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Rebooting Stormont... Is David Ford onto something?


Justice minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford

Justice minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford

Justice minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford has called for an upheaval for the system of government at Stomont

Justice minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford has called for an upheaval for the system of government at Stomont

Justice minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford

Unionists have cautiously welcomed proposals from the Alliance leader to reboot the deadlocked Stormont Assembly – but nationalists have dismissed them as irrelevant.

David Ford's ideas for a new political system were unveiled yesterday morning. They hinged on a voluntarily coalition, to replace the present compulsory one.

After an election, parties would negotiate a government as in most other societies but contentious votes would have to be carried on a two-thirds majority in order to stop domination of one party by another.

Mr Ford said that such a majority would "effectively guarantee cross-community support".

He would also abolish petitions of concern, a blocking mechanism by which DUP and, to a lesser extent, Sinn Fein can veto motions they don't like. He claimed the system would also "prevent the cycle of crises that have affected progress at the devolved institutions in recent months".

Both main unionist parties claimed to have thought of the ideas first.

"For many years now the DUP has been calling for fundamental changes to the structures of government in Northern Ireland. Indeed, in 2009 we published several papers outlining our proposals," said Peter Weir of the DUP. He added: "Whilst the proposals by David Ford are welcome, they do not go far enough." He called for reductions in the number of government department and MLAs to provide better value for money.

Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leader, pointed out that Lord Empey, one of his party's peers, had tried unsuccessfully to get provision for an official opposition included in a Bill at Westminster.

He said: "During the AERC's Review of D'Hondt, Community Designation and Provisions for Opposition we also pushed to see the Assembly move away from community designation and towards weighted majority voting, to allow us to move further down the path of normalising politics in Northern Ireland."

This approach was ruled out by John O'Dowd of Sinn Fein. He saw it as paving the way for a return to the pre-Troubles Stormont when the UUP ruled without nationalist participation. "Voluntary coalition is code for unionist misrule. We went down that road for 50 years and look where it took us. The current arrangements are in place precisely because political unionism proved itself incapable of sharing power and incapable of basic equality," he claimed.

"The unionist parties need to wake up to a basic reality. If you are going to exercise political power then it will be in partnership with nationalists and republicans on the basis of equality. There is no other way."

Both Mr O'Dowd and SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell saw the Ford plan as a diversion from the need to resume all-party talks on parades and the past. The unionist parties pulled out of these discussions last week in protest at restrictions on an Orange Order parade.

Dr McDonnell didn't reject the proposals outright but he believed there were more pressing concerns. He said: "Whatever appeal of opposition or details of the architecture of the institutions, if people don't believe in the respect, equality and tolerance enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement then the whole point is missed."


"It's absolutely clear at the present time if you look at all the difficulties we have dealing with budget issues arising from welfare reform, the kind of problems I've seen in the justice department over the National Crime Agency, a general issue about how we get coherent government, it's clear that we're now seeing the problems with the system we inherited since Good Friday 1998."

– Alliance leader David Ford

Point one

A coalition which is decided through voluntary negotiation between parties and subject to a vote in the Assembly. Collective responsibility must apply:

This is the central proposal. Currently the five main parties are all in government and ministries are distributed by the d'Hondt system, a mathematical formula based on the number of MLAs each of them has. Only five MLAs are not in parties of government. Ministers have considerable freedom within their own departments and if they fall down on their responsibilities they can only be replaced by their own party leaders. This is what is meant by absence of collective responsibility.

Point two

Replacing the Petition of Concern system, which has been abused, with a qualified majority system:

Petitions of concern were introduced to prevent a unionist or nationalist majority dominating a minority from the other community.

When 30 or more MLAs sign a petition about a measure which concerns them then a vote must be taken on a cross-community basis. That means that it fails unless a majority in both the nationalist and unionist blocks at Stormont support it.

The DUP, with 38 MLAs, is the only party than can raise a petition unaided. Sinn Fein, with 29 members, is one MLA short.

Point three

An opposition, free from the voluntary government, with the opportunity to properly hold the Government to account:

So far every party entitled to a minister under the d'Hondt system has taken the post.

This means that only one or two MLA parties like the TUV, NI21, Greens and independents are left in opposition.

Unlike Westminster, the Dail or other devolved assemblies in the UK the opposition has no formal recognition or speaking rights.

An effective opposition, which could one day take power, is normally seen as an essential part of democracy.

Point four

Greater co-operation between ministers requiring them to work together under law:

Critics say that the absence of collective responsibilities leaves ministers to operate their departments like fiefdoms. It is also referred to as the "silo system".

With ministers from five different parties – who will all be fighting each other in the next election – sharing Stormont's 12 departments, there is little incentive to help each other or co-operate.

The parties were committed to agreeing changes in this system, including a reduction in the number of ministries, by 2012 but missed the deadline.

Point five

All Executive policies should be required to be 'shared-future proofed' to ensure that all public investment supports and underpins an open, peaceful and united society rather than continuing division:

"Shared future" is the term for reducing sectarian division by encouraging the sharing of facilities between the two communities.

Alliance favours integrated housing, education and workplaces. Other parties are committed to these ideas to varying degrees.

Yet, Alliance argues, much of spending in areas like education is used to provide separate facilities for each community instead of shared facilities. This can lead to duplication and waste.

Point six

An end to sectarian designations in the Assembly:

Members have to designate as 'nationalist' or 'unionist' when signing the register as an MLA on the first day the Assembly meets after an election.

This facilitates cross-community voting in petitions of concern.

It also decides who appoints the First Minister.

Members who do not wish to label themselves as 'nationalist' or 'unionist' are considered to be 'others'.

Alliance Party believes this system institutionalises sectarian division.

It argues for a weighted majority system to ensure widespread support across communities.

Point seven

Letting the public know who donates money to political parties:

In the rest of the UK political donations of over £7,500 must be made public. Here the information is not published due to concerns donors may become targets for attack. Lists of donors are kept by the Electoral Commission and the Secretary of State is keeping the situation under review. Her next review is scheduled for October and, if she agrees, donations made since January could potentially be published.

Belfast Telegraph