.

The logic is clear: having reached an acceptable starting point, we should continue to progress toward perfection.

In wider and more general terms every party should want to deliver for the community and provide better governance arrangements leading to quicker decisions and less deadlock.

The debate has started and will not finish until change comes.

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