To save the Assembly, we’ve got to reform it – starting now

At the heart of the hurricane, people may be too excited to pay much attention to the wider political crisis lurking just round the corner. But people would be wrong. Collapse could be upon us as soon as next week, as Gerry Moriarity reminds us in the Irish Times:

What all the political protagonists must also consider are the implications if Robinson walks away or is forced to leave office, and they are serious. If Robinson stands down, then there will be seven days to appoint a new First Minister. However, the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister is a joint office: a DUP First Minister cannot take office without the agreement of Sinn Féin, and vice versa.
Were the current DUP deputy Nigel Dodds or some other potential candidate to become DUP leader and seek the First Minister post, does anyone seriously believe Sinn Féin would acquiesce to such an appointment without the DUP categorically first committing to the transfer of policing and justice powers?
Equally, if Robinson remains and still procrastinates on policing and justice, then Stormont might be a busted flush regardless – but in such a scenario both the DUP and Sinn Féin would have to shoulder blame.

Whatever their narrow political calculations, in their hearts all parties must feel horrified at the prospect of tossing away what has been achieved with such effort over 10, no 15 years. Because of the sectarian divide, the tragedy is that the wider public interest is denied full expression. The time has come to think seriously about structural reforms. A confusing political crisis four months before a general election is not be the best time for dispassionate thought, but it’s the only one we’ve got. In Northern Ireland politics, it was ever thus. No magic bullet exists but some reform could increase flexibility and reduce the muscle-bound momentum to deadlock that plagues the system. Urgent consideration of reform would concentrate the minds of politicians on the future, on what they’ve got to lose and throw up options for what they might have to gain. The clearest vision of an amended future remains the thesis of The Route to Stability?” by QUB’s Rick Wilford and Robin Wilson. This particular version of their thinking is a bit whiskery now but its analysis holds up pretty well.
The proposed reforms have the merit of addressing the analysis.

1. Recognition of Northern Ireland’s unique constitutional character
2. Reform of the electoral system to encourage parties to moderate their identities
3. Removal of the requirement for Northern Ireland Assembly members to register their communal affiliation
4. Formation of the Executive by inter-party agreement rather than automatic appointment

For my own part, I’m sceptical about joint sovereignty as a Solomon’s judgement and about what electoral reform would really deliver. A clinching argument against radical reform is the great risk of losing the undoubted gains of the past decade. Better to go for something incremental like items 3 and 4. The end of the rigid designations already enjoy some support in all parties except Sinn Fein. But what have Sinn Fein to fear when they’re odds on to remain the largest nationalist party – if not to become the largest party overall?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London