The Assembly shuns reform despite UK government pressure

The news from the Assembly and Executive Review Committee that the political parties in the Assembly have been unable to agree on reforming the political system will hardly shake the world. “No Consensus” is the mantra apart from minor concessions towards an opposition.  There is not much here to tempt the SDLP or the Ulster Unionists into quitting the Executive, even in the proposals from those parties themselves, especially the SDLP.  This will hardly impress the British government which was pressing for more. The committee actually considered four options for an opposition up to and including a formal shadow Executive.  But as the Committee’s report on D’Hondt, Community Designation and Provisions for Opposition shows, there was simply not enough demand for significant change even from parties which complain loudly about DUP/ Sinn Fein dominance.

The party breakdown of views is hardly new but is still fascinating when you see it starkly laid out. Unionist parties favour some change while nationalist parties mainly support the status quo. The sectarian camps are firmly intact, despite the continuing (and losing) battles being fought inside them. This underlines the depressing fact that 15 years after the GFA and in an era of shifting political opinion and demographics, distrust is still palpable and extreme caution prevails. Interestingly though, Nationalism still seems to fear the shadow of ancient Unionist supremacy more than Unionism fears Nationalist takeover. This is not wholly in accord with the stereotype of wobbly unionism under pressure but it seems to be the big picture. The GFA in every detail remains Nationalism’s comfort blanket.  The overall implication is clear enough: that neither side has any hope of cross community politics at a parliamentary level.  Such progress as may happen can only come through the Executive. This in turn confirms the DUP/SF dominance. Voters, take note.

Sinn Fein are most implacably against any change, the DUP most in favour of an opposition, a weighted majority and the eventual  (but not imminent!) replacement of D’Hondt as they pursue their idea of “voluntary” (better to call it “negotiated”) coalition. This may be meaningful or mere positioning to promote Peter Robinson’s soft side. Who can tell when it can’t be put to the test?  The minor parties naturally favour the end of the ” unionist, nationalist, other” designations.  The SDLP join Sinn Fein in supporting continuing with designations. So no hint there of striking out there to build cross community alliances.

Here is a summary of the main points from the report.


There was no consensus on ceasing to use/replacing the current D’Hondt system asthe mechanism for allocating Ministerial positions or Committee Chairperson/Deputy Chairperson.

The Committee concluded that there is no consensus at present to move to a formal

Government and Opposition model, such as exists in Westminster. It also concluded that there is no consensus to move from the current opt-out model, whereby Parties can exercise their right to opt-out of taking up their Ministerial post or withdraw from theExecutive, based on existing Assembly provisions…The Committee concluded that financial support for political parties should continue to be allocated on a broadly proportional basis and did not consider that additional resources should be allocated to non-Executive/opposition Parties

 The Committee concluded that there was no consensus for replacement of community designation by, for example, a weighted-majority vote in the Assembly of 65%.


Four of the five Parties represented on the Committee (Alliance, DUP, SDLP and UUP) agreed that a suitable model for opposition/Non-Executive parties in the Assembly would be an opt out model, whereby Parties can exercise their right to opt-out of taking up their Ministerial posts or withdraw from the Executive and become a non-Executive/opposition Party. Although a Sinn Féin representative stated that the Party “was not persuaded of the need for an opposition

 The Committee concluded that Parties that exercise their right not to take their Executive entitlement would have “informal” recognition of non-Executive/opposition status on a proportional basis by:

Additional speaking rights;

recognition of status by order of speaking; and

allocation of time for additional non-Executive business – the use of the allocation to be

determined by non-Executive Party/opposition.

The representatives of Sinn Féin stated that they were unable to support this conclusion.


The future of d’Hondt  

 Sinn Féin support the continued use of the d’Hondt system to fairly allocate chairs/vice chairs and membership of committees and to elect Ministers on the basis of party strength.

 The SDLP’s written submission states:

The SDLP supports … the right of parties to their d’Hondt entitlement

The DUP and UUP both acknowledged during Committee discussions that they felt that d’Hondt may pertain in the short-term, and perhaps medium-term.

 The UUP’s written submission states:

A decision on d’Hondt or a replacement is dependent on other factors, such as the introduction of an official opposition.

The Alliance Party, the Green Party, TUV, UKIP and the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, along with the Independent Members Mr John McCallister and Mr Basil McCrea, as well as other stakeholders, argued against the retention of d’Hondt


Community designations

Again, there was no consensus on whether community designation should be retained. Support for the retention of community designation came from the SDLP and Sinn Féin, as well as some of the academics who responded to the Call for Evidence


A weighted majority

Most of those who do not support the retention of community designation proposed that it be replaced with a weighted-majority system, which they argue would de facto ensure cross community support for key decisions. Again, the DUP and UUP proposed this with a view to the short- to medium-term, with the DUP’s written submission proposing:

… in the long-term, the best means of governing Northern Ireland would involve a voluntary coalition Executive and weighted majority voting of around 65% in the Assembly, resulting in an end to community designation.

A weighted majority system was also proposed by the Alliance Party, the DUP, TUV, Professor Cochrane, and the Centre for Opposition Studies. While most respondents suggested a threshold of around 65%, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) suggested:

the Government should be able to demonstrate that it has cross-community support by obtaining a weighted majority of 60% to approve its Programme for Government.

A requirement for a super-majority of 75% was suggested by the Labour Party in Northern Ireland and Platform for Change.


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  • cynic2

    Locked together in a dance of slow political death, spinning around the pot o’gold

  • ayeYerMa

    In no part of the world would you ever expect universal consensus on most political issues. Why some seem to keep thinking that Northern Ireland can somehow blindly keep pretending that something can be made to work that wouldn’t work anywhere else I don’t know.

    In fact there was never universal consensus to put into place the current system (one could claim St. Andrews, but I’d argue that was more picking up the pieces from the mess created by the previous agreement that didn’t even at the time have the support of the majority of UUP MPs involved in negotiations). So why does anyone think that reform will be any different? Reform can proceed in the same manner the current situation arose — by referendum.

  • ayeYerMa

    Then again, one way to catalyse reform would be to specifically exploit the absurdity of much of Seamus Mallon’s “ugly scaffolding” in order to highlight their unsuitability for anything but the very short term.

    Not only is “designation” rather meaningless and arbitrary (with polls indicating a very large proportion of so-called “nationalist” voters actually being unionist), but can be easily manipulated by taking a leaf out of the Alliance Party’s book after it changed designations to support David Trimble. The absurdity of such a system could be exposed simply by all currently “unionist” designating MLAs redesignating as “nationalist” after the next election and pointing to polls indicating that much of the “nationalist” designated vote isn’t “nationalist” either, or stating British Nationalism, or Ulster Nationalism, or even Irish Unionism as their political stance. Those currently designating as “nationalist” could also change to “unionist” in return by (apart from their indicated voter base’s support for the UK) stating they support the union of the island, but then this would simply further the absurdity of it all and increase the motivation for reform.

  • Barnshee

    yea yea D!’hont etc etc
    What about a real look at the size and cost of this “ugly scaffolding” ?

  • FuturePhysicist

    The overall implication is clear enough: that neither side has any hope of cross community politics at a parliamentary level. Such progress as may happen can only come through the Executive. This in turn confirms the DUP/SF dominance. Voters, take note.

    Yes, the British Government is completely incompetent in getting its way here. I mean the Cameron party stood here technically and couldn’t get a seat, it actually lost a seat. The cross community politics of the British Government was shown in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. How dare they claim any sort of moral supremacy over parties here!

    Do you honestly think the Conservatives in Britian could stop people voting for Sinn Féin or the DUP after what it did in FST and what it did to the UUP?

    This is a prime example, a wish list that emancipates no voter to bring reform, and insults the self determination of the people here by politicians so opposed to constitutional reform in their own region they cling to an outdated hereditary peerage system in the House of Lords that their own electorate can’t get rid of. The Sooner the English, Scots and Welsh rid themselves of the First World Afrikanners in the Lords the better.

  • FuturePhysicist

    You seem to have dumped the unpopular reform from voter and civic influence, that which formed the parties in the Assembly, to defend a group who’s regional influence extends to one councillor defector and refused to stand in the overwhelming majority of constituencies here in terms of local government, never mind the Assemby. If the NIO wanted reform suited for the people they would force an election now rather than delay one an extra year. They could even push through a referendum on the removal of designation, supermajorities, opposition or better yet return to the direct rule when every English, Scottish and Welsh direct rule failed to stop sectarianism, violence and division over a 30 year period near enough.

    ^Brian Walker take note, massive U-turn going from reform by community action to reform by the failed direct rule methods of the past.