As Soapbox recently suggested (20 January), “There is no reason for the Assembly to not be operational, just because the Executive cannot function.” Soapbox was suggesting that “direct rule ministers should be held accountable by a working Assembly.”
However, there is another option, which is for the Assembly to appoint non-parliamentary ministers.
There is no reason why the Assembly cannot hire in talent if the parties cannot form a workable Executive from their own numbers. And if there becomes any serious risk that Direct Rule will be contested if the Republic’s government isn’t given a role in it, this option neatly side-steps that dilemma.
The Netherlands, Belgium, the USA and Mexico all have a strong political tradition of the separation of powers, with a strict rule that members of parliament cannot also serve as ministers of the government. In other words, the ‘legislative’ is fully separated from the ‘executive’.
For example, if MPs are appointed as ministers in the Netherlands, they are required to leave parliament. Most of us have not been particularly phased as US Presidents bring in a range of unelected officials to run the Federal Government, so why not do it here?
A wide range of countries actually combine parliamentary and non-parliamentary ministers. Even Westminster has done something like this too. Gordon Brown appointed eight such ministers by putting them in the House of Lords before appointing them as ministers.
Sir John Major has raised the possibility of dispensing with the need to make external ministers of state Lords in the first place.
As well as preventing the need for Direct Rule, there are other advantages to non-parliamentary ministers for Northern Ireland. It massively expands the pool of talent available to take on ministerial roles from the 90 MLAs to literally tens of thousands of plausible ministerial candidates from Northern Ireland and beyond.
It also would allow experienced CEOs and specialised technocrats to focus on improving pubic services and policies rather than worrying about electoral competition between the parties.
If such a route were taken, the Assembly would grow in stature, and the chairpersons of its committees would have a much more significant role to play. This is the case in the USA and other countries where ‘checks and balances’ between the legislative and executive rely on parliamentary scrutiny rather than loyalty to a political party.
Ideally, post-election, at least some of the political parties will manage to form a workable Executive. But it would be no harm to have a Plan B that would help consolidate mature self-government by Northern Ireland’s elected Assembly as an alternative to the loss of public funds and democratic control that Direct Rule would entail.
Nat O’Connor is lecturer of public policy and public management at Ulster University.