A real chance to promote Assembly reform must not be lost


Just a reminder if you need it -and you can hardly be blamed if you have noticed. You have until 28 March to submit your proposals to reform the politics of Northern Ireland. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee is carrying out  a review of the GFA arrangements which is required by 2015.

They are calling for evidence. This  could mean you.

This task was once a concession to the DUP but is now legally stipulated. So the Assembly Committee will of necessity do the work and provide a report. It is up to everyone interested to ensure this is not the predictable damp squib.

It is not surprising that the historic 1998 political deal created an all-party coalition with many checks, balances and vetoes. It has also taken nearly ten years to create any semblance of stability.  But now the system,  which was arguably necessary to begin creating a new and comprehensive political order, has in its present form and on the most generous reading produced as much deadlock  as constructive  agreement and  is depriving voters of a choice of government. It is time to demolish some of the scaffolding and let the building stand up on its own.

Democratic deficit was the norm under the first exercise of devolution from 1921 to 1972 for Catholics. Ironically today, it applies to some extent to the whole community. The flags dispute may also be symptom of the unenfranchisement of significant minorities which an all party coalition partly concealed. It may be more pervasive than previously thought.

The low politics of course are something else.  Suspicions are high that the DUP are trying to tempt other parties with a “voluntary “ coalition  to undermine  or even exclude Sinn Fein from government. But as the mutual veto system they want to abandon of still exists, Sinn Fein are more than likely to thwart any radical moves. Indeed a smaller Assembly and Executive is likely to strengthen the hands of the two big parties and reinforce their grip.

The task now is to come up with reasons why vetoes should not be exercised. There is no point in merely demonising the parties which will continue to exist whatever happens. Better to reinforce and test out  the pleas they  have made to be taken more on trust. The public debate could be a worthwhile exercise if people cast off indifference and take part.

  • Can the detectable shifts in sectarian stereotypes be exploited in favour of reform?
  • Is it possible to hold a proper debate about ending designations and substituting a weighted majority?  
  • Should an opposition be created with effective speaking rights and provide voters with the prospects of a choice of government at the polls?
  • Can the exercise build pressure on the two main parties for wider policy reforms  including greater integration and secondary school reform?  
  • If very little change seems in prospect, what pressures can or should the two governments exert to change the agenda?

The best reform proposals I’ve seen come from  Platform for Change led by Robin Wilson. They deserve greater attention and contrast with his bleak pessimism about the present arrangements. Concentrated pressure in a small place like Northern Ireland could have some effect. It would be wrong to surrender to apathy before the exercise even starts.

Idea of agreed coalition

These clear deficiencies in the devolved governance arrangements can be remedied by a new system for executive formation, which would not throw out the still infant baby of power-sharing with the bath water of poor constitutional design. Debate has been stymied by the desire expressed by the DUP to move to a ‘voluntary’ coalition, which Catholics interpret as a qualified form of majority rule, while SF has resisted any change to the current mandatory arrangements, which Protestants interpret as requiring the party to be in power regardless of popular feeling. The way through is an agreedcoalition, which would put the onus on parties after an election to come together across the sectarian divide in a genuine spirit of conciliation. This would reward those parties which were most accommodating, including in proposing as ministers individuals whom they knew would command broad support from their potential colleagues in government. A requirement that such an executive command the support of a weighted majority in the assembly could provide a safeguard of equal political citizenship. (This idea was widely supported in the early 1970s discussions but was dropped by the then British prime minister only in favour of the ability of the Northern Ireland secretary to say ‘you, you and you’ in appointing the executive at the time.) But the executive parties would unite around a Programme for Government and would operate within the framework of collective responsibility in its implementation, thus ensuring a stable cross-sectarian administration. Individual parties could then choose to go into opposition on programmatic grounds, with a view to challenging the government and being at the heart of an alternative coalition after a subsequent election. This would be a much more flexible system of power-sharing.


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