Where next for our system of government

I have given my thoughts on the TUV’s defeat previously and will not dwell on that in great detail here. The negative parts of the campaign seem to have been rejected: certainly the anger with the DUP over the double jobbing, expenses etc. seems to have been played out by the European elections and with Peter Robinson acting as a lightening conductor.

The other negative aspects of the TUV’s message: namely the unacceptability of terrorists in government also seemed to have little effect. It is highly unlikely that unionists are delighted that Martin McGuinness is deputy first minister or that a convicted terrorist is Regional Development Minister, another one Junior Minister or that cheerleaders in chief are Agriculture and Education Ministers. However, unionists do not seem willing to upset the whole apple cart to stop this. There are a number of reasons for this which probably include the accurate assessment that if they refuse to share power with these individuals it is likely that devolved government will fall at least in the short term. In addition many do fear that a breakdown in the agreement might lead us back to violence. Jim Allister repeatedly stated people should not allow themselves to be blackmailed as well as conned but that message had inadequate traction.

I do not want to dwell on the negative messages but rather more positive and constructive criticisms of the current agreement as even if the TUV do vanish completely the simple fact is that our mechanism of government is far from ideal. Shaun Woodward did once suggest that we had the most successful form of government anywhere but we all know that was and is utter rubbish. Indeed when coalition government was mentioned to William Haig on BBC Radio 4 in the aftermath of the election he singled out the problems of vetoes etc. in Northern Ireland as an example of where a coalition should not go.

The problem of the mutual vetoes is a major one: it is necessary for reasons I will come to but it is by its very nature a recipe for governmental inaction. The veto does not prevent a minister making a negative decision, in the sense of stopping something: examples being Ruane’s ending of the 11 plus; Campbell and McCausland stopping the Maze shrine / stadium and stopping an Irish Language Act. A given minister can stop something themselves without any come back from the other parties: Ruane needed no support from the DUP or UUP to end the 11 plus just as McCausland needs no permission from SF or the SDLP to block the ILA. In that sense there is no real coalition and the individual ministers control their own fiefdoms as they chose obeying whatever sectional interest they wish: the sectarian carve up of power writ large. Sections 3 to 5 of the The Hillsbourough Agreement covered: Improving Executive Function and Delivery, Outstanding Executive Business and Outstanding Issues from St Andrews but there is no mention of tackling the issue of the mutual interlocking vetoes which hobbles the executive in making decisions on any remotely controversial issues.

The obvious solution which would stop this internal paralysis is of course to end the system of mutual vetoes: this would allow the system to speed up immeasurably and permit ministers to deliver the changes they felt were necessary. However, it would also instantly allow ministerial solo runs of the sort which were so destabilising to the initial Trimble / Mallon led executive. Furthermore for unionists the end of the veto would be an additional problem: as a simplification unionists generally want to preserve the structures currently in place as they mirror those in the rest of the UK. Republicans on the other hand want to change those structures to make them more akin to those in the RoI. Indeed an open part of the Sinn Fein agenda is to gradually make the structures and systems here in Northern Ireland more like those in the RoI, hence, gradually making the border less relevant and at the same time loosening the ties between GB and NI. Clearly therefore the mutual veto as it is currently constituted is generally of greater benefit to unionism than to nationalism / republicanism.

Clearly, however, for good governance it would be better not to have the veto and rather to have collective responsibility: that would then mean that the veto would not be necessary but rather that compromises would have to be arrived at over each issue as it came up and an agreed way forward established. Whilst there is nothing in the current arrangements per se to stop this happening, it is in effect almost impossible on any remotely controversial issue. Clearly part of the blame for this rests on the mutually contradictory desires of the parties in the coalition: Sinn Fein and the SDLP wish to make us part of the RoI and intend to move the situation towards that whilst the DUP and UUP wish to keep us part of the UK. In addition all the parties tend to try to keep their own constituencies happy and provide what they want. Whilst the material day to day desires of the working class republican in West Belfast may be similar to those of his or her unionist counterpart in East Belfast and indeed actually to the middle class unionist in North Antrim, there are enough significant differences to make many of the parties’ desires mutually contradictory.

A possible mechanism out of this bind might be to have parties forced to agree a programme for government with their partners. Currently of course that happens. However, since all the parties are, via d’Hondt, part of the executive (Alliance having abandoned its principled opposition once the trough was enlarged adequately for their snouts – or at least Ford’s) there is no reason to keep to the plan for government and no one to complain from the outside if they fail to meet their obligations. If there were an opposition it might be able to hold the parties to account and offer a more effective partner in government than one or both of the current main players. Clearly there is no guarantee that this would happen but an end to the carve up for all and instead the enforcing of the normal rules of government might make for more competent and responsive government.

Prior to the issue of David Ford’s snout and its need for the truffles of power, Alliance also decried the issue of the institutionalisation of sectarianism: it was consistent with their “Sectarianism Costs” line. They may still find the issue of the sectarian carve up distressing but Ford’s snout is too busy these days to worry excessively about it. However, the issue remains a problem. At the moment Alliance is in the “other” category within the assembly. However, if the “other” category grew then how could it be accommodated within the current system and without making provision for that how can a viable “other” grouping emerge? If the CU alliance had achieved what its supporters fantasies had wanted for it and attracted all those Catholic Unionist Unicorns (another three letter abbreviation for Ulster politics?) to become the dominant force in Northern Ireland’s politics; they surely would not have been happy being lumped in with the DUP as simply the unionist tribe. That fantasy (the CUU triumph) may have come to naught but a political system with as little flexibility as ours and with an institutionalised enforced coalition along sectarian lines with added mutual vetoes is a recipe for absolute inaction and an inability to respond to the needs of government or the governed.

Prior to the election the DUP had mentioned the possibility of an eventual end to mandatory coalition and indeed all the parties apart from Sinn Fein have openly suggested that the “ugly scaffolding” of the current agreement might need reform. It has even been suggested that Sinn Fein are not totally and irrevocably opposed to the idea of institutional reform prior to their goal of a united Ireland. Hence, now might be a time to begin to think seriously about changes. I suggested a little while ago that the DUP and UUP might be wise to think the unthinkable and suggest a voluntary coalition and agree maybe for a pre specified time to guarantee to have Sinn Fein as their coalition partners. If the DUP feel that they have banished for once and for all the danger from the TUV and to their right it might be sensible to offer radical reform. Since they are currently voluntarily willing to operate a mandatory coalition there would be little logical difference between that and agreeing voluntarily to take Sinn Fein as their coalition partners for a mandated period of time.

The overwhelming majority of people of all political persuasions here in northern Ireland now seem agreed that devolved power sharing government incorporating whichever representatives the other community elects is the future for the foreseeable future. However, it also seems fairly clear that the majority of people are far from impressed by the delivery of the current system of government: not enough to tear it all down; but few seem to echo Shaun Woodward’s claims (and no one surely thinks he actually meant it). Hence, now may be the time for imaginative ways forward and finding a way of actually delivering for all communities. At least a start could be made by everyone agreeing that the current system is far from ideal and that we can do better.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.