Radical Assembly reform. Going through the motions?

“The costs of division remain far too high”.  Not a bad reason for wanting a shared society but not the best either.  The new Secretary of State Theresa Villiers’ speech to the Conservative party conference was squeezed into a slot along with the other territorial cabinet ministers. Corporation tax had not actually been removed from the agenda and  oh yes, there was Assembly reform.  Good cause but is anybody actually interested?

As politics in Northern Ireland move forward, it’s only right that we look at how the devolved institutions might be made more effective. So we’ve been consulting on issues such as the size of the Assembly and ending dual mandates – and make no mistake, we will end dual mandates and double jobbing.

“We’ve also used this process to give people the chance to have their say on whether, over time, we could move to a more normal system which allows for a government and an opposition.”

The set of functional questions is important  – on a smaller Assembly and a  smaller Executive, the phasing of upcoming elections and the implications of Westminster constituency boundary changes (now unlikely to happen). But the final, key question is framed as a structural change:

 

Do you think the Assembly would operate more effectively with a

system which provides for a government and an effective opposition? If

so, how can this system best be achieved?

By ending the misnamed “ compulsory ” all party coalition, is one obvious answer.

The consultation fails to come out and ask openly: “Do you think that the community designations should be replaced by a weighted majority of X per cent?”

It leaves it up to the minor parties and perhaps Platform for Change to frame the more radical answer.

Can you imagine a British government minister talking about Scotland or even Wales like this? Their governments would be more likely to seize the reform initiative for Westminster to react to. The tone towards Stormont is one for the naughty children, maybe deservedly.  And yet there’s a sense of Westminster going through the motions, not really intending to move at all, without full hearted Assembly approval.  And that means cross community consent from the DUP and Sinn Fein. Can you see that happening?

The NIO consultation ends on 23 October. The tension is unbearable.

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  • Alone and Easy Target

    “[W}ithout full hearted Assembly approval” being the main barrier to anything that resembles a modern democratic government. But of course the NI Assembly has its committee/talking shop to look at possible tinkering of the institutions. I cannot wait for their submission but I forsee something along the lines of “we’re happy with the current arrangement”.

    An opposition of any shape or form would be one step to creating some scrutiny of government which results in better decisions being made. Shame the SDLP, UUP and Alliance are comfortable eating scraps from the executive table.

  • Obelisk

    “An opposition of any shape or form would be one step to creating some scrutiny of government which results in better decisions being made”

    Sure don’t we have Jim Allister up there for that?

    In all seriousness though there is little appetite for major reform of the Assembly among the major parties. The designation system simply provides too strong an incentive for tribal voting. Remember the scare mongering the DUP used during the last Assembly election when they seemed to imply the position of First Minister itself was at risk?

    And I am under no illusions that if the position truly becomes contested Sinn Fein will be out in front encouraging a vote for themselves to take the number one spot.

    As for mandatory coalition ending I always get a little suspicious when this is brought up. How can you guarantee to me that ‘mandatory coalition’ ending isn’t code for a big Unionist party and a smaller Nationalist party coming together, providing a fig-leaf of cross-community support but excluding the majority Nationalist party and hence the votes of most Nationalists? (Or vice-versa in a few cycles, you never know).

    Of course the smaller Nationalist party would be annhilated in the next round of elections as smaller parties in coalitions usually are and that is without the bigger (and hiterto EXCLUDED) party hammering them as traitors of a sort who sold their tribe down the river and helped enact unpopular policies all for the leavings of a bit of power.

    Only way it would work would a be a convention the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties should form the government, but that would be mandatory in all but name wouldn’t it? Most stable form though.

    No. They’ll talk the good talk, but it’s not in the interests of the Folks on the Hill to change. It’s not in the interests of the people across the water to force change. The only change they might conceivably agree upon is a reduction in the size of the legislature but not it’s nature.

    The status quo wins out and the ugly scaffolding will remain for the foreseeable future, as unnatural as it is. And so Mr, Walker is right. All it is, is going through the motions.

  • iluvni

    Did I really hear a question to the Culture Minister today about the production of Irish and Ulster-Scots dictionaries?

    More money squandered.

  • Alone and Easy Target

    “As for mandatory coalition ending I always get a little suspicious when this is brought up. How can you guarantee to me that ‘mandatory coalition’ ending isn’t code for a big Unionist party and a smaller Nationalist party coming together, providing a fig-leaf of cross-community support but excluding the majority Nationalist party and hence the votes of most Nationalists? (Or vice-versa in a few cycles, you never know).”

    It is what it is. You get parties (weighted majority or otherwise) with the gumption to form a government – get their budget passed and judge them on implementation. 4/5 years down the line you decide at the ballot box who deserves to be returned.

    The main problem is that the five major parties now see it as their right to be at the executive table. That is a flaw.

    How can a supposedly marxist flavoured political party rule a centre-right/right wing party? In purely political terms it should be pretty impossible to form a government/programme for government/agree a budget.

  • Alone and Easy Target

    iluvni

    Next thing it will be money to fund MLAs to fly to the warm beaches of Latin America…….actually….hang on…..

  • Neil

    Did I really hear a question to the Culture Minister today about the production of Irish and Ulster-Scots dictionaries?

    More money squandered.

    I would doubt that the Culture Minister is worried about spending much on Irish dictionaries. You can pick one up for about three quid, but she’d leave the heavy lifting to the big boys at Oxford or Collins Dictionaries.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pocket-Oxford-Irish-Dictionary-Irish-English/dp/0198602545/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1349810340&sr=1-2

    One possibility would be that the largest party from each designation should have a veto. Then whenever they feel they have to they can torpedo legislation and as you say reap the consequences at the ballot box.

    But we all know for the DUP and SF that would be an example of turkeys voting for Christmas. They have the game fairly well cornered until some change comes along. Be it this or a radical shift from the other parties. But I do sense that by and large people are fairly fed up with the performance of Stormont.

    Photo ops, photo ops and more photo ops.

  • iluvni

    I see they are still at their futile debate. Mitchell McLaughlin has just said ‘quantum’.
    Expect them to be all over the media tomorrow letting us all know how late they worked.

  • BluesJazz

    Rubberstamping the real government legislation. I wonder if our mp’s at the real parliament treat stormont even remotley seriously. Especially Gregory.

  • iluvni

    Its been fascinating to watch. This should be live on BBC1. Only then will the people of NI appreciate just how dire these people are.
    Has anyone who voted for Sammy Douglas ever heard him speak?

  • weidm7

    Who says we’re ready for a ‘normal’ government? Does anyone think that NI society has rid itself of sectarianism and tribalism? Does anyone really trust the parties to rule the place in an egalitarian way? I certainly don’t, so I for one am delighted with the stagnant nature of the stormont executive. It takes time for divided societies to heal and we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the next 10 odd years if there comes a CNR-background majority, I hate to stop people engaging in their favourite pastime of complaining, but maybe we get a bit realistic here?

    This line: ‘Can you imagine a British government minister talking about Scotland or even Wales like this?’

    No, cause NI isn’t Scotland or Wales, it’s NI, hence NI-specific institutions. Sorry, but were you around any of the last 30-40 years or further back?

  • Lionel Hutz

    What is it that people admire so much about the Westminster system that they would want it here? Oppositions are a farce. Listen to Ed Miliband to find that out. All that happens in that style of system is that 10% of a country or so are flakey and after one party messes up, they just wait four or five years for these flakes to forget about it.

    People here need to realise the power of their votes. A few seats here or there can change the entire make up of government.

    There is only one practical change that I would make to our system. Parties should be required list their order of preference for the departments under D’Hondt. Then we would have a vote on the issue or issues that matter most. If both Sinn Fein and the SDLP put education as the top for example, would unionists vote for SDLP to remove Sinn Fein. That certainly would have been possible in Ruane’s day. Im sure many Nationalists would have voted to keep Nelson McCausland away from ‘culture’.

  • BluesJazz

    Lionel.
    The Tories are the party of SE England (and a few other parts). Basically the majority of England and its middle class.
    The Lib Dems are on the outreaches of this heartland-parts of SW England (just) and a few Scottish highland constituencies.
    Labour control the Northern wastelands , Scotland and Wales (most of), and some London dumps.
    That’s the way it is. NI is the(moving the ethnic variable) ‘Salt Lake City’ in the woodpile. And that’s why people move.

  • The Tories have a new ally in the DUP who couldn’t give a stuff for the fodder they depend on for their base votes. That is, as long as the latter don’t twig they are being used. Nelson McCausland is on the side of Cameron and Osborne and not of the deprived unionist voters. Thje question is, will they tumble to it that their political ‘leaders’ would see them in dire poverty but in blissful ignorance of the DUP Judas sellout? It’s a close call.

  • IJP

    The NIO set up the system for stability, not good governance.

    Both would be ideal. But the former remains the clear priority.

  • andnowwhat

    So, the oft asked question: Just what is the difference between the UUP and the DUP? Well, it would seem its that the latter are even more Tory.

    What came of the Sinn Fein petition of concern?

  • IJP

    There was no petition. The only concern was where they’d find the billions to pay for the system having breached parity. I look forward to the SDLP’s answer to that!

  • Barnshee

    “What is it that people admire so much about the Westminster system that they would want it here?”

    Simple ————every so often the fxxxxers get booted out of office and their snouts dragged from the trough. Retribution for their (lack of) performance

  • BarneyT

    In a normal context, government and opposition would work, and I can see why this may be pushed, perhaps in an attempt to normalise society. I can’t help feeling that its pure ignorance from the SoS however.

    It works in Scotland as you have Labour, nationalist parties, Tories, and Liberal Democrats and largely they cannot be aligned with a particular religion and none of the parties are republican.

    I can’t contemplate a Northern Ireland without SF commanding some form of power, as this is the carrot they have used to bring their supporters into a world that they violently opposed in the early 70s. A government\opposition structure would push SF out of government and give voice to those nationalist opposed to every move SF have made and continue to make.

    Whilst an entirely Unionist governed Northern Ireland in this day and age would not be allowed to commit the crimes of the past (I hope), there would still be a large degree of discrimination in favour of the Unionist community. Moderate Unionists would have a reduced voice too…but they would be catered for.

    A United Ireland is still firmly on the agenda for many nationalists, but this candle of hope only remains lit when SF can demonstrate and argue that they are in a position to help deliver it or in the interim allow the Irish to be considered in the North.

  • Poor old Grim allister must be browned off that the Republic’s economy is showing signs [tentative as they are], of health already when he had them written off triumphantly as a basket case, he could hardly contain his glee. Now on the nwews i see there’s oil exploration in the offing.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Daniel,

    I doubt Ireland will see more than a tiny fraction of that oil money.

  • I don’t expect they will either, Comrade. alas. Odd that on Spotlight debate’s return, not a word about the covenant? I suppose the DUP would only send one of theirs if the subject wasn’t up for discusssion. weird.

  • Bluesjazz Not only stormont is seen as a joke by westminster, but NI itself . They tried to pull out gradually in 1912 and three further tries after WWI with the Home Rule device but were blackmailed into staying on. They haven’t stopped wanting out since. You have the laughable spectacle of unionist politicians when at Westminster happy enough to be called Irish by the English Scots and Welsh MPs as long as it’s out of earshot of their deluded voters, but insist they aren’t Irish over here. The welfare refrm bill debate should waken up DUP voters but it’s doubtful they are capable of coming out of their mental slumber and catching themselves on and the DUP know this only to well as their voting fodder have nowhere else to go.

  • Barnshee

    “You have the laughable spectacle of unionist politicians when at Westminster happy enough to be called Irish by the English Scots and Welsh MPs as long as it’s out of earshot of their deluded voters, but insist they aren’t Irish over here”

    Perhaps more laughable are those residents of the UK who (sucking frantically) on the taxpayers teat) deny any such state and fervently proclaim their allegiance elsewhere.