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 gale of loud laughter. But, as the technique dictates, I carried on asking, and the story continue with the main character’s rampage through the after life. 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…