Stormonts: new and old

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana). I want to propose a different and some might say odd way in which we are, with the new Stormont, failing to remember one of the old Stormont’s failings: the lack of any realistic possibility of the parties of government being replaced. The DUP have suggested a keenness to change the nature of Stormont government and indeed both the SDLP and especially the UUP seem to have, at various times, considered opposition. The nature of the current lack of opposition is, I would suggest, one of the current executive’s fundamental flaws. In a strange way this parallels one of the flaws of the old Stormont. Yes; clearly the anti Catholic discrimination was the overwhelming problem. However, the lack of any proper opposition with a possibility of replacing the unionist government; at least in part caused by said unionist opposition to nationalism / Catholicism, was a further corrupting influence on the body politic.

To say that a lack of opposition was Stormont’s great flaw would of course be a hideous misrepresentation of reality. Unionists may argue that the nature of the old regime was not quite as bad as nationalists proclaim. However, we as unionists must face up to the fact that Stormont was a highly discriminatory system. It is true that when I take the boys to the Mo Mowlam play park and then walk up the hill to Carson’s statue and my favourite bit: Viscount Craigavon’s tomb, I do become a bit misty eyed. However, the reality was that our little statelet was flawed. Although I was aged 1 when Stormont was prorogued; I have to recognise that it was people of my sort who gained the most. Maybe we (the quite big house Prods) were not allowed by the real leadership (the proper Big House Prods) to have real power. The professional, managerial and big farmer set of Ulster Protestants did, however, gain greatly and excessively from the Stormont regime. For that we must apologise to our fellow citizens.

I would submit, however, that alongside the anti catholic discrimination and indeed the discrimination against the working class Protestant population; the lack of any opposition also utterly flawed Stormont and helped result in it being a failed political entity. The area I was brought up in just sneaked (I think) into the North Londonderry County constituency (though is part of South Londonderry in most local people’s terminology, including mine). As can be seen, there was only one candidate at many of the elections and from 1958 to 1972 Joseph Burns was elected unopposed. Had we been in Mid Londonderry (and I cannot be bothered to work it out exactly; it does not change my argument), the story is not that different with a Nationalist Paddy Gormley being repeatedly elected unopposed.

If one looks at the area where my wife lived: Lisnaskea, Viscount Brookeborough was consistently elected until replaced by his son. Looking at where the rest of her family are from, the South Fermanagh constituency, there were only elections on two occasions. Here we see in four essentially randomly chosen constituencies that there was no prospect of different people being elected.

I am not casting any aspersions on these MPs; what I am pointing out is that they were guaranteed to be perpetually re-elected. Whilst there are many safe constituencies in GB the major difference in Northern Ireland was that Mr. Burns or Viscount Brookeborough were always going to be in the party of government whilst the likes of Mr. Gormley and Cahir Healy were always going to be in opposition. There is a frequent tendency for countries (even democracies) with what is essentially one party rule to have endemic corruption, a tendency seen in the likes of Japan and definitely seen here under Stormont.

My concern is that the new Stormont is also, due to d’Hondt and the mandatory coalition, fated to have what is in effect one party rule (albeit with multiple parties) but with no real prospect of change. In this even proportional representation does not help. No matter what is there any realistic likelihood of removing the major political figures? Even the disastrously incompetent like Ruane, Poots and McGimpsey are in effect guaranteed to remain MLAs (even if we get rid of them as ministers and of course that is at the whim of their individual parties and not in any real way in the electorate’s gift) whilst a few of the foot soldiers, such as for example, Esmond Birnie, may fall by the way side; the more prominent (even if incompetent) will survive. Except that is, I guess, if a political party reaches epic levels of incompetence such as the SDLP’s spectacular self-destruction in West Tyrone.

As such we have all the ingredients to replicate one of the problems we had in the old Stormont, namely the lack of any effective opposition with a prospect of getting elected.

Since we cannot have meaningful competition for votes between unionist and nationalist parties and indeed we must for the foreseeable future have power sharing; it is essential to create intra nationalist and intra unionist competition, whereby the electorate have some realistic choice of political options.

The UUP, having briefly flirted with the idea of being in opposition, now seem rather less keen on it. I suspect that the leadership of the UUP realise that the chances of the current UUP leaders such as Empey and McGimpsey having power is inextricably linked with the current arrangements. Going into opposition might (just might) with new leaders one day result in the UUP being once again the majority party in unionism; for the current generation of UUP leaders, however, this is as good as it gets. Just as turkeys do not vote for Christmas; much as Empey and McGimpsey might (if they are politically farseeing enough) understand the potential advantages of having a proper opposition, they are well aware that the going into opposition would end their personal chances of having power and might well speed the end of their own political careers. Alternatively they may lack any political vision at all and simply be trying to survive from day to day. I guess it depends on whether one regards the current UUP leadership as merely useless and incompetent or useless, incompetent and stupid. The SDLP are of course in a very similar position to the UUP in this regard and again nationalist turkeys rather like unionist ones seem disinclined to vote for Christmas even if it is for the good of Northern Ireland as a whole or future generations of SDLP leaders.

A further major problem when the DUP call (in my view) very appropriately for an end to d’Hondt is that SF probably see this as a devious attempt by the DUP to engineer coalition government without SF and possibly as a manifestation of “Not having a fenian about the place”. As such they are extremely suspicious and unlikely to accept it.

Hence, I suspect that the DUP’s proposals for an end to mandatory coalition are most unlikely to get support from outside the DUP itself, no matter what their undoubted merits. Even if the DUP were to promise to share power with SF after elections, I suspect that would not help as it would be an epically large stick for them to hand to the UUP and TUV; that is even if SF believed them. In addition I suspect the British and Irish governments would be highly suspicious of anything that might rock the boat. They want Northern Ireland to become politically quiet. The fact that the system will inevitably produce useless government and rampant corruption is of no great concern to them and neither Mr. Ahern personally, nor the Scottish Labour Party from which Mr. Brown hails are exactly strangers to incompetence and corruption.

As such, I suspect this plan of the DUP’s is doomed, and the only way by which we can actually create a good government if not “one of the most successful governments anywhere” (to quote what must be one of the most disingenuous remarks made by Mr. Woodward) is to rub the whole thing out and start again. There are of course in my view many things rotten in the State of Denmark and this is just one of them.

  • Garibaldy


    Surely the difference is that there can be differences in how much power each party has? As the UUP and SDLP found out. Also, if Alliance, or Alliance plus others in an electoral formation can gain enough seats, that would shake things up.

  • Dewi

    Turgon – I read it all honest – Nos Da

  • slug

    I think in a generation we may move away from mandatory but with other types of safeguards. I hope the next generation of political leaders my be able to achieve this.

    In the mean time as Garibaldy hints the UUP and SDLP *can* oppose, because they are the minorities in the government, and their consent is not needed for Executive decisions.

    If DUP/SF screw up then UUP/SDLP gain.

  • Garibaldy

    I meant more electoral fortunes can swing. So parties could become less or more dominant – unlike the UUP in the old days.

  • Pang

    So no big difference to the Republic then – democracy without ever changing government.

  • Muad’Dub

    [i]In the mean time as Garibaldy hints the UUP and SDLP *can* oppose, because they are the minorities in the government, and their consent is not needed for Executive decisions.[/i]

    Yeah they can but they won’t, neither the UUP nor the SDLP have the swingers to step up in to opposition, they’ve had the opportunity several time already with programme for goverment, budget and now the Victims Comissioner debacle. Now the moment has passed and just this week members of the DUP benches where calling Alliance members the opposition in the chamber, look it up in Hansard.

  • Billy Ghoti

    As we can’t vote for our government, i.e. those that actually have the power, it’s all irrelevant. We, or the politicians as our elected representatives, have to do what we/they are told to do by those in power.

    It’s all a joke arrangement to keep the elected few in the manner to which they have become very accustomed, and the rest of us in our place.

  • Greenflag

    Turgon ,

    Excellent summary . Can’t disagree with your overall analysis re ‘opposition’ within NI historically .

    Northern Ireland’s ‘politic’s have been dragged ‘involuntarily’ out of one uncomfortable cul de sac only to be put into another. Given the political history of the NI, it’s demographics and it’s economic dependence on HMG’s Exchequer, there was in the circumstances probably no other way forward.

    ‘ the only way by which we can actually create a good government is to rub the whole thing out and start again’

    Here’s were the ‘ politics is the art of the possible’ adage hoves into view. For now both governments will be content to keep the lid on the present achievement. After all it took 40 years to get there/nowhere ?

    Your analysis ‘oddly ‘ enough forms part of the ‘rationale’ for why I tend to favour a fair and agreed ‘repartition’ of NI as fundamentally the State was set up on very shaky foundations and all attempts by successive Unionist Governments to make things less ‘shaky’ just made it worse.

    We in the Republic are ‘lucky’ to have had a peaceful transition of power to FF in 1932 . That set the standard. De Valera in the 1960’s tried to secure ‘stronger’ one party Government by abolishing PR in favour of the FPP system as in the UK. Had the ‘people’ not rejected his proposal in referendum FF would probably have been in power for the past 45 years. But then the Republic did not have any major ‘constitutional issue’ dividing the political parties which would/would threaten the future of the State. Japan I presume is in the same situation.

    Northern Ireland in it’s present format will I fear always have it’s political development restricted by virtue of the ‘constitutional’ issue . It’s the crucifix to which the political futures of all NI politicians will be nailed.

  • consul

    It looks like the NI populace will have to tough it out with power sharing for as long as there is two communities. There will need to be a change of outlook on what the voter needs from a prospective MLA. Does the punter want a unionist/nationalist mouthpiece or does the voter want a politician. NI ‘politics’ is still governed by the constitutional question, this is the reason nothing else gets done. Can you imagine another ‘government’ anywhere that would actually cede power (P&J;) to another governing body. The fear that leads to this policy is directly correlated to the constitutional issue.
    Peter Robinson wants devolution as in the Scottish model but to achieve this NI politics would have to relegate constitutional matters to the level of consideration that it receives in Scotland i.e. an issue but no more than that. Naturally this departure would spell the end of all four of the main parties operating in NI so the enthusiasm for this is largely non-existant.
    So it seems that for conventional politics to emerge, the conventional policy-driven parties will arrive either from within or without. Within all thats to be seen of this ilk so far is Alliance, I personally don’t know anything about them (what they stand for, what poliices they espouse, what society they envisage, how competant, efficient they are) suppose you’d have to be from NI to be familiar with them. Without you have parties from GB and RoI who could in theory enter the fray and offer the people a cross-community policy driven alternative.
    GB: Unionists in the past have implored GB parties to organise and offer full integration into UK politics however this has proved fruitless thusfar and will probably continue to do so.
    RoI: Parties in the Republic have until now remained outside NI but there is a realisation that sometime down the road NI could become part of the Republic lessening the ratio of power they all respectively hold currently. No one would want to be caught with their trousers down should such a sitution arise, and if one of the southern parties moves north the others will have to follow so as not to allow anyone else to steal a march. Maybe this would help to solve the problem re mandatory coalition although its more of a longterm, probable development so no changes imminent I think.

  • Greenflag


    ‘Also, if Alliance, or Alliance plus others in an electoral formation can gain enough seats, that would shake things up.’

    Take some 53 grms of pepper and 47 grms of salt and place into shaker . Shake vigorously for 4 years . Same result . No matter what ‘coalition’ is formed within NI the powers of the Assembly are purposely limited to take account of the political history, demographics , and virtual complete economic dependence on HMG’s Exchequer.

  • Greenflag

    ‘I think in a generation we may move away from mandatory but with other types of safeguards.

    Full marks for optimism . I’d say the odds on expecting the present ‘high wire’ act to last a generation would be very short . The only safguard is both sovereign governments being prepared to keep the lid on for as long as it takes for some other ‘solution’ to command the support of the majority within NI. In the meantime the SS Titanic/NI will slow speed ahead now veering to the DUP side and then to SF and vice versa . At some point the passengers on board will have that deja vu sense of circling about the North Atlantic not achieving very much.

  • Bigger Picture

    So Turgon are you saying that you, yourself, welcome this move by the DUP??

  • Turgon

    Bigger Picture,

    Of course. I think their proposal is an excellent idea. As you know I would go even further. I am also highly dubious that the DUP can achieve what they want for the reasons I set out in the blog. If, however, they do manage it I will be very pleased.

  • Bigger Picture


    That is good to hear. I am also extremely delighted by this move as we can only get a proper stable development with the advent of a fully fledged mature democracy. If d’hondt has settled us down so we can achieve that then maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing?? In that we realised we wanted more.

    Whether it works out or not is another matter 3 big parties seem to be in favour of it but will the SDLP want to go all that way??

    Or how about a half and half system whereby there is coalition government but there is mandatory powersharing inbuilt??

    e.g. parties could decide to share power with whoever they wanted but there had to be a nationalist partner and a unionist partner. Theoretically to govern you could have the DUP/SDLP and APNI in gov, with SF/UUP and independents in opposition. That to me sounds workable I am sure there are flaws to that argument but I am thinking theoretically rather than from a party perspective.

  • Turgon

    Bigger Picture,
    Clearly I have very significant problems with SF in government at the moment. I am not, however, opposed to them being in government no matter what. If their assorted elephants leave the room then my view will change.

    I also have thought of ideas like yours. I am, however, not a constitutional expert and as such do not feel qualified to give an answer. It sounds sensible, if a little unwieldy (though not as unwieldy as the current system). Again I think the problem will be acceptance by the parties as I have outlined in the blog.

  • Basil Brush

    Opposition is needed in the Assembly every democratic state has to have the opportunity to vote out the current government.In N.I the major parties are all in government so this can not happen.Also the UUP and SDLP could rebuild like Cameron has done with the Tories.However Reg wont resign his ministeral position so I doubt it will happen in the near future.

  • Bigger Picture


    Well from the view of the constitution, the UK not having one, as far as I can see it would simply be a case of bringing legislation to effect the changes before the Houses of Parliament in the same way devolution was set out for each of the regions in the relevant statutory instruments. I suppose then that before that can happen the Government is going to want to see consensus across the political divide which is where problems arise as you mention fully above. So it all really ends up going back to the same stumbling blocks unfortunatley but this review group up at Stormont chaired by Donaldson may throw up some interesting ideas, i suppose we just have to watch this space!

  • Bob Wilson

    ‘Also the UUP and SDLP could rebuild like Cameron has done with the Tories’
    Basil – while going into opposition would obviously give UUP and SDLP to distance themselves from the Exec and draft new policies to be truly successfully they would have to somehow leave the old unionist/nationalist arguments behind.
    Going into opposition and getting a new leader would not be sufficent I suspect

  • Bob Wilson

    ‘GB: Unionists in the past have implored GB parties to organise and offer full integration into UK politics however this has proved fruitless thusfar and will probably continue to do so.’
    Can you provide any evidence that the Conservative is opposed to this? If you look on the Conservatives site you will find endorsement from everyone from David Cameron, Francis Maude, David Lidington and Owen Paterson.
    It is true that the local media refuse to give any coverage to the Conservative Party but that should not be mistaken for any reluctanace on behalf of the Party.
    Tommorrow the low paid and small businesses will be hit by tax increases through the abolition of the 10p tax bracket and the increase in corporation tax for small businesses.
    Both will hit NI particualrly hard – the local media will not mention this – even though it effects huge numbers in NI.
    For the local media politics begins and ends at Stormont and the ‘big 4’ local parties

  • consul

    Its important not to take the statement out of context. I didn’t actually say the Conservatives were opposed to the concept I just hinted that they haven’t seemed especially enthuastic about it. It is factually correct to say they haven’t made much of an effort and have not used significant resources to gain a foothold in NI. This is evident by the fact that they don’t have any MLAs in the Assembly. The same is true of New Labour and the Lib Dems.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    I agree in theory with the suggestion but I think that one has to be realistic about the kind of coalitions that might be available. The concept of a Scottish style choice allowing the two unionist parties to gain power against a nationalist opposition is a complete non starter. The only prospect is one that allows for a power sharing arrangement.

    In fact that could be done if the other rules of the assembly are maintained. My suggestion would be to redraft section 18 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. You simply remove dhondt for ministerial positions and you make the appointment of ministers subject to approval by the FMDFM acting jointly. Now because to elect a FMDFM you require a majority of designated unionists and nationalists in effect only the largest nationalist and unionist parties could form a coalition that would allow election of a FMDFM and in turn without them you have no executive. If one cannot be formed within the 6 weeks mandated in section 16 then a general election is called and the clock starts again. The protection of the majority of members and the majority of nationalist or unionists limits the potential for variation in coalition. In order to win power the opposition parties would need to become electorally more successful than the one currently in government. In fact they would have to consider a pact with the other opposition parties to maximize their gains. So potentially the UUP SDLP would have an electoral pact and try to replace SF and DUP as larger parties and so gain power. Ironically the DUP would have to share power with SF because the SDLP just can’t muster the votes to elect the FMDFM and form the coalition. It may mean that the DUP would refuse and the whole thing is deadlocked but their drive to win power has been demonstrated already and I don’t see it being changed. They would do the deal if it meant Peter being FM.

    So in one fell swoop we have an opposition. The suggestion is that we also create some room for proper opposition institutions in the Assembly and perhaps create a joint leader deputy leader of the opposition position. The committees might also be changed but I could see a benefit to all parties sharing committees on the dhondt basis and creating potentially strong checks on the ministers in the executive. There might also be some benefit to rethink the electoral system to more of an ATV rather than a straight multimember STV we have now, ATV might encourage cross party voting and so strengthen those potential electoral pacts. If pacts such as these are created it will require parties to find commonality in normal politics and put the constitutional question to one side. It would be nice if one day we could have normal politics and free forming coalitions but that is a generation away at least and in the meantime we have to stick with a sectarian formation of some sort but at least under this structure the barriers between nationalist and unionist would have to break down somewhat to allow for the kind of coalitions I envisage. The benefit as well would be that the FMDFM appoint the cabinet and can choose those for the jobs and create a genuine sense of collective responsibility amongst the executive something which is badly lacking now.

    From the point of view of the UUP which is where my sympathy lies then it would longer term create a reasonable possibility of getting back to majority position in unionism. It would take time and prolonged period of opposition but it would I think be more likely than under current arrangements. I agree that Reg and Michael won’t want to vote for Christmas much but they need to put party first not themselves. If Reg wants a legacy rebuild the UUP and make it an electoral power again not piss around at Higher education making minimal policy changes. If they won’t then it’s up to party members to pick people who will. Anyway those are my thoughts for what its worth.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Bob Wilson :

    Tommorrow the low paid and small businesses will be hit by tax increases through the abolition of the 10p tax bracket and the increase in corporation tax for small businesses.
    Both will hit NI particualrly hard – the local media will not mention this – even though it effects huge numbers in NI.

    Yes, but since when did the Conservatives start caring about poor people ? I can’t remember whether or not they supported the 10p rate when Brown brought it in ten years ago.