Belfast Telegraph

Whisper it, but it's time to bring back majority rule up at Stormont

Unionists and nationalists are both minorities and would have to reach out to moderates in the other community if power-sharing was scrapped, argues Malachi O'Doherty

What is wrong with Northern Ireland? If you had asked me that question in 1968, 1978, or even 1998, I would have had a simple answer at hand: it was that society was divided along sectarian lines.

One of the communities had a majority and could not be trusted not to abuse its power in an ordinary, democratic system, even if the paramilitaries could be persuaded to give it a chance.

In 1973 participating parties and governments came up with a solution: power-sharing with an Irish dimension. That would give both communities a guaranteed stake in the running of the place and neither one would be able to dominate the other.

Perfect. All we needed was another 20-odd years of killing before Sinn Fein and the DUP, the plan's critics, could beef themselves up enough to get a slice of that power for themselves.

We didn't know that was how things would progress and, in 2007, we were a bit surprised that a solution was suddenly so easy, but there it was in front of us: Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, sitting roughly side-by-side at the corner of a table, resolved to govern together.

But it hasn't worked, and in our exasperation with trying to find a heartbeat in a recumbent horse, we might be overlooking another important change that has occurred in that same time period.

And it is this: the old structure of Northern Ireland, which inspired power-sharing in the first place, has changed. There is no longer a majority unionist community and a minority nationalist one. Both are minorities.

The prospect of a resumption of the 50 years of misrule is gone. So, why do we need power-sharing?

Well, we need it because these two communities, as represented by Sinn Fein and the DUP, do not trust each other to govern. Yet the same might be said of the Tories and Labour.

They are, in some ways, even further apart. No one in Sinn Fein has suggested that the DUP secretly wants to run down the health service. Labour voters take that as read about the Tories.

Sinn Fein and the DUP are close on many things and both are essentially working-class parties.

There is a paradox in British politics. Two parties sincerely believe that the other might destroy the economy, public services and the national defence, yet each consents to be governed by the other when it loses an election.

Why do they do that? Why do we not?

Well, Labour expects, however bad its losses at one election, to be back in office in a few years.

We devised power-sharing because nationalists had no such hope to reassure them. But now they have.

If we scrapped power-sharing, Sinn Fein would probably find itself in Opposition against the DUP, but perhaps not. And, even so, it would have a realistic prospect of power next time.

It could woo friends in the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance and form a coalition that would govern. The numbers are there. Of course, it would have to change.

In British politics there is an understanding that a party can only take power if it appeals to the middle ground; if it can sell its message to people who might otherwise vote against it. This is a moderating dynamic.

Tories may secretly dream of an American-style health service and directorships on retirement with insurance companies, but they cannot declare that to the electorate. They have to be nicer.

If we had a simple majority rule system, Sinn Fein would have to attract soft unionists; the DUP would have to attract soft nationalists.

We would have a dynamic that worked against sectarian factionalism. The dynamic of power-sharing, on the contrary, works to promote sectarianism.

There was a period when it seemed it might work otherwise. We had the 'Chuckle Brothers' Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. We had genuine warmth and co-operation between ministers. We had ministers working to help constituencies they didn't even get votes from.

Gregory Campbell put an end to flooding in the lower Ormeau and introduced free travel for 60-year-olds (for which, much gratitude).

But then he couldn't contain his mischievous reflexes enough not to sneer at the Irish language, poking a sleeping bear.

Many of us believed that participating in the Executive would teach the art of the possible to parties which had only been oppositional for decades.

The virtuous circle went into reverse and parties discovered that their electoral advantage lay not in being sweet to the other side, but in needling them.

Sinn Fein took the hump. McGuinness resigned and said there would be no going back to the status quo. That was the status quo in which a Sinn Fein minister would shake hands with the Queen, but get precious little reciprocation from an uppity DUP.

And all this against a background of mismanagement of a hugely expensive heating scheme.

The election that followed brought Sinn Fein to almost level-pegging in the Assembly with the DUP.

The DUP rallied its forces when Theresa May obligingly called a Westminster election and the party's fortunes flourished beyond their dreams, putting them at the right hand of May herself.

Acrimony delivers votes. It serves a sectarian base which likes to see the other side annoyed and takes no reassurance from them getting on well.

This dynamic consolidates the sectarian blocks at the expense of the more biddable parties in the same community, the SDLP and Ulster Unionists, but it makes government dysfunctional.

The logic of attracting votes by amplifying your contempt of the other side, in a power-sharing arrangement, is that your voters will expect you to make fierce demands, or pull out.

By my rough count, power-sharing devolution has been challenged with the threat of withdrawal, the exercise of a veto by one partner or the other, on nine separate occasions.

David Trimble crashed it over the IRA's refusal to decommission, then over the Stormont spy scandal. Seamus Mallon once resigned in a huff. The DUP refused to participate until Sinn Fein recognised policing. Sinn Fein threatened to pull out until Justice was devolved.

The DUP threatened to pull out over the On The Runs scheme and Sinn Fein over welfare reform.

The DUP threatened to pull out over Provo participation in the murder of Kevin McGuigan. Now Sinn Fein is out over RHI, an Irish Language Act, same-sex marriage, legacy issues and whatever you're having yourself.

If you had a car that broke down as often as that you would trade it in for a model that worked.

Power-sharing was an unfortunate compromise of democratic practice that was necessary, because, for half-a-century, unionists had governed smugly in a "cold house" for Catholics.

Since there isn't the remotest prospect of that happening again, why don't we just drop the whole idea?

Belfast Telegraph

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