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.

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