Belfast Telegraph

Changing Stormont: What parties have to say on the issue

Political Correspondent Noel McAdam examines how we are being governed since devolution was restored following the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 and some of the main proposals on the table for change.

How we are governed now

Q What exactly is the problem?

A. The fundamental difficulty in the Stormont system is that all five main parties – the DUP, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance – have their hands on the levers of power. They make up a mandatory coalition in which all have a right to seats and there is no one dominant party.

It means the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, have an automatic veto and achieving a consensus across all the power-sharing partners can be close to impossible. The result is slow and, sometimes, no decision-making.

Q. Why not just form an Opposition?

A. There is no cross-community consensus on opposition. While the Ulster Unionists and SDLP have at times talked up the benefits of an opposition, neither is willing to sacrifice the real control which ministerial positions mean they have on the Executive to move into what could amount to just shouting from the sidelines.

Q. So are there no checks and balances in the Stormont system ?

A. It has been argued that the Assembly's committees are there to provide an effective means of opposition, given that the party to which any particular minister belongs cannot be the same party to which the chair of the committee belongs. Thus, the DUP Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland faces a committee chaired by Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey and Sinn Fein Education chief John O'Dowd must deal with a committee lead by the DUP's Mervyn Storey. This arrangement is unique at least within the context of the UK and Ireland.

Q. Has the Assembly not already attempted to deal with some of this?

A. Stormont has a team working on reform of the institutions, the unappealingly titled Assembly and Executive Review Committee. Chaired by the DUP's Stephen Moutray, it has examined whether we need 108 MLAs and 13 governance departments including the First Minister and Deputy First Ministers' Office. And it has held evidence sessions and debated at length the use by various parties of the 'petition of concern', which can be triggered to require a majorities of both unionists and nationalists. But as a microcosm of the Assembly itself, the committee has not got very far on these issues.

What is the TUV's solution?

Only the "glue" of parties having a semblance of power is holding it together, says Mr Allister. A voluntary coalition and an opposition are the only route to durable devolution. Its manifesto states that: "Those who can agree a platform and collectively command the requisite majority (which could even be a qualified majority of 60% so as to guarantee cross-community government) form the government; those who cannot, form the opposition, challenging and affording voters an alternative at the next election."

Q. .Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have recently warned Stormont could collapse, but hasn't Jim Allister been saying that for years?

A Mr Allister has long predicted the collapse of the Stormont Assembly and Executive as "inevitable" because the system is "unworkable" but also asserts the stalemate over budgets and consequent spending cuts is reducing support among the public for it to survive.

Q. Jim for First Minister, then?

A. Mr Allister punches above his weight in the Assembly but has made clear the TUV would not be entering government with Sinn Fein under any system.

What solutions did NI21 propose?

The party formed by Basil McCrea and John McCallister, who recently resigned, put forward proposals for change before its recent implosion

Q. What was their take on the problem?

A. It argued the D'hondt system and mandatory power-sharing means the larger political parties are guaranteed a position in government but rather than producing compromise it has lead to "government run in silos" and policies developed along the "lowest common denominator".

Q. What were/are their ideas?

A. They said that political parties agree a Programme for Government prior to entering into an Executive and the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister should be renamed the Office of Joint First Ministers, avoiding the perennial election issue of whether DUP or Sinn Fein can become First Minister.

The Speaker of the Assembly should be elected by secret ballot and smaller parties should be given elevated positions on scrutinising committees.

Q. How would all that happen?

A. Mr McCallister, now an independent, said the DUP and Sinn Fein have the power to effect the reform Stormont requires. "But Sinn Fein has no confidence the DUP would not seek to use reforms to exclude it from the executive," he said. "The DUP has no confidence that Sinn Fein is serious about moving Northern Ireland on."

What is the DUP's solution?

As far back as a 2011 document called Making Stormont Work, the party insisted that for the next four years it would be tangible delivery by the Executive, rather than mere survival, on which the public will make its judgment about the Assembly – and reforming and streamlining the structures could help the Assembly deliver.

Q. So what are the party's detailed proposals?

A. The current mandatory coalition at Stormont, where all five main parties have a right to seats, shared out according to the D'Hondt mechanism, is replaced by a voluntary coalition.

High-level agreement should be sought on a Programme for Government prior to an Executive being established – although it would not be a precondition to an administration being formed.

The party also suggests cross-party commissions augmented with experts should tackle issues such as shared education provision. The DUP says the number of departments should be reduced to between six and eight and the 108 MLAs significantly reduced in numbers.

Q. What are the chances of it working?

A. The DUP was working to a timescale which envisaged the London Government bringing in legislation to "normalise politics" by 2015 – which is now impossible. Sinn Fein also believes it would be excluded from any voluntary coalition and unionists would instead share power with the SDLP to preserve the prerequisite of power-sharing. But the SDLP would also not concur.

What does Alliance propose?

Alliance Party leader David Ford called for a "reboot" of the Stormont system during the summer crisis over parades, with unionists pulling out of talks and warning of a 'graduated response.

Alliance believes the Assembly is currently facing its worst crisis in years as deepening financial problems will continue to overshadow the legislative agenda.

Q. So what are the party's ideas?

A. The party wants a coalition decided through voluntary negotiation between parties but subjected to overall approval by a vote in the Assembly.

An opposition must be made up of parties outside the voluntary government.

There would be enforced greater co-operation between ministers "requiring them to work together under law" and all Executive policies would be required to be "shared-future proofed" to ensure they work towards and underpin "an open, peaceful and united society rather than continuing division".

Alliance also wants to see the end of designations in the Assembly – where MLAs designate themselves as 'unionist', 'nationalist' or 'other', and insists the public should know who donates money to the parties.

Q. How would this be achieved?

A. Leader David Ford said: "I have already called for the all-party talks to resume in September and I'm again reiterating this call.

"It is only through open and honest dialogue that will we be able to find lasting solutions on those key issues that stand in the way of delivering a shared future for Northern Ireland, including flags, parades and the past," he added.

What is the UUP's solution?

Through the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Sir Reg Empey and the House of Lords, the party tried to inititiate moves towards the prospect of a Stormont opposition but were not supported by the coalition Government in London and other peers.

Q. But wasn't the UUP, along with the SDLP, the chief architects of the system which emerged from the Good Friday Agreement?

A. The party has argued that the mandatory coalition system was a temporary, albeit a necessary one in the circumstances of 1998 and that it is now time to reform the governmental structures of the Assembly.

It brought the issue up in a private member's motion through John McCallister, who later resigned from the party to form NI21.

Q. What are the UUP proposals?

A. Northern Ireland has too many MLAs, too many quangos, too many arm's-length bodies and commissioners, and the party suggested an 'efficiency review panel'.

It also said before an Executive is formed, its blueprint for governing, the Programme for Government should be brought into parallel with the budget and an investment strategy.

Party leader Mike Nesbitt said First Minister Peter Robinson "promised this mandate would be about delivery".

He added: "Frankly that has not happened."

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