THERE’S been a bit of speculation (probably with its origins in Peter Robinson’s office) lately that Alliance could get the justice ministry once it’s finally devolved. While the party has not been directly approached or offered anything, the kite-flying probably indicates that the DUP and Sinn Fein talks on the matter aren’t making great progress and that the other options (such as a shared ministry) are proving problematic. An offer to Alliance would be attractive – a chance for a ministerial position, and a key one at that, doesn’t come knocking every day and would allow the party to show leadership and make a difference in an Executive it has long been critical of. However, an offer would not be without potential pitfalls, and the party should ensure it extracts the maximum if it any deal involving it is thrashed out. A flattering Liam Clarke teases out the issues here.Clarke notes the things that need to happen:
While the other parties in the executive are designated nationalist or unionist for voting purposes, Alliance stands outside the sectarian blocks. Its seven MLAs share the designation others with the solitary Green member and Kieran Deeny, the hospital campaigner from Tyrone.
If these nine were allowed to form a party for assembly purposes then they, and not the SDLP, would mathematically be entitled to the next minister. But that would require new legislation at Westminster because the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 specifies that the justice and policing minister must come from one of the two largest designations, currently unionist and nationalist. There is no doubt that Shaun Woodward, the secretary of state, and Gordon Brown would rush through such legislation if required.
You can bank on that; Woodward owes the DUP big-time after they agreed to back the Government on the 42-day detention vote. From an Alliance point of view, the party may be able to use legislative changes to undermine the sectarian designation system in the Assembly. The DUP would be amenable to this. The Shinners might prefer to keep quiet on this, but the SDLP would likely take a hard line on retaining tribal designations, as it’s Hume’s Big Idea. They’d also be highly pissed off at being passed over for another ministry – they would be next in the D’Hondt queue. And the Stoops love D’Hondt too.
Ford was sounded out about the ministry by Peter Hain during the St Andrews negotiations. Hain suggested that an Alliance policing and justice minister be included in the OFM/DFM, appointed by the DUP and Sinn Fein, but with no voting rights.
This second-class status was turned down and would be rejected again. Instead, Alliance is likely to seek full voting rights and to use them to press for an increased role for parties who, like themselves and the Greens, appeal for votes outside the tribal headcount which has turned every election since the foundation of the state into an unofficial border poll.
They may well be working with the grain of history. Many Northern politicians report that as peace and security settles down but the credit crunch bites, they are more often asked what they will do about jobs and services than about flags, emblems and the border.
This is important; there’s no point in Alliance accepting a second-class ministry, if it’s offered. It should ensure it has full membership and voting rights in the Executive and control over its departmental budget.