Assembly reform needed but to enable rather than to block

Rick Wilford the recently retired professor of Politics at Queens, provides  an analysis in the Belfast Telegraph  of the deadlock in power sharing that is as bleak as it is authoritative.

“That there is a case for reforming the Assembly and the Executive is irrefutable”… This was recognised by all parties at St Andrews, where they agreed to create an “institutional review committee” charged to examine the operational aspects of the Strand One institutions.

This became the Assembly and Executive Review Committee which was established as long ago as 2007.

“The committee’s labours proved to be a case of an elephant that yielded a mouse…  As a result, the UK Government’s legislation was almost devoid of institutional reform proposals. It provided a permissive power to reduce the Assembly to 90 members; signalled the end of dual mandates in 2016; and extended the Assembly mandate to five years, thereby putting it on a par with counterparts in Wales and Scotland.

Whatever the intentions, DUP Executive reform has only tightened deadlock

   It provided that, where ministerial consensus could not be achieved and a vote was required, three ministers could trigger a cross-community vote at the Executive to prevent unilateral action by another… The introduction of this device can be understood in a number of ways: as a means of engineering consensus; of managing dissensus; or, more bleakly, of creating Executive gridlock – the view taken by the UUP, which opposed its adoption… In the event, the latter view has prevailed, and it has provided a further brake on the wheel of devolution, rather than an additional gear to drive it forward. No matter how elegantly re-designed the architecture of devolution may become, without a spirit of trust and mutual accommodation among those who inhabit and animate the institutions, they will continue to founder and, ultimately, fail. In that respect, agreed institutional reform would itself be a signal that trust can be built anew”

Wilford  token note of hope is hardly convincing. What struck me from afar, reading the proceedings of the Assembly Executive Review Committee, was  the modesty of the reforms proposals and the poverty of debate about them , as  if nobody had much faith in the possibility of reform. The parties need  to convince each other that the motives  for reform is  to enable more than to block. Otherwise there’ll be no real  change.   What wonderful policies were held back  from the light of day? Few that I can see. Mainly wrangling over the Maze, an Irish Language Act, holding up other institutional reforms in local government.  With all respect to Senator Hart’s efforts, deadlock seems set to continue unless the parties spot an advantage in the 2015 and 2106 polls to break it with decent ideas that affect people’s lives more than the tired old political game.

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

  • chrisjones2

    Too many hungry political mouths sucking the life out of Government.

  • tmitch57

    The biggest obstacle to doing proper political reform is that the Assembly is filled with political hacks and jobbers. Most of the input for the GFA came from the SDLP and the UUP. Unfortunately, few of those with comparative constitutional experience and expertise are still around in the UUP today. I believe that Alliance wanted something more along the lines of Donald Horowitz’s vote-pooling ideas that would have required the winning parties in the Executive to be able to demonstrate some level of cross-community support, but the SDLP was wedded to consociationalism, which was well tested in non-violent situations in Western Europe but a complete failure in more violent situations like Cyprus and Lebanon. Any fix for the GFA is likely to end up like the Israeli “reform” of the voting system enacted in the early 1990s in which Israeli voters were given two votes: one for the party for the Knesset and one for the prime minister, without those who passed the law realizing that this would change the political calculus of voters and result is a radically-altered party system. The system was scrapped a decade later and there was a return to the status quo ante.

    I believe that the present arrangement could be positively changed by scrapping the ethnic constitutional designations and instead using weighted majorities on certain votes and by building in provisions for an official opposition. You could have an opposition without getting rid of the official designations, but it would be more complicated as you would have to have both a unionist and a nationalist opposition. I don’t know what they would do about the “other” category as no real opposition to Alliance exists.

    This would require some serious examination by experts from the politics and law faculties of the universities in NI, Ireland and Britain.