It is nearly a month since an Assembly election that resolved the sum of nothing. The Executive has been absent for nearly 40% of the time in over two decades of supposed existence. The Good Friday Agreement deserves a first-class honours award as a peace deal, but in terms of producing political stability, we are talking a lower second — and that could be grade inflation.
Surely it is time to change the rules of the political institutions. Several parties say they are in favour. Alliance produced a treatise on reform for its election manifesto. But change never happens. As the lyrics of the UK number one single at the time of the Good Friday Agreement put it, “It’s like that, and that’s the way it is”.
Westminster either fiddles with reform or steamrollers devolution. This year’s tinkering made a petition of concern require support from two parties, rather than 30 signatures from one. That was despite any sentient human noting that no party would reach 30 seats at the election, making a petition impossible under the old rules anyway.
The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act ran away from resolving the structural stresses.
It extended the time for stalling over Executive formation to 24 weeks, via the fig-leaf of keeping ministers of sorts in place — the current zombie government.
The legislation sent out entirely the wrong message — that prevarication and grandstanding can run for six months (and probably more in reality).
Hands up all those who think the answer to Northern Ireland’s problems of governance is to increase the amount of stand-off time.
What might usefully be done? First, scrap the unionist, nationalist and (reductionist) “other” designations for MLAs.
Voters are the ones who can self-designate as unionist or nationalist — on border poll day. Until then, there is non-constitutional work for MLAs to do.
Assembly responsibilities do not include constitutional futures, protocol contents, hard borders that no one will ever build anyway, or expressions of identity such as parades and flags. You don’t need to declare yourself a nationalist or unionist to determine whether you support a Stormont plan for increasing charges for plastic bags in shops.
Second, replace the communal designations with weighted majority voting. This will still ensure that a measure must have a large amount of Assembly approval before it can pass. The current Assembly has 37 unionists, 35 nationalists and 18 others.
Percentage-wise, that is three minorities, at 41%, 39% and 20% respectively. Make the required weighted majority 65% of MLAs and you set a hurdle whereby there must be majority support from at least two of the three current designations to pass — and there would need to be at least some backing from among unionist and nationalist representatives for anything to proceed.
The changes might make MLAs think less in terms of vetoes by diminishing silo mindsets. It is not that there is anything wrong with unionism or nationalism. Far from it. I like the passion that people possess about who governs.
But constitutional questions never appear on the Assembly business paper. Most proceedings simply require a designation as “fair-minded human”.
Devolution and communal vetoes have always been a la carte anyway. When Westminster decides they are expendable, they disappear. It’s direct rule and not even by stealth, at times. Same-sex marriage was introduced even though only 7.5% of unionist MLAs ever voted in favour of legalisation.
Abortion legislation brought in by the UK Government bore scant resemblance to the modest liberalisation urged by many MLAs. The final “unionist veto”, on Irish Language, is being bulldozed by the Secretary of State. Unionist MLAs remain implacably opposed.
New Decade, New Approach said that the First and Deputy First Minister would choose the Irish Language and Ulster Scots/Ulster British commissioners. Except we might be getting the commissioners before the ministers, chosen by that well-known Son of the Gaeltacht, Brandon Lewis.
The point here is not to debate the issues per se. There was a case for change in each instance. Rather, it is to note that the supposed rules of devolution, power-sharing and veto-land turned out not to be rules at all. Given that is the case, why bother retaining?
The one major rule change introduced by the parties (well, the DUP and Sinn Fein) since the 1990s was how to get a First and Deputy First Minister, modified in 2006 at St Andrews. That’s worked well then. The renaming of both positions to Co-First Minister is long overdue. Let the largest two parties fill the positions, straightforward enough if the communal designations are dropped.
Alternatively, scrap the duopoly and just have a First Minister. Audible intake of breath. “You can’t just have a unionist/nationalist First Minister,” is the immediate retort. Why not? The postholder will need to govern for everyone. Give the Assembly the power to oust the incumbent via a high (70%) threshold if they prove incapable.
What is the alternative? More political paralysis. See other consociational power-sharing exhibits. Lebanon, where gridlock is the norm, and Bosnia, the political structures of which miraculously make Northern Ireland’s a relative model of simplicity but with similarly unstable outcomes.
We could do nothing, of course, and carry on as if it is still the late 1990s.
Keep the vibe and record Assembly proceedings on VHS tapes, keep transcripts of the debates on floppy disks, fax the order papers to MLAs and message them via pagers. Don’t be throwing any of those gadgets away. They’ve got the current Assembly rules on them.
Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool