Why institutional reform needs to be at the heart of the next election

It looks almost certain now that we are heading to an early election.

In the usual noise of a campaign there will be a variety of issues that will get people talking and hopefully voting.
One issue that has been consistently coming up is reforming our system of government. The SDLP back in May with their jump into Opposition and now Sinn Fein have embraced the concept of reforming the system of government.

We have heard slogans such as “no return to the status quo” but little detail as to what is being sought in terms of reforming our system of government.

Since 1998, particularly within Nationalism it has become an article of faith that you adhere to every line and comma within the Good Friday Agreement. In a very real sense, both the SDLP and Sinn Fein have at times treated the document as some latter day version of the 10 commandments, set in stone which cannot be unaltered.

If we are to have this election, it is a golden opportunity for parties to seek real reform of how we are governed, but there must be set out specifics in many areas as to what needs to be changed and why.

The Petition of Concern has been abused in the Assembly, so what proposals do you plan to bring forward to reform it? Will its use be capped? Will you introduce bipartisan requirements where not just one party can activate one? Do you give approval of its use to an independent Assembly Commission with specific guidelines? Or do you scrap it all together?

Other issues are important such as how the Speaker is elected and what powers that office has. Mick has written previously about how this is done in other legislatures, for me I would urge parties to look at John Bercow and how he has empowered backbenchers in the House of Commons over the past 7 years and held Ministers to account. The next Speaker should be the champion of those outside Ministerial office and like any good Speaker should be seen as an irritant to those within the Executive.

Also, if the past few months have shown us anything it is that we need a powerful opposition within the Assembly. Reforms should include more speaking time and greater resources for our opposition parties. It is in neither Executive party’s interest for one side to feel so powerful that they can disregard their coalition partners.

None of this is colourful or will politically set the world on fire, but parties like the SDLP and Sinn Fein should remember the painstaking work conducted by those who came before them in reforming the Northern Ireland state.

The main aim of the game is trying to make this place work, it is in Nationalisms long term interests for this to happen. People should not shy away from this or be fearful of the outcomes of forcefully pursuing this policy. Those who disagree with this, have no alternatives and simply want to create a vacuum that they have no idea how to fill.

Of course, this takes a willing partner on the Unionist side to make this happen.

Essentially we have a choice, either we create some form of functioning government ourselves and recognise the necessary compromises that need to be made, or we pursue some form of direct rule with the British and Irish governments overseeing the running of Northern Ireland.

This is the choice, either we can write a new chapter or we can close the book.

Nationalists should make this election about writing the next page of reforming the Northern Ireland state and all of the dog whistle stuff that will inevitably come up is just a distraction from the main long term game.