Observed from London, the political atmosphere at home is surreal. The volume of comment on the talks is in inverse proportion to hard information. Expectations of agreement by Good Friday are so low that the local media can barely be roused from torpor. Emergency action for feeding the Stormont cats occupied more space in the Belfast Telegraph the other day. Further emergency action to fund the regional government must be taken within a week followed by the crunch decision to hold another election or introduce direct rule. No clear idea of the “reasonable time” allowed for the talks to continue has emerged yet.
Key elements of power sharing
The legal procedure for dealing with breakdown has proved unhelpful. The provision for a quick second election was designed as a sword of Damocles to concentrate minds on a solution. But our parties have never reacted quickly to external pressure. Dribbling out decisions about the talks timetable is a poor basis for acclimatising voters to any change of position even if the parties wanted to make it , and they’re left with little choice but to dig their heels in for fear of losing votes within a very few weeks . The circumstances are tailor made to increase suspicions of ulterior motives and are no way to build trust.
We can see now that almost twenty years since its creation and through many upheavals, the political strike remains the default of the power sharing system. It’s double or quits without much flexibility. Governments must be formed by the two largest parties. If one of them quits, the governments falls. In any normal system, even one dominated by coalitions, the other parties would have a chance of forming another government. Only if they failed would another election be called, usually after more than one option had been tried. This basic element of representative democracy is absent in Northern Ireland.
In theory a voluntary coalition with a weighted majority could be formed – if only just – in SF’s or the DUP’s absence. It would be no ideal solution but it would deny any single party a veto on the Assembly’s existence. The DUP were once in favour, but when faced with it, would turkeys vote for Christmas?
“Standing aside” by a first minster has been a pressure instrument of power sharing almost from the beginning , although only now has it become a weapon for the second party. The avowed aim of the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 was to produce more decisive government than the cumbersome multiparty system had delivered thus far. The more important political aim was to create the duopoly of the DUP and Sinn Fein and the two governments let them get away with it. Scrapping the law for suspending the Assembly and banning opportunist changes in designation during the life of a mandate reduced the power of the centre ground to keep the Assembly in being.
We can see now that the implementation of St Andrew’s in 2007 marked the beginning of the end of Sinn Fein’s several years of advantage created by trading the pace of arms decommissioning.
In practice these changes have made little difference. The DUP’s insistence on replacing election of the first minister by blocs designated “unionist” and “nationalist,” with nomination by the largest party, would have worked for them last month but not in the way they expected. They were ahead of Sinn Fein by a single seat. Election by designation would have left them one behind and Michelle O’Neill as First Minister. Observers keep calling this symbolic but symbols here are the substance. The DUP may be rueing the day they succeeded in having the Alliance party banned from switching designations.
Party positions on the Assembly
Power sharing forced the two main parties together as intended but it cannot force them to stay together. If they cannot work together no conceivable amendment to the system will save the Assembly.
Sinn Fein don’t need ulterior motives to explain their conditional approach to the Assembly. The party’s show of keenness for another election may be their substitute for the border poll that will not be granted. But for them the GFA and its institutions have always been an accommodation rather than a settlement.
They paint a doleful picture of unionists whose opposition to unity is all they have left. If that is so, it must mean “equality” has already been achieved; and yet Sinn Fein continue to demand “ equality” as a condition for returning to the Assembly. They inform unionists they’re now prepared to be “open to transitional arrangements, including continued devolution to Belfast within an all-Ireland structure.” Note that phrase “open to transitional arrangements.” To supporters this is statesmanlike magnanimity, to critics it is bravado. Either way if Sinn Fein are serious, they need the Assembly as the forum of persuasion. As for unionists, they need the Assembly in principle and as their centre of power but not when it comes to it, at the expense of the constitutional link with Britain. They would live again with direct rule.
For both parties then and for opposite reasons, the Assembly is their constitutional instrument of second choice. For the everyday functioning of society however, it means more than that – the funding of services, the urgent need to reform health and social care, extending sharing in education, the introduction of lower corporation tax, and beginning future planning for Brexit.
Direct rule will gradually encroach on these responsibilities. But this week the governments must go further. Following their plan for the negotiations, they must produce a plan for outcomes. It should include:
- On the legacy, funding for inquests, the setting up of the independent investigations unit, a British statement on national security and a review within five years. Compensation for all victims and survivors on the basis of need, with former members of the part-time and full time Army compensated on the same basis as former RUC, but for them through the Military Covenant (i.e. the Ministry of Defence);
- A proportionate Irish Language Act with simultaneous translation provided for the Assembly plenary within a stated budget and without the need to balance with Ulster Scots, drawing on comparisons and contrasts with Wales, Scotland and the Republic ;
- A draft of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights to substitute for the Human Rights Act;
- On Brexit, a major role for the GFA institutions, the British-Irish intergovernmental conference, Assembly and Executive committees and a north-south body to plan for the administration of the border, interchangeable British and Irish citizenship, and the longer term future. Uniquely as of right, Sinn Fein would have access to both sets of negotiators. All parties must be incentivised to accept that Northern Ireland ‘s future relationship with the EU will be greatly strengthened if they take part in the other GFA institutions that follow on automatically from a functioning Assembly. The Conservatives have an important persuasion role here with the DUP.
- A joint declaration by both governments with Fianna Fail support, that “this is not the time” for a border poll;
- After the failure of Fresh Start, the prevailing fatalism towards any prospect of reform of the Assembly should be vigorously challenged in view of the suddenness of the Assembly collapse only months into a new optimistic-sounding mandate. A change to a voluntary coalition and the curtailment of petitions of concern should be promoted by the governments supported by motions before both parliaments;
- United pressure from both parliaments for the Assembly to resume. Time should be made for debate on motions supporting reform at Westminster and the Oireachtas to raise much needed awareness and anticipate the need for legislation if an eventual Assembly deal is not in sight.
- Joint monitoring of the Assembly by the governments, the Executive and the Assembly Executive Office committee, together and an early warning system for possible breakdown.
- A review of social legislation on same sex marriage and abortion
- A recommendation that Arlene Foster should resign if the Coghlin inquiry finds her at serious fault. Gerry Adams has acquitted her already.
- Consultation on reform, no longer be restricted to the usual internal formats controlled by government, in which rival constituencies tend to cancel each other out. Opinion sounding should be held openly, similar to the SNP’s “national conversation” for Indy Ref 1. Widening the constituencies for consultation also means the creation of another institution required by the GFA but denied by the parties – a standing civic forum.
If the parties cannot agree on enough to return to the Assembly, the British government with Irish support should begin to legislate at Westminster for those elements for which it has clear legislative competence and moral responsibility. For the British, this involves the reality check to make a screeching U-turn from “hands-off” and the ideal of retaining to Westminster only what can’t be devolved. Such a change of tack would be a tall order for a government that has so far failed to convince that it can reconcile the contradictions of its Brexit strategy with the defence of the “precious, precious Union.” An open-ended Assembly stand off should provide the incentive.
Putting the pieces together is doable but it may take more time than is available between now and this Good Friday. Yet more time must be given, not least to the two governments. Now the initiative passes to them. They have their own big point to establish; that whatever the strains they will not allow Brexit to split them apart. There’s one proviso. Do we really want solutions or would we prefer to keep worrying at a fraying garment?
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