A SIZEABLE chunk of the discussions in Stormont have continued to focus on the issue of ministerial accountability. Accountability is not necessarily a ministerial straitjacket. Proper accountability is a democratic norm in most liberal democracies, but the Agreement precludes liberal democracy. What we ended up with was a system whereby ministerial sanctions were completely ineffective.The Agreement states that “Ministers will have full executive authority in their respective areas of responsibility”, something that the SDLP and Sinn Fein have, understandably, defended strongly. But ‘accountability’ seems to be a crucial area where the DUP is determined to force change.
The challenge for the parties is to find a system of accountability that does not unnecessarily hinder ministers from making difficult or controversial decisions, but does not give them unfettered power to ride roughshod over everyone else.
Some have proposed that the Assembly be given the power to overrule and reverse a Ministerial decision based on a cross-community vote. The Minister’s decision would stand, until and unless it is reversed. The DUP appear to want to be able to block the decision until it is ratified by cross-community vote. This is somewhat different from the ‘majority rule’ spin from some quarters, but could still lead to gridlock.
One trigger for a challenge seems to be a petition of concern, which at present requires 30 signatures. As the DUP is the only party that could muster those numbers on its own, this is unlikely to be acceptable to others; a lower figure (20?) might, if the principle was conceded. It could be time limited to seven days. Once a challenge is triggered, it might have to pass through a ‘filter’, such as the Speaker or the Business Committee (one of the successes of the previous admi nistration) to prevent frivolous or vexatious motions.
In circumstances where a Minister’s decision (one which doesn’t require Executive consideration) does not receive cross-community support in the Assembly, the Government appears to be suggesting that it should be referred back to the Executive, which should consider the matter further within a week. Following this, the Minister would either vary the decision or proceed with it as originally proposed. No further petitions would be considered. This is in keeping with the Agreement’s vision of autonomous Ministers, as they retain the final ‘say’ on every decision within their Departmental remit. But it is unlikely to find favour within the DUP.
In another category of decision-making, it has been suggested that where the Executive is required to reach a collective decision, such as where matters cut across ministerial responsibilities, it would be open to any three members of the Executive to request that a vote be held on a cross-community basis. However, given that the SDLP and UUP would only be able to muster two votes each, they may not be willing to accept this. (Whether d’Hondt to appoint Ministers is triggered after the selection of First and Deputy First Minister (2+10) or they are included in a full round of 12, which would then be ratified by the Assembly, could affect the number of seats parties have on the Executive.)
Of course, things could well have moved on from this already!
Much also seems to depend on what may be in any Ministerial Code, but these are matters of detail. But because they have the potential to break the deadlock on the other main issues – an end to paramilitarism, decommissioning, devolution of policing and justice and stable institutions – whether people are genuine or not may be seen in the approach they take to this key issue.