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.

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