Has Robinson just upped the ante on policing and justice?

Years ago when using a creative story building technique – having got them to set the time, the date, the place where the story began and the main character – I asked an audience of feisty Bristol teenagers: what happens next? Someone shouted out “He dies!”

There was a gale of loud laughter. But, as the technique dictates, I carried on asking, and the story continued with the main character’s rampage through the afterlife. Nothing is ever as final as it seems.

Even in Stormont. The context for Peter Robinson’s speech at Evolve yesterday is complicated. But early on he got to the core of the problem facing him and his companion in Stormont Castle:

…there is undoubtedly an important job to be done to persuade people of the real benefits of devolution and the dangers of Direct Rule. Those who are opposed to devolution seek to exploit the imperfections of the present system. They are content to curse the darkness and offer no alternative achievable strategy.

The problem for both Robinson and McGuinness is that the public perception is that neither of them appear to have a workable strategy either.

With the promise of a new paper from the DUP on Devolution we appear to be back at January 2004, when they last published their terms for suing for a settlement. The only difference being everyone is inside the Stormont tent, albeit twiddling their thumbs.

Yet, having invested so heavily in these institutions (and having no other game they can conceivably play), neither is likely to walk away from what they hold (despite all the huffery and puffery).For the record, here’s his pitch for reform:

As a moral and practical matter community designation is fundamentally flawed. It is deeply undemocratic, it entrenches community division and hinders the development of normal politics in Northern Ireland and in practice means that the votes of all Assembly Members are not equal. While in its initial months the designation provision was seen as a way of safeguarding either section of our community against harmful decisions promoted by the other it is clear there are other ways to provide community protection without being faced with the negative off-spin.

In place of community designation we propose the introduction of weighted majority voting. Where a cross-community vote is required by legislation or triggered by a petition of concern a proposal would require the support of 65% of Assembly Members present and voting to pass.

65% of Assembly Members present and voting would mean that to be passed any proposal would need to have widespread support across the community, but would not permit a small minority to frustrate the will of what would be a strong cross-community majority. It would mean that no single political party would have the capacity to block proposals which otherwise could command widespread support.

And crucially 65% would allow various combinations of parties to form a coalition to pass a particular proposal. This would increase the relevance of all Assembly Members and would encourage co-operation and compromise between the parties. No single party could then hold others to ransom as their approval was not required for a proposal to pass.

Different coalitions could be formed on different issues to provide the required majority. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP alone would have a veto but support from both sections of the community would still be required.

That puts the First Minister on the same ground as the un-designated parties. And, not that far from that of Jim Allister. It should be remembered that Allister pulled significant transfers from people who gave their early preferences from the liberal middle ground parties.

His substantive argument was that mandatory coalition does not give people a meaningful democratic choice.

So is it a bargaining chip for policing and justice? This morning in his first interview on GMU since he became First Minister [Hmmm… not selling the Agreement – ed], he said not. In his speech at Evolve:

Changing the voting system cannot be done overnight but I would like to see a different approach taken to decision-making at the Executive as soon as possible.

You might also say that getting devolution of Policing and Justice won’t be done overnight… (even though Robinson earlier in his speech admitted that the powers accorded to any new Justice Minister won’t add up to operational control)…

But in two years, between the chuckling and the icy silences and internal miscommunication, we have stasis in Stormont Castle. This looks distinctly like an upping of the ante.

The old hacks of the NI Press corps where there yesterday, dutifully taking notes, knowing that the real game of politics is going on across the border and over the water. In the meantime, it would appear, we’re back to what our current political leadership do best: talks about doing government rather than getting on with the legislative business now piling up before them.

Processing? is back in town…

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  • igor

    The fundamental issue is that there isnt yet a settlement. We have agreed on the outer design of the house – not on the internal p=lumbing and what goes on inside.

    This is just NI politics 2.0. The DUPs are out-Shinnering the Shinenrs again. If they want P&J what price will they pay?

    Majority voting?

    Catriona Ruane’s Head on a plate?

    From the DUP standpoint what is the downside. SF have nowhere to go. Walk away and resume violence? Assume that a new conservative UK Government will be as ‘supportive’ as their friends in labour?

    The risks for the Shinners (personal and politcial) are much higher. Robbo is simply playing poker with a strong hand.

  • kensei


    It should be remembered that Allister pulled significant transfers from people who gave their early preferences from the liberal middle ground parties. His substantive argument was that mandatory coalition does not give people a meaningful democratic choice.

    Bollocks. Euro election where any transfers from taht direction were strongly credited to his previous representation in Europe. Go back and pull me even one quote at the time linking the performance of Allister tto Assembly designation or shut the fuck up, Mick.

  • Coll Ciotach

    If there is no designation how does he paln to measure cross community support?

  • DC

    “Go back and pull me even one quote at the time linking the performance of Allister tto Assembly designation or shut the fuck up, Mick.”

    Blistering. You and Peter Robinson would get on like a house on fire, perhaps therein lies the governance problem: style.

  • A speech about devolution and its effects, from a ‘unionist’, which gives no consideration to the health of the Union under devolved settlements.

  • danielmoran

    yes, mick. both robinson and mcguiness have painted themselves into their respective corners, and whether either of them actually pulls the plug, depends maybe on whether they’ve been reading their private polling recently. it can’t be too healthy for either of them,

  • Ian

    When agreeing to the cross-border bodies, Unionists made great play of the fact that they would have a veto on any decisions taken at the North-South Ministerial Council, as a Unionist (and Nationalist) minister is required to be present at all NMSC meetings. Surely by ending the designation system, that ‘safeguard’ will be compromised?

    Incidentally, on the subject of cross-border bodies, if SF/SDLP were to agree an end to designation and/or a reduction in the number of MLAs and/or ministers, they should in return be asking the Unionists to agree to an increase in the number of areas of north-south cooperation/implementation bodies. Surely if the principle of mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation has been accepted in principle, then it should apply more broadly than the arbitrary 12 policy areas that were originally agreed under the GFA?

  • kensei


    Or perhaps those bodies should have more teeth. They have not done an awful lot as yet. The price of Nationalist acceptance of the Northern state was a veto on what goes on it. Thus if Unionism really wants to move on gettign rid fo the veto, then it needs to ask what it might sacrifice cosntitutionally.

    But that’s about the worse most panic reaction inducing thing it has to think about so chances are zip. So we run round in circles. It is about as useful as the SDLP calling for a conference or a United Ireland. Yeah, that’ll do it.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    If Robbo dithers unduly on Police then Stormo will inevitably fall and the DUP will be in a damaging three way fight at whatever election(s) follow. SF will benefit electorally (North and South) from having compromised (according to the SLDP they have compromised too much) in an attempt to reconcile instransigent Unionism with the GFA.

    To answer Mick’s question – is Robbo upping the ante? No. Just a bit of pre-season posturing – TBC tomorrow.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Sammy, if there is no Stormont then on what basis can Jim Allister compete with the DUP for votes ?

    If SF benefit electorally from a collapse in Stormont, that presumably means you think that they have a mandate for walking out, so why have they not done it yet ?

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    Q1. North Antrim and probably a couple of others.

    Q2. Since last November the process, with DUP and SF agreement, has been moving forward – as it still is, with negotiations with the Englezes on finance and with the Alliance party on the structure of the ministry – Robbo is currently supplying the necessaries as expected and there is no reason for SF to walk.

    If Robbo loses his nerve now then that simply indicates the weakness of his position because of the TUV threat.

  • Comrade Stalin


    Q1. I asked what basis, not what seats. Jim’s big idea is bringing down the assembly. If it’s already down then what will his message to the electorate be ?

    Q2. You said above that the SF mandate would increase if SF walked out of the executive. Given that SF were very insistent that their May 2008 deadline was a dealbreaker, why did they not walk out then, blame it on the unionists, and reap the extra votes ?

  • Comrade Stalin


    I pondered this a bit further. You think that SF would be supported by their voters if they walked out in the face of unionist intransigence. Fair enough.

    But let’s go back to May 2008. Since SF did not walk out then, by your logic, does that mean that SF believed that their electorate would not have backed a walkout under the circumstances ? In other words, did the SF electorate believe that the May 2008 was non-binding on the unionists ? This is the exact opposite of what SF were saying in public.