The stated policy of all the unionist parties is to move from the current status of mandatory coalition under D’Hondt to one of voluntary coalition. There are perceived to be enormous advantages to having a more normalised system of government with proper power sharing within the confines of a cabinet with collective responsibility. Collective responsibility is almost impossible to ensure with the current system as there is no real disincentive for a party to disagree with its coalition partners as those partners cannot, short of collapsing the whole agreement, take any major sanction against the party which is failing to abide by collective responsibility.
The only way for solo runs to be minimised (though by no means prevented) is for the parties to have mutual interlocking vetoes. This cumbersome system is essential to keep the whole system going yet it also prevents any form of genuine progress within government here and preserves as in aspic the current animosities, forever played out within the confines of one of the most dysfunctional governments imaginable. This state of affairs may be acceptable to some but as noted above all three unionist parties have proclaimed a wish eventually to move towards voluntary coalition.
The TUV propose achieving this by collapsing the whole agreement and renegotiating a new one. The DUP (and CUs) on the other hand have not agreed to this strategy and seem somewhat unclear on how to achieve this. Taking them at their own logic, however, there is a possible mechanism by which voluntary coalition could be achieved: with Sinn Fein as their coalition partner.
I have discussed Voluntary Coalition previously but briefly to recap:
If we had voluntary coalition and collective responsibility it would then be the responsibility of the governmental parties to bring forward a common agreed programme for government: something which has been far from true thus far. Fudging important issues and ignoring them would become much more difficult, and if they were fudged, the prospect of defeat at a further election would face the governmental parties. Hence, decisions on these issues could not be kicked into the long grass: yet the issues themselves used as sticks to beat the other party in government; as they are now.
As an example there would have to be a proper compromise over academic selection. That compromise very probably would not be entirely to the liking of Catriona Ruane and she would have to accept the compromise or be replaced. Equally, however, it would be most unlikely to be exactly what Mervyn Storey wants either. Furthermore it would mean that elected politicians would be making the decisions rather than as now, where Boards of Governors and the like are de facto made into the decision makers simply because no one else will organise a proper system.
If a compromise on academic selection would be likely to be more in keeping with the wishes of the unionist parties than the current stated (and completely flouted) Department of Education position there are other areas where nationalism might expect to gain. Nationalists could make progress on the Irish Language Act a precondition of entering into government.
There are of course enormous problems with voluntary coalition and most specifically persuading nationalists and republicans to enter into any such arrangement. Voluntary coalition cannot simply be seen by unionists as a panacea unless nationalists are prepared to play the roll of collective Uncle Tom’s: something which would automatically consign the nationalist party in question to political oblivion at the next election.
Furthermore Sinn Fein have tended to view any and all suggestions regarding voluntary coalition as devices to keep them out of government. Whatever the benefits of voluntary coalition they ring extremely hollow for Sinn Fein as they always sound like a tactic to remove their hands from the levers of power in Northern Ireland.
The TUV have clearly stated that they would not be willing to enter into power sharing with Sinn Fein and as such their view of voluntary coalition does not involve Sinn Fein unless they (the TUV) are outside that government. However, the other two unionist parties have entered into power sharing though mandatory coalition. It might now be time, if the DUP or UUP are serious about trying to change the system, to propose voluntary coalition and explicitly state that they would go into such a voluntary coalition with Sinn Fein for at least a certain period. Such a move might reassure republicans that unionist demands for voluntary coalition are not simply a more sophisticated variation on the No republicans about the place or even No fenians about the place mantra which unionists are often accused of secretly harbouring.
Such a change might well lead to better government as it might then allow for a proper cabinet government to emerge. In addition it would also likely produce a real opposition with potentially a UUP and SDLP (and after the next election TUV) in genuine opposition rather than their current semi detached status. Such a period of opposition might even help the UUP and SDLP to produce a credible strategy for regaining their previous places as the lead parties in their respective communities or even if (by chance) the CU project works producing a real cross community party which could move beyond the current confines of the designation system.
Since the DUP and UUP have demonstrated by their actions that they are not in principle opposed to Sinn Fein in government it would at least be honest to state publicly that they would accept Sinn Fein as partners in a voluntary coalition. Such a position would then at least potentially allow for a more efficient form of government.
There are clearly potential problems: Sinn Fein might not accept the bone fides of the unionist party(ies) in question. Hence, some sort of system might have to be devised to ensure that at least for a time Sinn Fein could not be involuntarily removed from the executive.
Furthermore if the DUP be willing to enter into voluntary coalition with Sinn Fein would face the wrath of the TUV and probably the UUP for so doing. Whilst the TUV opposition would be legitimate, that of the UUP would seem somewhat more synthetic seeing as they had previously been in mandatory coalition with SF. Sinn Fein might of course be unwilling to play ball with this in view of their oft stated proclamation that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity. However, if a unionist party stated that it demanded voluntary coalition and would share power with Sinn Fein, the lure of power might be too much to resist, coupled as it would be with a further opportunity for Sinn Fein to gain power and respectability which might help it in the Republic of Ireland.
These options are complex and extremely high risk for the unionist party in question. However, in principle the DUP and UUP have accepted the idea of remaining in government themselves with Sinn Fein. Hence, to use the cloak of mandatory coalition as a veneer to hide their willingness to be in power sharing with Sinn Fein is somewhat disingenuous. If they truly believe that voluntary coalition devolution is the way forward for Northern Ireland it is possibly time for one or both of them to at least propose putting their policy where their mouth is. Whilst the TUV would clearly oppose them at least their honesty would have to be noted.