You could be forgiven for failing to notice that the Assembly’s Assembly and Executive Review Committee has been holding a review on “D’Hondt; Community Designation and Provisions for Opposition” over the past four months. As the committee is due to report about now we’ve not got long to contain our excitement. The sweeping nature of the inquiry contrasts with its brevity and limited response (according to information on the website) and has been held I suspect under Westminster pressure. It therefore augurs poorly for the chances of reform at least in the short term. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.
The political context doesn’t obviously favour reform. The DUP and Sinn Fein have reached their peak. Inside the communal groups they have seen off any serious challenge from the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP under present conditions. In 2016, a two party coalition facing a fragmented handful of others is perfectly possible. Reform in any guise can only affect their dominance. It may seem a strange moment to ask the question: but how can the DUP and Sinn Fein ever terminate their arranged marriage?
The answer lies in considering the wider public interest. Are the people going to want to be defined as unionist, nationalist and other for ever? How under present patterns of political behaviour can we ever change the government? Granted that power sharing was a huge advance, this government will nevertheless be as difficult to replace as the old single party Unionist rule. That can’t be good for anyone in the medium term. It is not the character of a grown-up democracy, more a stitch-up between elites. All-inclusive government was the founding expedient of the new era from 1998. Now, we need to move on.
I argue that the case for reform which would replace the designations of Unionist, Nationalist and Other with a weighted majority and a negotiated coalition can only grow with time.
A new balance between stability and risk needs to struck without threatening the institutions.
While “unionist “and “nationalist” remain valid empirical classifications, they are increasingly losing favour as the defining characteristics of society.
The logic of negotiating a coalition rather than taking up seats automatically according to D’Hondt would indeed breach the principle of a fully inclusive government of all qualifying parties but a 65% weighted majority would protect the essential cross community principle.
At a stroke the abolition of designations would mean that Executive formation would be subject to genuine bargaining on seats and policy. In the Assembly it would at last give fair weight to the non-aligned Alliance party and minorities and offer a chance of more flexible voting, issue by issue.
The other logic of a negotiated coalition is the ability of parties to opt out of it and become “ parties not in government “ – in other words, an opposition. The fact of opposition creates a natural drive for its members to cooperate if they hope to have influence, arguably more than they have today. This offers a big opportunity as well as imposing an onus on the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and assorted fragments to find a new sense of purpose. Separately or together? The most effective form of opposition would take the form of a shadow opposition grouping that would win the right of reply in the Assembly to a DUP-Sinn Fein government and could eventually present itself as an alternative government around an Alliance party core. That so far is not even a gleam in these parties’ eye so far as I can tell. In the interests of survival do they not need to raise their sights?
An opposition strategy would powerfully concentrate minds in the lesser parties to decide at last what they stand for, including creating a cross community appeal to voters for the very first time across the divide. Without such an appeal we will never break out of the sectarian straitjacket. The big bugbear of course is the almost complete failure to attract a cross community vote to date. It is high time someone tried ; there is some evidence in the polls that the public would welcome it. Fragmentation like NI 21 is a dead end which will disappear at the next election .The other alternative of course is to boost the Alliance party – surely a viable aim after East Belfast 2010?
While these scenarios may seem a pipe dream at present, stranger things have happened – like the formation of an inclusive powering government in the first place. If you can form a power sharing government you can surely discover the appeal of a power sharing opposition if you stop looking over your shoulder.
But this is about more than a strategy for the minor parties. There is of course a big problem of buy-in. Why should the DUP and Sinn Fein surrender even a mite of their power? While each of them has made a success of sharing power between themselves if less so with the others, they still represent opposing default political positions which one day may be put to the test. While public opinion may be softening on the national issue, I still hold to the increasingly unfashionable view that the choice of Union or Unity could still provoke an existential crisis in a generation’s time. At any rate everything should be done to soften the edges of choice in the meantime. That’s another reason voters should be offered real alternatives to the fundamentalist positions of national allegiance. Under pressure of greater political choice the main parties might also moderate their positions.
So what’s in it for them? Northern Ireland faces an unpredictable but not necessarily a gloomy future. We have seen Peter Robinson flirting with reform ideas due I assume to demographic pressure. Sinn Fein are a different proposition but seem less confident than before in the inevitability of a united Ireland. Trends in public opinion and demography are impelling unionists and nationalists gradually to make bigger demarches towards each other. But increasingly – and this is perhaps the new factor – they need a margin beyond their core in order to secure nirvana. If politics became more flexible it is not implausible to imagine a future conciliatory leader of a unionist minority persuading enough nationalists that a referendum on Irish unity would be destabilising and unnecessary. Similarly a nationalist majority leader might persuade enough unionists that a united pluralist Ireland was preferable to clinging on to a Union that would be happy to see them leave. A third hypothesis is a cross community Northern Ireland First party holding the balance of power.
There is much more to say about getting politics on the move in the post-Agreement era. Although the rhetoric has changed a great deal since 1998, little else may happen in the short term. The politics of consolidation may still prevail over the politics of risk. However it’s wrong and actually self deception to dismiss future thinking as fanciful. At least the Assembly is inspecting the auguries under prodding from Westminster. There should be no let-up. Serious politicians are all too aware than nothing is forever and that stasis threatens their long term positions. If they think in their hearts that the Unity question will fuel them forever it is up to others to prove them wrong.
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