Assembly reform without real change in political outlook means little

The reform ideas for  the beleaguered  Stormont Assembly  disclosed by the BBC are well intentioned.  but they’re the wrong treatment on the wrong diagnosis, as the disease is the failure of our politicians to  work together effectively.  Note that they’re being put forward by the British government five months ahead of the deadline of May set for the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to produce reform agreements. Westminster is at last showing a little initiative.

On subject after subject – petitions of concern, the size and shape of the Executive and the Assembly,  the future of D’Hondt and community designations – the committee either failed to reach consensus or to make up their minds over the past two years. Westminster is now putting pressure on the Assembly parties to get a grip. Can they succeed against expectations?   And are all the ideas good ones?

On creating an opposition, it looks as if the British government wants to extend the “informal “ speaking rights suggested by the Committee to something more robust, for parties wishing to quit the Executive. Still, I can’t help feeling that the minor parties who are flirting with the idea of opposition are turkeys voting for Christmas.  In their absence the DUP/ Sinn Fein carve up would be  surely  be complete, topped off nicely with a leaner, fitter OFMDFM.

In theory something like a full official opposition would strengthen the Assembly backbenches.  In practice opposition parties would need a united opposition programme to make an impact on debates, never mind challenge the Executive.

You have to have ideas for opposition to make any impression. Where are they? Ditto if the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP are seeking to make as bigger impression on their  constituencies  – and with fewer seats to pull it off.

If the Executive stays moribund what is there to  oppose? If  main parties behave as other parties are urging them to, why oppose for opposition’s sake? A united cross community opposition would be  great, but so far  this isn’t even a gleam in the eye. There isn’t even a debate among the minority parties beyond venting their frustrations. You can’t imagine the DUP and Sinn Fein quaking in their boots. Electoral constraints seem far too strong for them to dare to make new departures.

In the absence of effective collective responsibility for ministers, the present system allows parties  to be in government and opposition at the same time. At least if you occupy an Executive seat as of right, you can score if your minister is any good.

The BBC summary of that part of the Government paper  is silent on how speaking rights to opposition parties  would be assigned . In practice that would have to be agreed by the full Assembly and that could be tricky.

The reduction in the number of Executive departments from 12 to 9 and of the Assembly from 108 to 90 members abandons the principle of inclusiveness so carefully created in 1998. That would be fine if the Assembly was functioning well. As it is, it may serve only to strengthen the DUP/Sinn Fein stranglehold and further weaken the position – and thus the electoral appeal – of the  Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.

And what of the Alliance party? Can they afford not to join an opposition proclaiming a nebulous virtue?  If they quit the Executive who can fill the Justice ministry? If they stay won’t they be accused of being Uncle Toms?

Restrictions on petitions of concern place a heavy onus on the Speaker who presumably would  have to decide whether the proposal  under challenge  would have “negative impact” on the community concerned

The DUP’s ideas for a so-called voluntary coalition and weighted majorities to pass legislation to replace the party voting blocs don’t appear to feature.

On top of flags, the past, and welfare reform, it seems like a terribly overloaded agenda for politicians who find it hard to agree on anything much at all.  The hope – a thin one surely – is that  behind the  deadlock they really “know it makes sense”, in the words of the old advert about   putting on seat belts,  and in a fit of the familiar brinkmanship, are only biding their time  to admit it.

I wouldn’t bank on that, would you?

Systemic and structural reforms may be all about efficiency, cost saving and so on. But without real policy initiatives they’re little more than displacement activity.

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  • WindsorRocker

    The failure of our politicians is not the disease it is the symptom.
    The current system of mandatory coalition with no to and fro in terms of who holds government posts is a recipe for each side extolling the virtues of its vetoes rather than its power to deliver.
    In any other liberal democracy the incentive would be on those who wish to wield power to moderate and make themselves more acceptable, first to a broader section of the electorate and then, in most proportional systems, to coalition partners.
    Northern Ireland has none of that. It essentially elects communal champions and the system rewards those who stand up against “themmuns”. There is no sanction for failing to deliver once in power, in fact there are severe downsides for anyone who does do that, knowing that those who can replace them can maintain their position simply by carrying on like the parties are doing now.
    We need a weighted majority government with required cross community input. Parties would only form a government if they wanted to be there. There would be a greater probability of compromise on fiscal and economic issues and any communal sectarian issues would have to go the floor of the Assembly where the Petition of Concern could be properly used.
    What HMG and the Irish Govt have proposed is “Voluntary Opposition” which negates none of the issues that we currently have. It still allows people to go into government without being committed to delivery and crucially it doesn’t seem to allow for the break up of coalitions if any of the coalition partners starts playing silly beggers. Any criticism from the Voluntary Opposition would be met with “well you ran away, we took it on to stop themmuns”.
    8 years on from the recent reincarnation of the GFA, and 15 years from the main event itself, we need to move on from a consociational government and find something that allows for decisive government on issues of fiscal policy but also utilises the PoC mechanism to protect either community when clear sectarian questions are discussed.

  • Bryan Magee

    I think the proposals make a lot of sense. I could see parties going into opposition, and I could see that offering a platform for more criticism and scrutiny.

  • Bryan Magee

    And Brian I think you’re a bit gloomy – opposition is natural in a democracy and its going to come about one way or the other whether formal or informal. A student of history will know that the office of “Leader of the Opposition” evolved over time, and was informally established long before it was given statutory recognition in the commons in the 1930s.

  • Robin Keogh

    Direct rule from Dublin is the only sensible solution

  • Croiteir

    It is failing – just as the original Stormont failed, time to end the farce and get rid of the border. Anything else is just rearranging the seats on the decks

  • barnshee

    or direct rule of all from London
    (Translates as no surrender and phuckorff)

  • Bryan Magee

    Makes a lot of sense what you say – politics is always difficult but democracy is remarkably resilient and powerful .

  • Robin Keogh

    London doesnt want the six never mind all 32 ! So ur dream is unlikely to materialise. Unionists forming a coalition government in Dublin….now that would be progress !

  • barnshee

    Focus on the last part of my comment

  • barnshee

    Keep the purse zipped closed Dave—-once the money starts to run out next year watch the arseholes run for cover

  • Robin Keogh

    Sorry my Brain automatically diverts away from idiocy … no surrender? Really? So marty as SF deputy first minister must be a mirage.

  • notimetoshine

    I was very much in favour of reform in the assembly with opposition at its core. However having being corrected by a poster on here I realise that you can fix the car but if the driver is crap its still not going to go anywhere.

    Its horrible to think we have such a dysfunctional political establishment seemingly incapable of the simplest political tasks but thats what the electorate wanted it seems.

    Direct rule or maybe emigration seems the way to go.

  • barnshee

    Don`t forget second suggestion

  • barnshee

    Why not let Enda stump up the money Marty and Co want
    Problem solved— ROI buys for unity

  • Croiteir

    Why would they have to stump that amount? Do you accept that is what is needed?

  • ted hagan

    The Dublin government barely has direct control over the South never mind the North.

  • barnshee

    Marty says it can’t run without it

  • Croiteir

    And do you accept that?

  • Zeno1

    Interesting post. I can’t decide if you are a troll or just deluded.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    ‘The reduction of the Assembly from 108 to 90 members abandons the principle of inclusiveness so carefully created in 1998’. This was always a fear I had about such planned revisions resulting in the exclusion from the political arena of other political opinions. The 2 strongest chicks in the nest eat up the other chicks !

  • Morpheus

    This is a disaster waiting to happen. Northern Ireland is not even close to being in a position whereby ‘normal’ politics is ready to be implemented. In fact, while we vote along tribal lines as opposed to voting on strengths and weaknesses of policies I would go as far as to say that we are at least a generation away from it.

    The BelTel did a semi-interesting piece last year when they asked people to answer some questions on important policy issues like economic development, health and housing, service delivery etc. and based on results concluded which party best suits them. It’s far from scientific but it gives a flavor. It found that 38% of participants (11,802 in total so not too shabby) ended up with a party they would never vote for. So 2 people in 5 agree with most of the policies of parties they would never vote for.

    (granted the same survey reports that the biggest number of participants ended up with TUV followed by PUP – not sure what to make of that)

    But the point remains, a substantial number would support the policies of parties they would never vote for. Why? Tribal voting

    On day 1 of ‘normal’ government the DUP/UUP/TUV would form a voluntary coalition government taking all the ministries but offering Alliance their old ministeries to entice them to also join the coalition. This gets them around any weighted majority nonsense. If cross community approval is required anyway then what is the difference from now other than political unionism having their hands on all the ministries?

    After that it doesn’t matter how bad the coalition government behave or perform they can bang the tribal tom-toms and get back in time after time after time because they have the perfect stick with which to beat the electorate.

    We’d be better off coming to a firm agreement on the correct use of POCs as opposed to how they are abused at the moment.

    It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Why not reduce to say, 4 MLAs per constituency & use a list system to top it up to 90. The top up list could be used to bring parties as close as possible to their overall % thus ensuring representation of smaller groups & lessen the stranglehold of larger parties.
    If no progress then cut next time around to 75 total.

  • Bryan Magee

    Good idea.

  • Thomas Girvan

    Well said. I could not agree more.
    The system is fundamentally flawed.
    Mandatory coalition between two diametrically opposed factions is clearly unworkable.
    The only thing holding it together so far has been money and political egos.
    It needs to be reviewed from the ground up.
    A weighted majority would seem to be a concept that should be built upon.
    It is going to have to happen, as the current system defies political logic.

  • ted hagan

    There is no hope for the Assembly because it is built on deception and very flimsy foundations. One’s side’s aim is a united Ireland the other’s is a permanent Northern Ireland. You can’t build stability on that. Sixteen years later and we’re still trying but it’s a lost cause. Sorry.

  • barnshee

    Well -somebody has to pick up the bill for Health, Education Dole , Family credit etc etc. Can`t understand Enda`s reluctance (LOL)

  • Practically_Family

    Unionist politician line:- Rebel intransigence has made you hungry my brethren.
    Republican politician line:- Again the British seek to use the tactics of the Great Hunger to defeat Irish people!

    And return to square one.

    Not to mention the ever present possibility that the arseholes running for cover will turn out to be Saturday morning shoppers in Leicester whose local Asda has gone from nought to mach three and back again in the time it takes a disenfranchised dissident person to press “send” on his nokia…

  • Practically_Family

    My own view is that the assembly is doomed to wallow in the mire of the voters making pretty much indefinitely.

    However, taking into account the consequences, intended and otherwise of the majority, if not all of the alternatives. I think we might be best served by the devil we know.

  • NMS

    Croitéir The problem is that the majority of people in Ireland would oppose “unity”. They have little desire to subsidise UKNI, by way of paying additional taxes. UKNI is the place that no one wants.

  • Tacapall

    Where do you think they are going to run to Barnshee – Downing Street to beg for forgiveness, the reality is there are many who are quite hopeful that Stormont collapses that the money does run dry and we end up having to barter for goods, anything, anything at all is better than being ruled by the plantation managers from Westminster.

  • Croiteir

    I don’t find that to be the case based on talking to people in the south, just another myth

  • Croiteir

    And also pick up the bill for failed foreign policies and trying to live in past glory that others do not get involved in and therefore do not pay for (LOL)

  • Robin Keogh

    Not the first time u are incorrect. Polls in the south show a majority in favour of unification

  • Robin Keogh

    Really? So when is the UN taking over command?

  • ted hagan

    Oh come on, where’s your sense of humour? The Dublin government is shambolic at the moment. The Northern government is full of basket cases. You either laugh or you cry

  • Robin Keogh

    Oh i agree in part, i often laugh and cry in equal measure at the pathetic antucs of our neo liberal overlords. The irony of course is that we have a shambolic unpopular government at a time when we have rapid economic growth and unemployment decline with fiscal surplus over budget. The mind boggles !

  • NMS

    Croitéir & Robin, I would be very happy to have that referendum. It would, I feel, provide a massive vote for the status quo. Perhaps Sinn Féin should push for it soon? There will be a series of referenda(ums) in 2015. Another could be added at minimal cost.

    I would also like to see the existing voting rights granted to those from the UK extended to all EU Nationals.

  • OneNI

    More realistically Cameron buys RoI

  • WindsorRocker

    Any coalition would need the support of a section of nationalism. It would be a voluntary coalition which would change the behaviour of the coalition partners. Once you form a voluntary coalition, you would have to make the best of it or face an election. Mandatory coalition allows for the current “blame it on themmuns” more than voluntary coalition ever would.
    The POCs you mention would actually provide the bedrock of any voluntary coalition system as they would ensure communal issues are dealt with like they are now and that non communal issues such as fiscal policy are dealt with decisively.
    You can only move towards a different political dynamic away from tribal voting if you change the current system
    I think a lot of people like the current system as it allows them to wield power without responsibility and it allows them to be in permanent negotiating mode without having to take the hard decisions of governance.

  • barnshee

    Just the bill for health,education,social security DLA , and pensions will do for now

  • barnshee

    “whose local Asda has gone from nought to mach three and back again ”

    And the bill for repairs comes out of the block grant
    And the Irish boat people drown on the beaches as GB closes the ports

  • barnshee

    “Where do you think they are going to run to Barnshee”

    South Armagh
    City side in Derry

    But more probably Donegal Louth Cavan and Monaghan

    “The money ran out it was all the Brits/Orangies fault I lost my MLA salary and exes and the Northern Bank money has run out I tell you its all the Brits /Orangies fault we are the DLA capital of the world we NEED the money give us more — how am I going to get on without my Mobility car/allowance its all them Brits/ Orangies fault”

    “What do you mean we were in charge along with the orangies —was your mouth out –you`re an enemy of the peace process so your are..

    repeat ad nauseun

  • Ian James Parsley

    Like it.

    Though we could just go further, scrap STV, and elect 80 by MMP (as in Scotland and Wales). This would have the added benefit of removing parish pump politics. Everyone wins, except the NIMBYs.

  • aber1991

    Why do you want a United Ireland? In a United Ireland, the people of Eire would pander to the Protestants and we would be treated like dirt.

  • aber1991

    “Unionists forming a coalition government in Dublin….now that would be progress”

    Not for us, Catholics.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    I’m very interested in what your answer to Aber1991’s question below would be.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    I say this somewhat lightly and certainly with no malice, but, consider this: The ROI rejoins the UK on the condition of the border being removed (and low corporation tax level retained) and once the economy is up and running again starts to campaign for Irish independence (before Scotland finally goes independent thus negating the much overstated ‘strategic importance’ argument).

    Economy back up & running, Euro ditched and a united Ireland – job’s a good ‘un.

    A comically unlikely scenario, but, the sort of thing that keeps my feeble mind ticking over.

  • Morpheus

    “It would be a voluntary coalition which would change the behaviour of the coalition partners.”

    You have got to be joking. They are rabbiting on about the same bollix now that they were in the 80s – they have no intention of changing.

    “Once you form a voluntary coalition, you would have to make the best of it or face an election.”

    Those in government would be free to behave as badly as they want because they know if an election is called then all they have to do is bang the tribal tom-toms and hey presto, another term. I said that above.

    “The POCs you mention would actually provide the bedrock of any voluntary coalition system as they would ensure communal issues are dealt with like they are now and that non communal issues such as fiscal policy are dealt with decisively.”

    That’s how PoCs are supposed to work now! How do you think it’s going?

    “You can only move towards a different political dynamic away from tribal voting if you change the current system”

    The current system, if used properly, ensures that the interests of everyone are protected, something which will be of real importance to unionists in the coming decades. Put the shoe on the other foot, what happens when nationalism is in the driving seat?

    The reason the system is in constant stalemate is because there is absolutely no trust. There is no trust that political unionism will treat everyone fairly if they get their hands on the power and vice versa. That is what we need to work on, not hand the reigns over. They need to be able to prove that they can work together and in everyone’s best interests before they get the reigns.

    As I said, we would not be even having this conversation if the numbers didn’t favor political unionism

  • donncadh

    Like you treat the catholics?

  • aber1991

    Probably true. You Staters would gang up with the Prods to oppress us.