The assembly is back-is some minor surgery required?

Stormont sprung to life this week as MLAs returned from their summer holidays.

Like children who couldn’t wait to get back into the classroom our MLAs submitted motions that allowed themselves to get stuck in to each other.

While I was watching Stormont Today last night, I heard tales from the DUP of ‘Connolly House propaganda’ over the recent trouble during the marching season. While on the other side Sinn Fein condemned the DUP for not acknowledging that republicans suffered any hurt during the Troubles. Yes folks, it was just another day in our provincial legislature.

We often complain in Northern Ireland that our politicians seem incapable of coming together and solving big problems like parades.  Yet watching the assembly last night I wonder if a part of the answer to issues like this might not be staring us in the face.

The assembly is one of the very few legislatures that are not composed of a government sitting on one side of the house and the opposition sitting on the other. The reasons for this are well known and I do not propose going over them in this post. But I just wonder is there not something to be said for making DUP and Sinn Fein MLAs sit together in the assembly chamber.

In Westminster, the Liberal Democrats sit with the Conservatives and in the Dáil, Labour TDs sit with their Fine Gael counterparts. My question is why can’t we do it here?

I would truly find it hard to believe that the display of blame game politics that was on display yesterday would be as likely if the DUP and Sinn Fein had to sit beside each other.

I don’t believe that this would solve all of the problems between the two parties. I just think after more than six years in coalition, they should perhaps give up the ghost and realise that they are in government together.

Alex Kane has pointed out to me before that lack of general interaction between MLAs on both sides and this small change could go some way towards building up relationships between members of the governing parties.

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  • Interesting observation, David. But – and I do have a but – the DUP and UUP currently get stuck into each other as do SF and the SDLP. And we have five governing parties at present, not two.

    Why not randomise the seating at plenary and committee sessions on a daily basis and arrange for the ministers to speak from a central podium in front of the speaker? Nodding donkeys behind ministerial asses look so – pathetic 🙂

  • Barnshee

    “I would truly find it hard to believe that the display of blame game politics that was on display yesterday would be as likely if the DUP and Sinn Fein had to sit beside each other.”

    No chance

  • JoeHas

    While I can’t disagree with the sentiment of David’s post, I am a bit tired of blaming our politicians. We have petty, intransigent, immature politicians because we have petty, intransigent, immature voters. Our political system is a mirror of our society, not a cause of societal problems.
    Just one minor point, our politicians are very capable of working together when they think no-one is looking. If you don’t believe it, have a look at the live streams from any of the committees.

  • Mick Fealty

    Joe, I think that’s right.

    The key element to David’s piece is his choice of the word ‘minor’. I think most people are happy to have gotten beyond the terrible times of the past, and they also don’t like their settled judgement (ie that SF and the DUP are their respective tribal champions) being overly questioned.

    In short, without demonstrating due cause for meaningful change, you are up against a huge chunk of post-purchase rationalisation, or choice supportive bias.

    Yet, as I’ve argued (at some length here:, there is something not quite right in this state of Denmark.

    There’s an interesting story buried here:… in which two economists pull off a neat framing trick which has the effect of killing any serious critical examination of the flawed architecture of their ‘big idea’…

    The pair gained particular fame through a campaign that they launched with the explicit intent to “convert economists” by offering a prize for the best adverse criticism of their book Profits. An illustrious jury – among them America’s top economist professor, Wesley C. Mitchell, and Owen D. Young of “Young Plan” fame and chairman of General Electric – was to choose the best essay.

    Among the authors of the essays were 50 professors of economics, 40 authors of books on economics, 60 accounting experts, bankers, editors and some of the “ablest men in the Federal Reserve,” etc. A later published collection of the essays revealed that all authors, except two, had unreservedly accepted the main thesis of Foster and Catchings that there exists a chronic bias in the economy toward a chronic deficiency of consumer purchasing power. Any objections were directed against minor details.

    The other is from Belfast’s own Peter Curran writing in the Independent recently

    …the viewpoints that are least represented are those of the true silent majority – those people who don’t write to Editors or MPs, watch political panel shows or take part in consultations or demonstrations?

    There are many people who lack the certainty or passion to make their points effectively. Some don’t have the opportunity because of other commitments; a woman working a nightshift and caring for an elderly relative, for example, or a man trying urgently to re-calibrate his work skills and avoid obsolescence. They will rarely be in a position to bellow political convictions.

    Yet these people far outnumber the vociferous minority.

    Some of the answer to using the GFA’s new institutions to bring about change (almost any kind of change) is to find a way to: 1, get around the framing traps laid by the OFMdFM parties and; 2, tap into those people with weak rather than strong preferences.

    Which, of course, is much easier said than done… 😉

  • Charles_Gould

    I think it would be a good idea, but the DUP and SF won’t have it. They like the pretense that they are opposition to each other.

  • BluesJazz

    I suppose the 5p plastic bag tax, nicked from the Welsh parish council, was a good idea. Hopefully the next three years on the (108 first class travelers) gravy train will be just as fruitful.

  • Charles_Gould

    David McCann, CS, Mick, etc

    What do you think of this terms innovation: topical questions.

    These are questions to ministers that the minister did not know in advance about.

    A promising livening up of proceedings?

  • London_Irish

    JoeHas makes an excellent point re the difference in the interactions between MLAs in plenary and committee. Perhaps a simple solution could be to have (most) committee meetings on Monday and Tuesday, and plenary debates on Wednesday and Thursday. That way, whatever has happened over a weekend/recess will have cooled down and day-to-day business will have resumed by the time MLAs return to the chamber and the eyes of the media descend. With any luck it might lead to a change in mentality on the Business Committee when parties choose the motions to bring forward.

    As for David’s original suggestion re seating positions, it is rather strange to cling to the Westminster-style confrontational seating arrangements – albeit with the addition of a crossbench – when a consociatioal politics is in place. However, the size of the opposition/non-Executive parties is so minor, the chamber would be as lobsided as it was in the 1921-1972 days! I think there would at least be some merit in having the Executive ministers sat beside one another, nothing worse that PR and MMcG sat opposite one another whilst in agreement on legislation.