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.

  • Framer

    And individual ministers can’t legislate to go backwards luckily. So that in 50 years time Northern Ireland will be unchanged from today.

    As if it was the 1950s now!

    Wonderful for the DUP in 2060.

  • Greenflag

    ‘At least a start could be made by everyone agreeing that the current system is far from ideal and that we can do better.’

    Of course NI can do better as a democracy but it would first include disbanding the NI State as it presently exists .

    The NI voters are way ahead of you Turgon . They know and understand that the government of NI is effectively Westminster and that the local talking shop Assembly is just there for cosmetic purposes and to keep the natives from killing or eating each other by returning to widespread conflict .

    Just get used to it . Don’t expect too much and you won;t be disappointed . Any prospective ‘unionist ‘ unity in order to stave off or postpone NI having an SF First Minister will only result in de facto political unity from the other side .Basic physics at work .

    Meanwhile get used to the ugly scaffolding -it’s not going away for another generation or two anyway.

  • Driftwood

    It is quite clear that Ian Paisley Jnr and all the non-SF elected MP’s were delighted to be going to Westminster.
    Robinson was gutted not to be going to sit with the big boys and girls.
    The little talking shop at Stormont has nowhere near the kudos of London. Few people even knew or cared when the ‘Executive’ didn’t meet for nearly a year.
    The majority of people I know will, like me, probably not bother to vote in the parochial election in March next year.
    Because it simply doesn’t make the slightest difference to them or me.

  • alan56

    Is it true that Michael McGimpsey offered to be the unity candidate in South Belfast at the election?

  • joeCanuck

    Where next for you Turgon?

  • DJ Horatio

    Is it true that Michael McGimpsey offered to be the unity candidate in South Belfast at the election?

    No, it was Jimmy Spratt who tried that one.

  • Kevin Barry

    I think that SF’s being somewhat less than keen for a change to change at Stormont to voluntary coalition is pretty obvious; they’re afraid that everyone will gang up and keep them from government.

    Do you not think that Margaret Ritchie and the likes of Alastair McDonnell would love nothing more than to keep SF out of power?

    It’s nice to want the end to sectarian politics and for people to start focusing on bread and butter issues, however, as FST showed us all, we are quite some time away from people behaving like adults.

    It’s obvious that some kind of genuine opposition is required in order to keep people honest and to help generate new ideas on how to govern NI rather than hving a broad consensus; perhaps a mandatory coalition of the two largest parties from either side? It may be a stepping stone to voluntary coalitions and allow the parties time to get used to regular rather than constitutional issues and also show each side that they have got past the simple sectarian head count

  • braniel unionist

    well, this time i voted for david vance! but i have to agree with turgon, the tuv message was too negative and although they couldnt be blamed for any return to the bad old days, that, unfortunately, in the eyes of many would have been the practical effect;

    in my opinon, the message was too ‘holier than thou’ in a regretably secular, permissive and liberal northern ireland, but if the party were to rebrand as a vehicle to deliver ‘proper’ democratic government thru the right to form an opposition, it’s days then may not be numbered, at least they could be sure of around 30 council seats plus a handful of mla’s

    but, in all honesty, i think there are only 3 possible ways forward for unionism in general;-

    (a) united unionism

    (b) equal citizenship

    or (c) preferably, in my view, a combination of both with united unionist candidates given licence to describe themselves as conservative-unionist OR labour-unionist……..now there’s an original idea! a.c.

  • “regretably secular, permissive and liberal northern ireland,”

    err exactly what’s wrong with a permissive and secular society?

  • Kevin Barry

    Sorry Braniel, could you speak up, I couldn’t hear you there from all the way back in the 50s

  • RepublicanStones

    well, this time i voted for david vance!

    Somebody had to I suppose.

  • braniel unionist

    at least his website is fair and balanced!

  • braniel unionist

    err, cos i am a pro-christian conservative!

  • braniel unionist

    ……and your name means you are from the twenties!

  • Kevin Barry

    Oh, good come back Braniel. I’m a child of the 80s myself whose views are somewhat more progressive than yours, as it would seem.

    So are you arguing that the separation of church and state is a bad idea seeing as you don’t like this somewhat more secular world we live in, or am I being too harsh and think that you would rather a return to ‘family values’ and people going to church as the way to solve some of society’s woes?

    Also, I’m intrigued; what do you mean by option B – ‘Equal Citizenship’?

  • RepublicanStones

    Yeah so long as you’re not a muslim.

  • braniel unionist

    kevin, if u read my comments you will see that i considered it a mistake for tuv to take a ‘holier than thou’ approach on what is morally wrong and what is politically right,especially as people like me havn’t been to any church in umteen years, but i do believe that it is possible to be too extreme on many sides including the liberal-secular left;

    my definition of equal citizenship would be an extension of reg empey’s project to the point where citizens in any part of the kingdom have the chance to vote for a party of national government;

  • Kevin Barry

    Thanks Braniel; have been reading your comments, hence the replies.

    It’s an interesting idea of equal citizenship, though we saw from the previous election that the electorate roundly rejected it. As the issue has been taken up in detail on other threads here on Slugger, I will not get into why this proved to be unsuccessful.

    All politics being local, people in the unionist community seemingly decided that it was better to put their lot with the DUP, an Ulster nationalist party, than with someone who would most likely be at the table deciding on the budget cuts to come into effect.

    What I will say is that though I am a nationalist, I thought the idea Reg et al had was a good one and can see how it would appeal to many but it was delivered so incompetently that they became laughable. The Unionist pact in FST and the will they, won’t they with S. Belfast took time away from the party delivering their message, put many of the supposedly massive Catholic Unionist vote off and shown that things hadn’t really changed, that it was still a religious sectarian head count for many.

  • Kevin Barry

    Apologies, I should have said I will not get into it in too much detail

  • the problem was that although we could vote conservative/unionist it still isn’t possible to be unionist AND labour!

  • Bulmer


    You articles are always worth reading but you are putting a new spin on the same argument the electorate rejected, that the GFA is flawed. I suspect you read too much Van Daniken as a youth. He loved to jump to conclusions based on no logic other than he wanted it to be true.

    However much you might wish and hope that the unionist populace will rise up and denounce the GFA, they won’t anytime soon. Thanks to the Real IRA everyone has a reminder of what the past was like. Nobody with any sense (and I suspect you have more than Allister ever had) wants that route.

    So move on. Not breaking up the GFA but thinking ideas to ignite the populace. We live in a very unequal society with too many living pretty miserable lives. Whilst Braniel Unionist is stuck in a time warp (and I remember Belfast’s old Sundays only too well) we have lost far to much of our sense of community and belonging.

    How do we manage to bring those positive aspects of the past back without all the sectarian nonsense. How do we make Ulster pay its way without increasing inequality of wealth?

    Or is it just too easy saying No all the time without thinking were do we go next?

  • Bulmer

    Agree with Braniel Unionist, the lack of political options on the Unionst side is a turn off. But would BU want to vote for centre left unionist party id he/she voted TUV…some journey!

  • Greenflag

    If you don’t know where you are going you will end up somewhere else .

    Unionism will end up somewhere else but exactly where is the question ? It can’t go back to the 1950’s -the nationalist community won’t stand for it – it doesn’t like the present – the nationalists don’t care -they’ ve become long since inured to accepting a regime they did’nt approve of -and not for just a decade but for half a century – and theres not much hope for it’s future not within the present NI State anyway .

    Whither ‘unionism ‘ then ? It needs to reinvent itself but political creativity has never been a strong point in ‘unionist’ politics . The last great departure in political creativity was Paisley’s DUP and if anyone compares the then 1980’s or earlier of that party and the now 2010 actual practice of that party then one can see the inevitable Hobson’s choice which any ‘unionist’ party is faced with .

    It’s a no win situation – just an everlasting lose – and political death by a thousand cuts over several generations . Not a g desirable place from which to begin the innovation required to regrow the NI economy or indeed any economy .

  • “disbanding the NI state as it presently exists” is merely shinner speak for deviating from the power sharing status quo.

    When looked in that light, it won’t really take a generation or two.

  • “and theres not much hope for it’s future not within the present NI State anyway.”

    explaination required.

  • braniel unionist

    bulmer. TUV ‘neo-conservative’ economic policy was another error of judgement in my view eg flat rate of tax, no reference to domestic rates or water charges, too much about the national debt but no mention of the record level of private debt, repossessions, personal and business bankrupts etc, i think naomi tapped into the old NILP-type vote which david bleakley used to represent, personally i’m thinking of standing as a UNIONIST-LABOUR candidate myself, it’s the one missing link over here at the moment, i mean if the glasgow rangers supporters in scotland can bring themselves to vote scottish labour why could it not be possible for NI unionists to vote labour-unionist some day?

  • Kevin Barry

    Fair enough Braniel, but is that not a problem for Unionism in general that someone hasn’t decided to form a party allied solely to Labour and it’s policies? I am sure there is an appetite for a left wing rather than a populist party in Unionism that would be able to call on a large amount of voters, but if parties in England, Wales and Scotland don’t want to set up shop here that’s their choice.

    One of the reasons that Labour won’t set up here is that they wish to remain somewhat impartial and not get mired in constitutional politics, another is that the party is perceived/is sympathetic to the nationalist cause.

    I think that if you want to get a labour and unionist party to vote for it’s going to have to be started from within unionism, rather than waiting on Labour coming to NI.

  • Kevin Barry

    You know Greenflag, I’m a nationalist who looks upon unionism and sees someone with a rather strong hand playing it really poorly.

    For them, I do not necessarily see all being lost but if you look at threads on this website you would think that all was the opposite.

    The call for unionist unity, the continuing destruction of the UU and the emergence of the TUV and it taking masses of inches in the local press all points to a kind of politics more a kin to the left wing parties on the continent constantly fighting amongst themselves.

    Having quite a few friends who would consider themselves unionists, I’m pretty certain none of them found what was on offer appealing. Granted, my friends live in S Belfast and would have to vote back in the sticks but none of them did, while my nationalist friends did. Now maybe my unionist friends didn’t want to make a deal out of voting to me for fear of offence or rocking the boat but what may be more worrying and what BU has touched on is that they don’t have a choice that they like?

  • braniel unionist

    I think that if you want to get a labour and unionist party to vote for it’s going to have to be started from within unionism, rather than waiting on Labour coming to NI.

    agreed, precisely the point i was making kevin but it wont work if the UCUNF project disappears,

    also, as someone who is ‘socially conservative’ i dont think all things political can fit easily into neat boxes so unionist-labour would not nessessarily be to the left!