Why institutional reform needs to be at the heart of the next election

It looks almost certain now that we are heading to an early election.

In the usual noise of a campaign there will be a variety of issues that will get people talking and hopefully voting.
One issue that has been consistently coming up is reforming our system of government. The SDLP back in May with their jump into Opposition and now Sinn Fein have embraced the concept of reforming the system of government.

We have heard slogans such as “no return to the status quo” but little detail as to what is being sought in terms of reforming our system of government.

Since 1998, particularly within Nationalism it has become an article of faith that you adhere to every line and comma within the Good Friday Agreement. In a very real sense, both the SDLP and Sinn Fein have at times treated the document as some latter day version of the 10 commandments, set in stone which cannot be unaltered.

If we are to have this election, it is a golden opportunity for parties to seek real reform of how we are governed, but there must be set out specifics in many areas as to what needs to be changed and why.

The Petition of Concern has been abused in the Assembly, so what proposals do you plan to bring forward to reform it? Will its use be capped? Will you introduce bipartisan requirements where not just one party can activate one? Do you give approval of its use to an independent Assembly Commission with specific guidelines? Or do you scrap it all together?

Other issues are important such as how the Speaker is elected and what powers that office has. Mick has written previously about how this is done in other legislatures, for me I would urge parties to look at John Bercow and how he has empowered backbenchers in the House of Commons over the past 7 years and held Ministers to account. The next Speaker should be the champion of those outside Ministerial office and like any good Speaker should be seen as an irritant to those within the Executive.

Also, if the past few months have shown us anything it is that we need a powerful opposition within the Assembly. Reforms should include more speaking time and greater resources for our opposition parties. It is in neither Executive party’s interest for one side to feel so powerful that they can disregard their coalition partners.

None of this is colourful or will politically set the world on fire, but parties like the SDLP and Sinn Fein should remember the painstaking work conducted by those who came before them in reforming the Northern Ireland state.

The main aim of the game is trying to make this place work, it is in Nationalisms long term interests for this to happen. People should not shy away from this or be fearful of the outcomes of forcefully pursuing this policy. Those who disagree with this, have no alternatives and simply want to create a vacuum that they have no idea how to fill.

Of course, this takes a willing partner on the Unionist side to make this happen.

Essentially we have a choice, either we create some form of functioning government ourselves and recognise the necessary compromises that need to be made, or we pursue some form of direct rule with the British and Irish governments overseeing the running of Northern Ireland.

This is the choice, either we can write a new chapter or we can close the book.

Nationalists should make this election about writing the next page of reforming the Northern Ireland state and all of the dog whistle stuff that will inevitably come up is just a distraction from the main long term game.

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  • Dan

    Voluntary coalition.

    Out with petitions of concern, the replacement of MLAs without election, cross community Support, designations.
    Proper governance where you live by your record, and if you are corrupt, incompetent, out you go.

    Cant live with that, give us direct rule. Most will live with that again, quite happily.

  • Yeah. The system is always at fault when you can’t make it work the way you want it for you. As above, it has been SF/SDLP most keen to keep things as they are. Change of institutions not part of McG’s resignation whinge. Gerry’s annual crisis at Christmas is all about working outside the institutions to get what you want, which of itself (as we now see) fundamentally undermines the institutions. Nationalists don’t want NI Govt to work, don’t make it work, and then blame the Unionists. Direct Rule would at least allow them to just default MOPE.

  • Korhomme

    In addition to the OP: a coalition government, meaning that decisions are taken by the Executive as a body rather than individual ministers doing their own (partisan) thing. A wish too far?

  • ted hagan

    In an imaginery scenerio, and with the help of hallucogenic drugs, an SDLP/UUP/Alliance government would look promising but with such diamatrically opposed ambitions would it ever stand up to the strains of running Northern Ireland, or would we just eventually end up with the same hate-fest as we have at present?

  • ted hagan

    As Brian Feeney said on radio this morning, Sinn Fein tried to make it work but compromised so much with the DUP that their grassroots supporters reined them in. Doesn’t escape the fact that the DUP made an almighty cock-up over RHI.

  • Karl

    I agree. Voluntary coalition. If that doesnt bring the nationalist vote out nothing will or maybe the system used in Australia where everyone has to vote. That may strengthen the middle.
    It may also lead to some more grown up politics. Im not sure that given the tribal nature of NI that incompetence under whatever system will lead to consequences but this is a good first step.
    Joint authority rather than direct rule. That should concentrate the minds.

  • Croiteir

    Why keep flogging this old snake oil, the north is not a success politically or economical. It is an unstable construct that no amount of scaffolding will support. The question should now change from how do we keep it up to how do we take it down. Nationalists cannot make it a success, it is beyond help, but even if they could they should not.

    Thankfully the scales are falling from nationalists eyes concerning the GFA. It is now a busted flush. Dump it.

    For the time being there is only one feasible option, joint sovereignty underpinning joint authority.

    Anything else is just more duct tape.

  • AntrimGael

    Nationalists have NO interest in Stormont anymore. Unionists have shown that they view, and treat it, as their own sectarian fifedom. Furthermore it’s obvious that Tory policy on the North is being formulated and driven by the Westminster DUP cartel. Teresa May is sweetening the DUP up in case she needs their votes on Brexit and the two are conspiring together. Nationalists are withdrawing from politics here rapidly and other elements will only take advantage of this.

  • mickfealty

    I’ve a piece in tomorrow’s Irish Independent pointing out the latest reform to the system and its role in this collapse, ie official opposition. Not sure either of them have much of a genuine appetite for further reform tbh.

  • Zorin001

    We were discussing this in work and while this is only anecdotal, there did seem to be a groundswell of support for joint sovereignty.

    I’m not sure there is another answer because if the two main parties are returned with a similar amount ratio of seats how can they ever work together again in good faith? We would simply be lurching from one crisis to another awaiting the inevitable collapse.

  • Reader

    AntrimGael: Nationalists have NO interest in Stormont anymore.
    It’s going to be a boring election with no nationalist candidates. Do you think PBP might stand?

  • mickfealty

    Fair comment. But SF have been over promising what they can achieve from this arrangement right from the get go.

    The regularity with which it falls into disfunction (as TD rightly notes) is proof that it’s in almost constant trouble with its base (falling Nat turnout is another). Just depressing that after ten years it still comes down to the same tired narrative, ie that it’s all the Prods fault.

    Not convinced all nationalists don’t want NI to work. Colum says he doesn’t, but has yet to make any headway on that. Doesn’t help that the press love these collapses since they relieve the tedium of covering the nitty gritty that it takes to actually run the place.

  • Mirrorballman

    I’d settle for joint authority. A panel of ministers appointed by both the British and Irish Governments if all else fails.

    We can come back to the Sovereignty issue later. Much later.

    Dig it!!

  • J D

    Unionists are free to voluntarily go into opposition at any time.

  • Granni Trixie

    Mick please tell me that as an aspect of analysis you at least mentioned ‘values’ as part of what needs fixing up on the hill?

  • Granni Trixie

    But do the 3 believe in each other? If not why would any of them squander hard won resources on each other?

  • Zorin001

    True, one step at a time; though my interest in joint sovereignty is more to protect us from the worst effects of Brexit if possible.

    Glad you appreciate the Macho Man lol

  • J D

    Be interesting to see if there is any punishment at the polls for the DUP. If there isn’t….. well we won’t be in the slightly surprising and it will confirm (again!) our assessment of Unionism.

  • mickfealty

    Nope. Not on yer Nelly Granni!! 🤓

  • Anthony O’Shea

    So trying to deliver on deals already agreed is an ‘over promise’ on SFs part because the people who have agreed to it now decide to welch?

    Thats a fair bit scary.

    If there is a stubborn spike sticking out of the road, there is little point in trying to lay the blame for all the punctured tyres elsewhere. the fault lies with the spike, it needs to be blunted to stop doing so much damage, or else it needs to be removed altogether.

    Refusing to point unionism to where it is failing does no service to Unionism itself.
    it simply encourages a false sense of superiority which usually comes smashing down; the last few days a prime example.
    ” ….its all the prods fault.”

    Well if the cap fits etc..

  • mickfealty

    I think the drugs are the vital ingredient there ted!!

  • mickfealty

    Which deals Anthony? Bill of Rights has been consulted on many times since Slugger began nearly 15 years ago. The model’s the problem, as I suspect it is in almost every other case you’re thinking of…

  • Mirrorballman

    He was the greatest!

  • Nevin

    “Since 1998, particularly within Nationalism it has become an article of faith that you adhere to every line and comma within the Good Friday Agreement.”

    This is news to me, David; I’ve accused nationalists and unionists of cherry-picking the 1998 Agreement. Did any party promote a balanced development of all three strands?

    “parties like the SDLP and Sinn Fein should remember the painstaking work conducted by those who came before them in reforming the Northern Ireland state.”

    I assume you’re overlooking the cynical and partisan use of rights issues to advance Irish unity as well as the confrontational street politics adopted by unionists and nationalists – and not forgetting fringe socialists – that helped to set the place alight.

    “The main aim of the game is trying to make this place work,”

    Whose game? The Alliance Party’s? Unionists main game is to keep NI in the UK and Nationalists, to take NI into a UI; when they talk of ‘making this place work’ they’re talking blarney.

  • Nevin

    I look forward to reading it, Mick.

  • Teddybear

    In a multiple seat constituency it is wrong to have bye election for just one vacant seat. Say Party A wins 5 seats and Party B wins 1 seat in a normal election. Party B resigns or dies leaving a vacancy.
    A bye election would not be won by Party B.

    The solutions are either co option at present or put all the seats in the constituency up for election to ensure proportionality is maintained

  • Anthony O’Shea

    The model is the problem. So who has the problem with the various models on various agreed issues outstanding? It wouldn’t be the DUP perchance?

  • Dan

    Maybe, but the abuse of us all when we’ve maybe a fifth of MLAs coopted isnt acceptable, especially when you see the quality of some of the incompetent buffoons brought in. Bad enough electing buffoons, but buffoons picking heir own buffoons isnt on!

  • Lets just look at the last ‘agreement’ between DUP/SF on the 14th December, which was specifically to address the RHI issue. Yet within a few days the bed of Exec roses that (OFMDFM messaging) had been growing and blossoming to that point, was being cut off at the roots and SF was beating its Exec partner over the head with them, demanding rather than sitting down in a room and sorting it all out. No-one, no-one, did not want an enquiry. We still don’t know the facts around RHI, but that might put a stop to being able to just have a go and consequences be hanged. How on earth could an Exec partnership worked based on that sequence of events. And if this had been an issue according to our great DFP Minister since July, it is very odd that neither the facts nor a mitigation plan was not in place when everyone pitched in their pennyworth on the issue.

  • file

    Do you remember a deal about a Memorial Centre at Long Kesh, Mick? Do you remember a DUP First Minister going back on his word?

  • AntrimGael

    They will stand for election but like Jim Prior’s Assembly of the early 80’s they will show it the contempt it deserves.

  • lizmcneill

    But how would we get there? Is there anything stopping Westminster from taking direct rule and imposing whatever they like on NI? The current government have already shown they aren’t too concerned with international relations or economic concerns with Brexit. And what happens on Ireland’s end of things if the UK tosses the GFA?

  • file

    Indeed. As Bush once said: “Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, you can’t get fooled again.”
    “Maybe we are slow learners, but it is plain to us cats on the roof now that the DUP is incapable of doing power-sharing. [The dogs down there below us realised it years ago.] It is therefore a waste of time entering into power-sharing arrangements with them. And the UUP were not much better. Remember Trimble’s, “These people ain’t house-trained yet.” Apart from the despicable manners, that displayed an ingrained attitude of superiority that, while having no basis in truth, is too far ingrained to be eradicated.
    We have had enough of being insulted, ignored and dis-respected. Tear the whole edifice down; let those who caused the problem (the southern politicians and the British government) try to sort it out again. Mind you every time the British think they have solved the Irish question, we change the question.

  • mickfealty

    Yes, I’ll give you that alright. Though we should note it was not taken in a vacuum, it came after nine months of conflict over the flegs dispute.

  • As a constitutional change Joint Authority would require ‘consent’ under the GFA and of course, nationalists being all GFA defenders and that wouldn’t want to undermine the GFA. And before some natbot starts, the GFA also confirmed the constitutional status of NI as part of UK unless with the consent….

  • file

    And the flegs dispute came about because of unionists refusal to accept a democratic decision by Belfast City Council, isn’t that right? fool me once … you can’t get fooled again. They have had their chance and proved themselves completely untrustworthy and incapable of sharing power. Let’s outsource the problem back to the two governments that caused it in the first place with partition and the acceptance thereof.

  • Granni Trixie

    It was a mystery to me how this particular project ever got agreed. It gave sf a distinct advantage – with the hunger strike central in narratives of the past.

  • mickfealty

    And since the decision ignored an Equality Commission report, totally unnecessary. Maze was a well timed punishment (see chptr 3 here: https://goo.gl/MSZEK) from Robinson at the end of that process. The problem with the general relationship between the DUP and SF is that it seems to consist more of mutual punishments than of rewards.

  • Hugh Davison

    Is that you, Arlene?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Then transfer your vote to the non DUP Unionist Candidate ? It just might help ?

  • scepticacademic

    Yes, ideally a voluntary coalition agrees a PFG and there is collective responsibility. An official opposition and other non-aligned MLAs, plus a beefed-up committee system, holds the exec to account. Probably dreaming.

  • scepticacademic

    Could it be any worse than what we’ve experienced for the last decade?

  • scepticacademic

    The allure of power, perhaps?

  • Sir Rantsalot

    The local government should be a normal ruling government and an opposition. In a sectarian broken society, equality / fairness / no tribal dominance, would be to require the governing party or coalition to match the religious balance of NI. About 60/40 either way. That would require a fair non sectarian party or a coalition or 2 tribes. Job done!
    With the peace of mind that no tribe would dominate the other, normal politics can develop.

  • J D

    Nope. I only vote socialist.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Then transfer to the PUP !

  • Granni Trixie

    More like the lure of common sense.

  • Katyusha

    Not a bad idea T.E., and with Nesbitt apparently rulingo out a pact with the DUP, it may for once be a viable tactic in my neck of the woods (if there are any woods left, what with Stormont paying those who wish to burn them all!). I’ll need to see who else (in terms of personalities) is on the ticket.

  • Katyusha

    Maze was a well timed punishment (see chptr 3 here: https://goo.gl/MSZEK) from Robinson at the end of that process.

    Thank you for eloquently summing up just how unworkable the current system is especially with the DUP’s belligerent way of using and abusing it. So the DUP renege on a prior agreement and deprive the country of something that could have been a real and tangible asset in order to “punish” SF in a manufactured scandal. Not only is it act act of petty political point scoring, which puts getting one over on their rival as more important than anything else (including responsibly governing and developing the country), but more than that , it is actually justified as being an act of petty political point-scoring!
    What a sordid mess this is.

  • mickfealty

    It is sordid. Far more sordid than the burning of pellets at a premium of 60p in the pound. But in truth is if you are supposed to be partners, then act like it.

    One story at a time please lads. That’s why I think McCann’s description of building and simultaneously burning bridges them down is spot on.

    That’s based on a set of political choices rather than the actual structures themselves.

  • Katyusha

    You would be hard pressed, Granni, to find a period of time and a location more central and seminal to the conflict, nor one more iconic to people both at home and throughout the world. It is a rather central event to any cursory look over our past.

    You might not agree with the Hunger Strike or dislike the people who carried it out, but it was massively significant and iconic. While it ay be nice to build a peace and reconciliation centre in a location associated with reconciliation, somehow I don’t think Sunningdale would be a goer. And in any case, it’s important that we preserve our history and don’t try to erase or look away from it.

  • Katyusha

    It is sordid. Far more sordid than the burning of pellets at a premium of 60p in the pound. But in truth is if you are supposed to be partners, then act like it.

    SF have tried to present themselves as the very model of a good partner in Government with the DUP, to the extent that they were habitually accused of rolling over for them. How many times since Fresh Start have we seen them trying to present a united front with the DUP, in contrast to the Opposition. Even in this latest RHI scandal, SF offered the DUP a way out when they were under no obligation to do so. They offered a solution where a) Arlene could avoid a public inquiry, b) she would not have to resign, but could simply co-opt someone else into the post for a temporary period while a rather slimmed-down investigation took place, and c) there would not have been an election. In doing so, SF were most definitely going against the grassroots support of their party in order to protect Stormont and their coalition government with the DUP, and they opened their flank to criticism from their rivals in both the SDLP and PBP. It was a dangerous concession for SF to make.

    Arlene chose belligerence as her go-to strategy and rejected the lifeline that her partners in government had thrown her. The DUP have no-one to blame for the debacle they are now in but themselves.

  • Granni Trixie

    But whose history is subsumed or never gets a look in if the HS dominates?

  • mickfealty

    I can’t get past the fact SF knew about this sh!t two months before Fresh Start.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    KY I have stood at many an election count where Rep/Nat have came over to me and wished their people had have transferred their vote to that Nice Other Unionist Guy rather than “the shower” who are gloating and celebrating over there ! In this election they have the chance to really give the DUP a Bloody Nose ! but will they do it ? Ideal situation for NI politics is that no one party gets over 29 MLAs and that POC Nonsense (abused by 1 party) is confined to the dustbin of history !