If Stormont works on the basis of stoking fear or loathing of the other, is it time for ambitious change?

Some useful thoughts here from Northern Ireland’s one man think tank, Newton Emerson, on the business of how the UUP and SDLP might provide a credible challenge to the new establishment parties of the DUP and Sinn Fein:

What really stops the UUP and SDLP offering an alternative is that a Stormont executive must be led by the largest nationalist and unionist parties and there is no guarantee of the “moderates” leading both blocs.

If the requirement instead was for the largest nationalist and unionist coalition to lead the executive, choice could be offered and power-sharing preserved.

This would undoubtedly be portrayed by Sinn Féin and the DUP as an outrageous change to the Belfast Agreement. In fact, it would be closer to the original rules under that deal.

The title of first minister – a totem in the latest stand-off – used to be given not to the largest party, but to the largest party of the largest designation.

David Trimble, for example, would have been first minister even if the UUP had fewer seats than the SDLP, as long as unionism still had more seats overall.

Sinn Féin and the DUP had this rule changed after the 2006 St Andrew’s agreement, turning party size into a tribal competition. The DUP also wanted unionist and nationalist designations to be declared on ballot papers, rather than at the first sitting of the assembly.

In other words, pre-election co-ordination could be facilitated as long as it benefitted hardliners. [Emphasis added]

This collapse (and all the strokes and mini strokes of the foregoing ten years) indicates that this post-St Andrews ‘arrangement’ (it was privately agreed afterwards) seems only to encourage a stoking of fear or loathing of the other, precluding any real working together once in post.

It’s a huge flaw, which many who are much closer to the arena appear not to have really noticed. For me (though I’m biased since I was in it) Jennifer O’Leary’s Spotlight programme sets all of these issues in their proper context:

O’Leary defines Emerson’s point further “the First and deputy First Ministers were originally elected by all MLAs, but under a change in the St Andrews Agreement they are now nominated separately by the largest and second largest parties”.

This identifies not simply the degree to which these parties were structurally sidelined, but how fragile the relationship proved when after just seven months of probing by a massively under-resourced Opposition the whole sham operation fell apart.

The key benefits of the St Andrews Agreement (such as getting SF to recognise the PSNI, devolution of Policing and Justice, etc) were real but largely transitional and therefore will not be undone by any post-election revisiting of these highly limiting terms.

The British-Irish Agreement is the internationally binding foundational document, not St Andrews, with the focus on setting the peace. It did not envisage such an enabling of tribal fear and loathing, but nor did it, strictly speaking, seek to prevent it.

Much was left to vagaries of goodwill with achingly little thought given to the matter of accountability.

This continual failure of Strand One is primarily an issue for the parties in Northern Ireland. It’s the beating heart of that international agreement. But if it fails (eg, a Minister having to sue an Executive colleague just to get her to share departmental information) then all strands fail.

Newton Emerson draws this interesting conclusion:

Sinn Féin is now running to London again, demanding that changes to the status quo be imposed over the DUP’s head. If such a thing is possible, could the centre parties not agree some proposals of their own?

Why not? They could hardly do much worse than the current profoundly unstable stitch up?

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  • Brian Walker

    Dear Mick, Good question that i’ve asked myself in a long forgotten post.

    Depending on the result, perhaps the time has come to try prescription more than comment.

    In the meantime try looking up the wrong end of the telescope. Once, say a decade ago, NI was a stunted outlier. Today even allowing for the communal thing, it doesn’t look quite so isolated.

    Take Italy. Once when a government fell -45 times in 20 years- they shuffled up in the bed a bit and Andreotti or somone formed another government. Now they alternate between wouldbe strong men and technocrats. France may be about to get a president without the support of any party in the national assembly.
    I need only mention the word Trump.
    Scotland? Solidly heading for disaster or baulking at radical change?

    What I’m trying to say is this just may be how we do things and it might or might not get any better. It may be our style to need mini Mao type leaps forward just to keep going. Breakdown followed by patchup like warring couples who can never actually breakup for good. There is even a term for it, the power sharing squeeze.

    In all of above cases there isn’t a drift to social collapse and war. None of us is back in the 1930s. Or in our case the 70s and 80s. Affairs get administered just the same. Politics may not matter so very much.

    If we’ve joined that bigger club, perhaps we’re not doing so badly?
    (That’s fatalism for you!)

  • mickfealty

    Agreed Brian. I’ll come to some of those broader issues in a later post. We’re in a *much* better position than most post conflict societies to overcome these matters.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Not to be even more fatalistic on it. If you have any system which relies on a divided electorate isn’t there always going to be an element of each side trying to be the biggest bloc. I’m not sure how much of this is down to the structural set up of stormont

  • Teddybear

    I agree with Brian. The collapse of a government does Andy should not lead to a collapse of the very institutions of government. If the government falls in Italy as it does on an annual basis, it doestnt presage descent into anarchy.

    Perhaps we should directly elect a FM DFM and then they seek to form a governments. This is how Israel works

  • Brian Walker

    Any structure or system can be gamed. But a pumped up DUP took the gamble at St Andrews to switch from bloc majority and joint nomination to largest party for FM because they didn’t want to have to utter the words of nominating the SF dFM

  • Brian Walker

    Gosh! There’s more to add? I suppose I should’ve realised you were into Plato….

  • mickfealty

    Have you a link to that earlier piece of yours? [There’s always more to add… ;-)]

  • Slater

    The 1998 agreement was built around separate development and the fact of an ethnically divided society.
    In South Africa it was called apartheid but at least it is a fair division in Northern Ireland.
    The only conceivable alternative is direct rule which is still favoured by a hidden majority despite London’s horror at the thought.
    Attempts to build centre politics can only crash like NI21 or become deformed like the Alliance Party which was once moderate or neutral and is now hardline anti-unionist and objectively nationalist.

  • Zig70

    The problem isn’t the system, the problem is the moderate SDLP carelessly lost its voters and usp. I have no problem with SDLP DUP led assembly. Who defines this moderate designation anyway?

  • CatholicLeft

    Israel experimented with directly electing a Prime Minister at the 1996, 1999 and 2001 elections, and then abandoned the practice as its intention of producing more stable governments failed miserably.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    How are alliance objectively nationalist?

    And if they are nationalist then why do so many nationalists deem them unionist?

    Maybe it’s a case of ‘if you annoy both sides in NI then you must be doing something right’?

  • file

    Great example. Israel fulfils all three definitions of what a rogue state is.

  • file

    The only conceivable alternative, according to you, is direct rule, and that has been shown not to work either. Why not try something else? joint authority? United Ireland? A new union (within the EU) called INIS comprising Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland?

  • eamoncorbett

    How would that work when the FM/DFM would most likely be the leaders of the parties who are quarrelling, are you suggesting that these 2 would remain in place whilst everyone else had departed the stage.

  • mickfealty

    It’s not about moderation Zig, it’s about that private arrangement which pretty much turned Stormont Castle into an unassailable fortress, and a deep comfort zone for a particularly indolent form of politics.

  • mickfealty

    This was less a gaming of the system so much as a system created in order to politically game democratic choice. Tribalism supplanting policy, creating that comfort zone at the core, which failed remarkably quickly on contact with a very inexperienced/amateurish opposition.

    In the end, it’s a fix that’s been tested to destruction. I don’t think it requires anything major to fix it, and I cannot see the DUP being in a position to block it afterwards. Personally I believe the system can work, but it’s very rigidity needs (a lot) of flexibility and pragmatism.

    Both of which we are in short supply of..,

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Indeed didn’t Alliance once designate as unionist in the assembly, to help Trimble out?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree with others here that the collapse of any particular coalition is normal and it’s a big absurd to see it as the collapse of the whole idea of coalition government or of power-sharing as a practice.

    The current electoral arithmetic is the problem: those bloody voters, leaving us stuck with the parties they choose ;-). Politicians of the UUP and SDLP just need to keep hammering away and win voters over by showing they are more sensible, more practical, better able to defend their respective cultures and stand a better chance of improving everyday life for people.

    We can play around with systems all we want but there are limits to what can be done if voters insist on electing hardliners. The real challenge is to persuade voters the centre is not a risk. The centre also needs to come together a lot more to call out the extremes.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Could not agree more “it’s very rigidity needs (a lot) of flexibility and pragmatism.”

    And a lot of transparency, Mick. As Goethe said with his last breath, “Mehr Licht!”

  • aquifer

    The biggest party nominating the first minister is not in the Good Friday Agreement, it is a booby-trap inserted by the DUP to keep them in power or blow up the institutions. Get the political bomb disposal squad out to unravel the duct tape from the crazy person and have the device removed and put in a bucket of water.

    Similarly the Petition Of Concern so obviously and cynically abused in the absence of enforceable rules to ensure that it really was protecting protestants or catholics from arbitrary legislation. The legal eagles are short of work now that we have mostly stopped shooting people over 18, let a few of them operate some rules around POCs.

  • aquifer

    If we stuck to the rules and repeated elections until people were sick to the teeth of them, I think we might see much more flexibility and pragmatism developing in what was left of the political parties. Side deals that satisfy the extremes are unstable.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    Another factor which no one on this web site , seems to appreciate is that a solid third ( pus)of Ulster British are conservative evangelical Christians..and their vote will not go to pro abortion and same sex marriage parties.the fear is not just Republicanism, but the forces of ungodliness.

  • Nevin

    “after just seven months of probing by a massively under-resourced Opposition the whole sham operation fell apart.”

    The TEO didn’t fall apart; it was burnt down by a BBC Spotlight incendiary device on December 6. The stampede shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise.

  • Roger

    Not doing so badly?

    UKNI doesn’t do so badly because UKNI is heavily subsidised by mainland UK taxpayers. This owes very little to what UKNI itself does or doesn’t do. Judging UKNI on its own performance, it does badly. Very badly. The performance gap between UKNI and Ireland is stark.

    Italy isn’t the best comparator. The Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic would be closer to the mark. It didn’t do too badly either. But then things changed and it had to stand on its own two feet. Just how badly it had really been doing became apparent. Rather quickly.

    UKNI is lucky. The UK is in much better shape than the USSR was near its end. But UKNI is doing very badly indeed. We shouldn’t let the subsidies blind our judgment.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Surely it is just as “ungodly” to simply flaunt such principals in order to cynically attract votes, RIW? Being governed by cynical self-interested persons is the core problem, and simply voting in people who parrot your concerns but then act in their own general political self-interest is simply being exploited to “vote by standing order” for people who are playing their voting base.

    This is not the way to develop any kind of sincere moral society.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    There is no morality without respect for the Word of God..Keep your secular Republic.the Godly protestants of Ulster will surprise you on March the second.

  • SeaanUiNeill
  • Zorin001


  • Zig70

    I don’t buy it. NI politics is open. I’d say a lot of people from a Catholic nationalist background aren’t best pleased with SF as their reps. I owe them no loyalty. They did a hell of a lot wrong. Though, those from a wealthier background that you’d expect to form the right wing side of politics are very thin on the ground. I’d say that is down to NI being a political corner shop due to its design.

  • Nevin

    “They could hardly do much worse than the current profoundly unstable stitch up?”

    Problems of governance have not just been limited to the actions and in-actions of the DUP and SF; they’ve also been linked to the two Governments and to the smaller parties; and they can be found at local government level too.

    I think the following section of the British-Irish Agreement needs to be tweaked to facilitate Treasury best practice:

    22. All the Northern Ireland Departments will be headed by a Minister. All Ministers will liaise regularly with their respective Committee.

    This could be altered to:

    22. All the Northern Ireland Departments will be headed by a Minister.
    All Ministers will chair their Departmental Boards and will liaise regularly with their respective Committee.

    At present Ministers aren’t even at the Departmental Board table where they could be advised and challenged by the Independent board members. This, of course, presupposes that Permanent Secretaries provide key information to the accessors of risk, the Independent members.

  • Mike the First

    “The title of first minister – a totem in the latest stand-off – used to be given not to the largest party, but to the largest party of the largest designation.

    David Trimble, for example, would have been first minister even if the UUP had fewer seats than the SDLP, as long as unionism still had more seats overall.”

    Newton Emerson is totally wrong on this bit.

    The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (and the original Northern Ireland Act 1998) provided for the joint election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister by a majority of the Assembly, plus a majority of both Unionist and Nationalist MLAs.

    The selection of the FM by the largest party in the largest designation was a chance made in the St Andrews Agreement – but this was almost immediately changed again after St Andrews, so that in the St Andrew Act, it became the largest party in the Assembly that would select the FM.

    David Trimble and Seamus Mallon/Mark Durkan could have swapped FM and DFM roles just as long as the got a cross-community majority to do so.