So Peter is moving on this at last. What’s not clear is his next move other than into thin air. Cutting the sizes of the overblown Assembly and Executive is an appropriate aim with additional political motives. It follows on the proposed reduction of Westminster seats and Stormont constituencies to 15 and the reduction by one of the MLAs in each constituency. Peter’s timing suggests he has given up on getting agreement with SF and the other parties behind the scenes. Or did he seriously try? Is he hoping that the rumbles of support for Assembly reform from Owen Paterson will bear fruit in that quarter? Not without dealing with SF’s veto they won’t. So far going public had met with Martin’s straight rebuff , well short of outright rejection. This was Open Unionism’s assessment of reform last month.
However what is undeniably true is that a 72-member Assembly would decimate the UUP and SDLP, possibly to the point of destruction. The fact that doing so would fill a mere £5 million of the black hole in public finances that the UUP estimate to be £1.7 billion and the SDLP £2 billion, is one that is never publicised and as a result the debate is hideously ill informed. It also does not throw a flattering light on the First Minister’s intentions.
Such cuts would raise other big questions. Do they increase pressures to convert the unionist and nationalist blocs into single parties? If so, can they be resisted? How can fewer MLAs be reconciled with Peter’s vision of an eventual “voluntary coalition” other than with Sinn Fein? And what does SF have to lose that explains their objections other than to the “solo run” itself? I look forward to D’Hondt and constituency analyses from the anoracks.
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