Sam McBride, the political editor of the News Letter has an interesting article covering an interview with UUP Chief Whip Fred Cobain. Cobain is a trade unionist and a former member of the NI Labour Party which might sort of make him a civic unionist of a generation or more ago. In his interview, however, he suggests that the UUP should break the link with the Conservative Party unless they help change the St Andrew’s legislation to ensure that the largest party of the largest designation rather than merely the largest party forms chooses the first minister. If the Tories fail to do this Cobain argues that the UUP would be justified in entering a pact with the DUP: presumably in order to prevent a Sinn Fein first minister.
This suggestion has earned Cobain criticism from Basil McCrea (the sort of current darling of civic unionism) who accused him of “Dancing to the DUP’s tune.”
There are several layers of contradiction for all the parties in this.
The concept that parties have a designation is of course, in and of itself, pretty sectarian: we do not simply have representatives at Stormont; they are unionist, nationalist or other. As such getting away from the biggest party of the biggest designation to simply the biggest party as a mechanism of deciding the First Minister might be a move away from sectarianism. However, such is the nature of Northern Ireland’s politics that that is exactly the opposite of what will probably happen. Instead the need to maximise the chances of a unionist being first minister will almost certainly be used by the DUP to try to maximise their vote, which will of course hurt the UUP. In the case of the nationalist community it is more than likely that the same logic will pertain which will benefit Sinn Fein at the expense of the SDLP.
Hence the removal of the sectarian system by which the largest party of the largest designation chooses the First Minister will benefit those parties seen to be more hard line within their respective communities (though the difference between the UUP and DUP is of course not vast these days).
As Cobain suggests of the removal of the designation system:
“In real terms, this issue has the potential to turn every Assembly election into a sectarian head count, as it will inevitably form the crux of certain
political parties’ election campaigns.”
Cobain says that the UUP have already met the RoI government and is keen to work with the SDLP to overturn the system:
“It is vital that other parties in Northern Ireland support and actively promote a return to the system established under the Belfast Agreement for, if they do not, they too will suffer at the hands of one of the most potentially polarising elections of recent times.”
The only party to have consistently supported the UUP’s line on this matter is the TUV and Jim Allister has again pointed out (PDF file) that it was the DUP who helped make these changes for what looks extremely likely to have been political self advantage.
An SDLP spokesman said: “The SDLP has always been vigilant and never
selective about the protection of the Good Friday Agreement as it was endorsed by the people of Ireland, north and south.
“We have warned continuously about tinkering with the Agreement and we
voiced our concerns at the time when changes were made to the appointment process of a first and deputy first minister.
“It remains the SDLP position that the procedures outlined in the Good Friday Agreement remain the most appropriate method of appointment.”
If the Conservatives do support the change back to the Belfast Agreement mechanism for choosing the First Minister they will be denounced as being sectarian by Sinn Fein. The DUP may have mixed feelings as they would have the spectre of being largely to blame for a Sinn Fein First minister removed, yet would loose a significant rallying call to increase their vote at an election where they might loose at least a few seats to Tom Elliott’s UUP.
Of course what this problem really illustrates is the utterly ineffective and inefficient system of government with mandatory coalition with which we are saddled. In a voluntary coalition there would be flexibility where the parties would have to agree who was to be First Minister. That mandatory coalition system was of course originally agreed by the UUP and SDLP. As the final irony in all this: the First and Deputy First Ministers are of course in actual fact coequal.