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
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.
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