“Frustration with the current model is understandable..”

In the Irish Times, Frank Millar suggests that it’s premature to talk of removing that “ugly scaffolding” around the Assembly – as SDLP leader Mark Durkan has done.

In fairness, Durkan did not suggest the new edifice was yet sufficiently “sealed and settled”. Some reports have suggested he certainly does not foresee such developments in the life of the current Assembly. Nevertheless, the SDLP leader revived a debate as old as the agreement itself – and his words were music to the ears of DUP politicians in particular, who have always detested the compulsory coalition demanded by the agreement and who still nurture hopes of eventually moving to some form of “voluntary” coalition arrangement.

Frustration with the current model is understandable, not least in the context of the current standoff between the DUP and Sinn Féin (though it should be observed that London and Dublin had to hold SDLP and Ulster Unionist hands for long enough after the 1998 accord). Nobody pretends to like the unionist/nationalist “designation” requirement, its “arguably sectarian or sectional undertones” plainly reflecting the worst of Northern Ireland’s divided past.

Meanwhile Damian O’Loan at the OurKingdom blog poses the question.

The question is whether Northern Ireland is better served by the present designation system, in both the short- and long-term, or by a high threshold without it.

It’s a [long-term] conversation worth having.

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  • heck

    To get back to the origional topic-that the DUP “still nurture hopes of eventually moving to some form of “voluntary” coalition arrangement”.

    is’nt that another was of saying that the DUP want to pick what fenians they deal with and not have the fenians decide for themselves.

    Durken would be better employed telling the DUP that that is never going to happen.

  • Mark McGregor

    Come on. This is all a bit sad, SDLP supporters suddenly start jumping on a leadership bandwagon they have never even considered in the past. Talk about party line, they’ve never discussed this and every pro-SDLP voice online is immediately and unquestioningly following their leader. Bad idea guys.

  • German-American

    As an outside observer Millar’s take seems reasonable to me. As I understand it, most everybody assumes that in the near term at least the most likely result of voluntary coalition would be the exclusion of SF from government, gladdening the hearts of DUP leaders, members, and supporters everywhere. It’s not clear to me why any other parties, much less the ROI or UK governments, would conspire to hand the DUP such a major political victory.

    The more interesting question to me is, what are the actual political pre-conditions for real movement toward a voluntary coalition arrangement? It seems obvious that this would depend on all the major parties deciding that they would be better off under such an arrangement, or at the least no worse off than they are. It also seems obvious (at least to me, naïf that I am) that rather than voluntary coalition being a way to break the deadlocks and get devolution of policing and justice and other controversial matters resolved, instead successful devolution of policing and justice is very much a pre-condition for any future change to the coalition arrangements.

  • German-American

    Continuing on the theme above: This reminds me of long ago classes on game theory and the minimax strategy, i.e., trying to minimize your maximum possible losses in a zero-sum game. In the context of Northern Ireland politics a “maximum loss” would consist of an electoral wipeout at the hands of a competing unionist/nationalist party combined with a major loss of influence in London/Dublin. It seems reasonable that agreement on changes in the coalition arrangements (everyone “cooperating”, no one “defecting”) would not occur until/unless all the major parties had insulated themselves as much as possible against the risk of such a loss. This then gives the following set of possible pre-conditions for movement to a voluntary coalition structure:

    For the UUP, a successful merger with (or equivalent integration into) the Conservative Party, leading to the UUP having a reasonable amount of influence with an assumed future Tory government after the next UK general election, and thus being better able to weather being frozen out of the NI executive.

    For the SDLP, a similar successful merger with (or integration into) FF, leading to influence in Dublin that could compensate for possible impotence at Stormont.

    For SF, a successful devolution of policing and justice with a real possibility of SF assuming control of the relevant ministry or ministries in future (to be able to claim victory on that front), along with continuation of the IRA Army Council or its termination on SF’s own terms/schedule (to avoid the taint of “surrender”).

    For the DUP, some symbolic victories (delaying devolution of policing and justice long enough for unionists to see SF squirm, delaying or watering down an Irish Language Act) combined with electing enough MPs to command attention from future UK governments, and possibly also combined with getting even more devolution of powers, so that the DUP could successfully pursue an SNP-style “Ulster nationalist” strategy as lead party in an NI coalition even if relations with London turned frosty.

    Even if all the above occurred it would presumably take one or two election cycles for the parties to feel their positions were relatively stable and not under serious threat, so a minimum 5-10 year timeframe for any changes seems reasonable.

  • perry

    Point of information.

    The petition of concern protection requires a weighted majority of 60% to pass a bill and at least 40% of each designation.

    If 6 United Community members designated as Unionist and 3 as Nationalist then UC/UUP/PUP and UC/SDLP would constitute 40.9% and 40.4% of each designation. To gain the 60% on any bill would require the UUP/United Community/SDLP coalition + either of the other parties. If either larger party can be won we’d be able to pass laws. If both the DUP and SF are against a bill, or if the SDLP and UUP can’t agree then a majority of the representatives of NI are against it….in which case where’s the issue?


    Durkan’s ridiculous remarks could turn out to be the iceberg that will sink his leadership as they will be regurgated and thrown back at him time and time again by Sinn Fein, who were on the ropes themselves and there for the taking. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Brian Feeney put it well in his column yesterday. For a nationalist leader to come out with such guff was a dagger throw the heart of the Civil Rights movement and those who lived through it. It was a big box of sweeties to many in Norn Iron, particularly the DUP who long for a return to Unionist majority rule. Now they have a Nationalist party leader prepared to give these fat kids the keys to the chocolate factory again and be assured they will run with this. Did Durkan have a rush of blood to the head; sorry Mark as a Nationalist I don’t think you have ANY alternative but to step down as NO Nationalist/Republican voter could EVER take you seriously AGAIN after that.

  • slug

    Whether you have a 65% rule or a designation system you still require parties with different outlooks to agree.

    A 65% rule is cleaner, does not require sectarian pigeonholing, and allows politics to evolve, and facilitates penetration from ROI or GB parties.

    As such it seems desirable.

  • perry

    I’ll give you this Slug,

    On current seating 65% is the right hurdle for “everyone but the DUP” (on 33% of 36 of 108 seats) and “everyone but SF” (on 25% or 27 seats). It’s hard (or painful) to imagine a measure so cynical that it would be supported by both SF and the DUP but opposed by smaller parties – but then if such a position ever existed, and was supported by parties representing 58% of the vote, would those other parties be justified in opposing it?

    Therefore the 65% limit seems to have pretty much the same effect as the current system requiring 60% + 40% of each designation – assuming that to meet it all the SDLP vote together – taking the actual vote to 75%.

    I’m all for a deal that let’s the world move on without the DUP. The problem is that it exposes the risk that, in different circumstances, a law could be passed without the consent of at least 40% of the nationalist designation – although this seems a very theoretical risk unless the majority nationalist party’s seats rise to 37 (just under 35% of the total) and the other nationalist party votes with the unionist/UC block.

  • Quagmire

    There is no level too low that the SDLP would not stoop to. Not surprising in the least to be honest.

  • Billy

    Even by Durkan’s low standards, this is a classic.

    The SDLP were, ever so slightly, making some headway in the Nationalist community in the light of recent SF difficulties.

    Then, Durkan, in a pathetic attempt to feed his own ego and make himself a relevant figure, comes out with this nonsense.

    The current assembly is permanently in stalemate and I think will inevitably collapse. As a Nationalist, I would rather have a return to direct rule than risk any hint of majority Unionist misrule – there are far too many of us who remember what that means for Catholics/Nationalists.

    As usual with the SDLP, their policies would work in an ideal world. It would be great to think of the North being a place where politicians acted in the best interests of everyone regardless of religion.

    I hope that this state of affairs will come to pass at some point in the future.

    However, the plain truth is that at the moment Catholic rights must be protected by the current designation system.

    The DUP have come some distance over the last few years. However, there’s a long way to go before Catholics/Nationalists would trust them not to repeat the blatent discrimination of the pre 1968 Unionist misrule era.

    Make no mistake, the DUP may welcome Durkan’s comments but he has ensured that the SDLP won’t be gaining traction in the Nationalist community for some considerable time.

    SF will continue to represent the majority of the Nationalist community for the foreseeable future and, while I disagree with many of their policies, there’s no way they’d be stupid enough to give away the ability of Catholics/Nationalists to prevent Unionists from going back to their power abusing ways.

  • Damian O’Loan

    Mark McGregor,

    Perhaps you could read my piece first, and then form your opinion. That way it might be an informed one.

  • perry

    Things Durkan didn’t say;

    “let’s get rid of the Eqaulity Commission”, or
    “let’s get rid of D’Hondt”, or
    “let’s get rid of Patten”

    What he did say was something like;

    “maybe someday we can think about weighted majority voting and a stronger constitution with a bill of rights”.

    What’s the big deal with this?

    Alliance would prefer a 65% weighted majority. This isn’t a magic number. It’s based on the current population/voting balance. 65% is 70.2 votes (ie 71) out of 108. This is just enough to prevent the DUP with 36 seats from exercising a veto on all progressive measures. It’s also enough to prevent any vote without the approval of Sinn Fein or the SDLP, or, put another way 30.19% of people (16 of 53 votes) who don’t designate as unionist.

    Even if Alliance and the Greens suddenly went rabid and voted with the unionists against the nationalists nothing could go through. The support of either the SDLP or SF would be needed as the United Community block only has 9 votes. I can’t conceive of what basis that would be on anyway as on every outstanding policy matter. On schools, P&J;, language act, even H-Blocks (given some reassurances about management independence) the UC position is closer to that of the Nationalist parties that Unionists.

    The current system protects DUP intransigence and Northern Ireland suffers more much more risk from conservative obstruction of progressive change abusing 40% of the unionist designation than it does the potential abuse of power by a 65% majority.

    The current system also undermines any claim to parity of esteem. When it comes to meeting a designation’s approval hurdle a unionist in Northern Ireland is currently worth 44/55ths of a nationalist and a liberal, a green, or Dr Kieran Deeney is worth nothing at all.

    Final thought. If the UUP does merge with the Conservatives and they do, as they announced they might, designate as “other” then the DUP, as near 100% of the unionist designation will have a veto on all legislation, no matter what their actual share of future assemblies.

  • perry

    More final thoughts;

    If we are sticking with designation does anyone kwow why if a piece of legislation needs 40% of each group it also needs 60% overall?

    If 40% of nationalists support a piece of legislation they’ll give it 18 votes. It’ll need another 37 (58% of the rest of the assembly) to pass by simple majority. If 40% of unionists support it (22 of their 55 combined votes) it needs 33 from the remaining 53. That’s 62% of the rest of the assembly.

    Surely if 40% of each designation supports something 51% overall should be enough. Do we really need more than non-unionists than 62% to be happy with something to justify the fact that only 40% of unionists are?

    Also – if unionists are happy with majority rule and the desigantion system is only a nationalist requirement to ensure their protection why do we need a unionist designation at all? Why isn’t it simply “Nationalist” and “Other”. We could have a first minister elected by majority vote and a deputy first minister elected by the nationalist designation. If through transferred allegiences a nationalist was elected by majority vote we wouldn’t need a deupty anyway as unionists are happy with majority rule.

    This could all be so much simpler if Unionists were just taken at their word!

  • perry

    “Why isn’t it simply “Nationalist” and “Other”.”

    In fact why not just Nationalist and undeclared.

  • runciter

    There is no level too low that the SDLP would not stoop to.

    What they wouldn’t stoop to is plotting with the DUP to hand a nationalist ministry to a unionist party.

    Unlike the wild speculation about Durkan’s comments, this is actually being done right now by SF.

    Strangely, the SF contributors on Slugger don’t want to discuss this matter.