Democracy Requires Another Assembly Election

In most established democracies there is only one solution when the political parties are deadlocked and cannot come to an agreement: hold another election.

In Northern Ireland, for historical reasons, there has been the suspension of ‘normal’ rules with so-called ‘direct rule’ by the government in London instead of continued regional democracy.

In the rules governing the Assembly, there is a short timeframe to form an Executive—just one week—after which the Secretary of State has the power to call another election, seek to reintroduce direct rule (through Parliament) or allow more time for negotiations. The problem lies in the fact that anyone has any discretion in this matter. Justifiably, various commentators at the time felt that one week was too short a time for negotiations over a programme for government, but that reasoning leads us to the current slippery slope where there is no real deadline for the Assembly to agree an Executive. Once the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, allowed one extension of the deadline, it was always politically possible that he would extend it again, and again, as has been the case.

It is understandable in our age of professional politics that political parties across the democratic world are not in favour of frequent elections, preferring several years of uninterrupted parliamentary stability to get on with other work. While some politicians revel in the cut and thrust of electoral contests, others legitimately prefer to get stuck into constituency representation, committee work, legislation, scrutiny and (if they are lucky enough) executive roles in government. Competing in elections takes money and intense energy by candidates, and is reliant on enthusiastic volunteerism from the party grass roots. With the controls placed on fund-raising by political parties or allied groups, filling the ‘war chests’ in advance of elections is increasingly challenging. Parties also fear that lower turnout of their voters will weaken their position. And holding elections leads to professional and personal uncertainty for the few people willing to be professional politicians, many of whom are not financially independent and may have family dependent on them.

Nonetheless, the democratic response must be unwavering. If the elected representatives cannot make government work, there must be another election to give the people the final say.

There was a good turnout for the March 2017 assembly elections, which can be seen as a desire among the public for the Assembly and Executive to get up and running. Yet, only two out of every three eligible voters (64.8%) actually cast a ballot. Although the DUP and SF were the clear victors in terms of seats and first preference votes, their mandate to oppose another election being held is not incontrovertible. Yes, they collectively hold a majority of seats in the Assembly (55/90) and, yes, they collectively hold a majority of first preference votes cast (56%), but between them they can only claim to represent one in three eligible voters (36.3%).

The only way to restore power to the people is to allow all eligible voters to have their say in another election. And if necessary, in a succession of elections until such a time as the parties shift their positions and/or voters opt for different politicians to represent them based on their willingness or capability to get on with the business of government. As funds run out, and energetic volunteerism from the party members becomes harder to get, political leaders will be under real pressure to compromise anew.

Some people like to poke fun at Italy for its past history of frequent changes of government, but this belies the fact that Italy has been more politically and economically stable than is sometimes assumed. Many of the government changes in Italy have been to do with the dominant political parties shifting allies among the many smaller political parties in order to re-form a governing coalition when their allies ask for too much or when backbenchers rebel at some aspect of the programme for government. All of this is within the norms of what you might hope politicians would do. One person’s rebellious backbencher is another person’s public representative acting with consistency on issues that matter to their supporters.

In December 2016, Paolo Gentiloni became prime minister of Italy’s 65th government since 1946. The UK had 25 governments in the same period of time. But France had 66 governments, mainly because it had 27 governments in the 13 years before the founding of the Fifth Republic in the late 1950s (Euronews). The Republic of Ireland held three general elections in the period June 1981 to November 1982. While the same parties came first and second each time, the instability, resource cost and the loss of time to actually govern eventually pushed the Dáil into forming a government that ran all the way to 1987.

There is nothing unusual in having frequent changes of government when society itself is conflicted over major issues. The act of holding elections can be a catharsis—a release of pent up emotions and fears—that allows politicians to put aside ideological differences and to refocus on governing.

Northern Ireland had an election in May 2016 and another one in March 2017. It would be no big deal to have another election in 2017, and another one in spring 2018 if necessary. Some commentators talk about the prospect of another Assembly election as if it were a terrible thing, but what could be better than the people having a bit more influence on government than a vote every five years? Isn’t democracy worth the ‘inconvenience’?

It is highly undemocratic to have the threat of elections ‘suspended until further notice’ (i.e. direct rule) held over a regional government, even though the 2006 St Andrews Agreement introduced the requirement of an Act of Parliament before direct rule can be reintroduced. All over Europe and North America there are strong, elected regional assemblies who would baulk at the thought that they could be abolished by a vote in the national assembly. Regional governments in some countries—like Germany and Sweden—take a greater share of taxation and are more involved in the delivery of public services than ‘central’ government. Despite not having much say over taxation, Northern Ireland’s Executive otherwise has a strong range of powers and people should be appalled at the idea of its abolition. (Ideally, commentators would also stop calling it ‘local’ government, and acknowledge its extensive powers).

Northern Ireland is also not the only country whose constitution—if you want to call the Belfast Good Friday Agreement that—mandates ‘consociational’ government (i.e. mandatory coalition between rival factions and various protections for minorities). At various points in recent history, governments in Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands and Switzerland have followed consociationalism, as has Colombia, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Cyprus and Lebanon. Not every example has been successful—Cyprus and Lebanon fell into civil war—but many European countries stopped using consociationalism precisely because it succeeded in bringing about stable, competitive electoral politics.

It is a problem for Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State that he has the theoretical option of direct rule. It is clearly a step backwards from stable ‘normal’ politics. And most political parties in Northern Ireland vocally oppose it.

Unfortunately, in part because he holds the power of direct rule, Mr Brokenshire did not set a firm deadline for new elections. By allowing the possibility of another election to drift, it is now clearly his decision whether new Assembly elections are held or whether an attempt is made to reintroduce direct rule through Parliament. It should never have come to this. In other countries, calling fresh elections is typically where the monarch or president has a role, as guardian of the constitution. Making this kind of decision is really above the pay grade of a Secretary of State, and requires at least the endorsement of the Prime Minister. Even so, some people will chafe at the idea of Parliament (in London) making such a decision rather than it being the requirement of an established written constitution or agreement.

Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s Agreement is not a fully detailed constitution for the operation of devolved government. Although the Agreement has the lofty ambition of providing ‘for a democratically elected Assembly in Northern Ireland which is inclusive in its membership, capable of exercising executive and legislative authority, and subject to safeguards to protect the rights and interests of all sides of the community’, it does not specify a watertight timetable for elections when the Assembly or Executive ceases to function.

The ‘unwritten’ UK constitution—which is actually drawn from multiple documents and interpretation of the past, rather than being completely open-ended—requires a general election to be held every five years and, if Parliament cannot pass a motion of confidence in the government, there is a requirement for a new Government to be formed within 14 days or else a general election is triggered. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, once the date of the next general election is set, Parliament is dissolved 25 working days before that date. In the Constitution of Ireland, Dáil general elections must take place not later than 30 days after dissolution. Following the elections, the Dáil must meet 30 days from polling day, which implies that failure to form a government at that stage will result in another general election soon afterwards.

Based on these examples, the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2nd March 2016 should have been followed by a strict timeline for inter-party talks, the formal opening of the Assembly and the formation of an Executive. In hindsight, something like 30 days would have been better than a week to allow the parties to form an Executive in the first place.

As of today, 4th September, 186 days have passed since the last election. Allowing the ‘summer holiday’ period to prolong the impasse was poor form and continuing to kick the deadline down the road undemocratically denies the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to decide on their political future.


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  • T.E.Lawrence

    I am afraid all another election would do is wipe out the shrinking middle ground and we would still be left with 2 even stronger parties who will not compromise

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well elections don’t do that, the electorate does that, and there’s no point in the centerground going “L’enfer, c’est les autres”

    You can canvass for the middle ground if you want to, perhaps in an odd way they are the radical fringe politics of our local politics, against the ultra-conservative DUP and ultra-intransigent Sinn Féin providing no movement what so ever when they don’t have a common enemy to go after.

    Imagine that radical to vote SDLP, UUP, Alliance or Green etc!

  • Karl

    Mandatory voting for the assembly elections.
    We would see where the disillusioned 35% lay their hat
    We would get an accurate size on each of the 3 tribes
    The 35% may also be more volatile and switch sides tactically in some elections thereby breaking the logjam and encouraging the parties to reach outside their natural electorate

  • William Kinmont

    It would render no compromise fairly pointless and eventially risky. It would also give the middle ground parties more freedom to experiment with moderate strategy.
    Issue is that as we approach border poll teritory SF have little reason to make NI functional.

  • Brendan Heading

    I think so too TE

  • Georgie Best

    This idea is completely off course. NI is based on ‘no surrender’ and the DUP would simply come back on this basis.

  • mac tire

    Another election to be fought on the same issues that the last two elections we have had in the past 6 months? An election that will produce very similar results?
    You’ll not convince too many as to the merit of your proposal.

  • aquifer

    We need to unlearn the habit of voting DUP and getting Sinn Fein and vice versa, and then having them staring at one another for an eternity. 5 elections one after the other and we might catch ourselves on, or does Brokenshire think our learning difficulties are terminal?

  • aquifer

    Not compromising and failing to form a government counts as a failure if repeated often enough, so lets have more elections and see if the penny drops with the electorate. Assembly elections are not the border poll. The middle ground need to sharpen up, they need the practice of a few elections and maybe a few coalitions to get their story straight. Alliance have to become more than the piggy in the middle party.

  • Belgium is the obvious counter-example to the first paragraph. It went without a national government for almost two years while the parties could not agree a coalition. They did not hold another election.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Brendan I witnessed a 43K Loyalist Vote (6%) back 20 years ago get devoured up in the NI Monster Raving Loonie Voting Habits and I fear the same thing could happen to the Middle Ground in the current political swamp. Here is my forecast if another Assembly Election was held tomorrow in NI based on June 2017 Westminster Election Results :
    SDLP 95K would lose 30% down to 66K; UUP 83K would lose 50% down to 40K; Alliance 64K would lose 10% down to 57K; Greens 7K would lose 5% down to 6.5K

  • William Kinmont

    Come back to what? Without compromise to get an assembly running ,they and their mandate would be rendered worthless. Question is how many cycles would it take for the electorate to catch on?
    probably less time than the current impass is taking.
    Or we could just continue as we are reinforcing the idea that SF and DUP are somehow relivant and important to running our lives.

  • Nat O’Connor

    Even small shifts in party’s vote can push them towards compromise and government formation if they feel that they’d do worse in yet another election three months later. Behind the scenes there will be other shifts as each party uses up its reserve cash, and succeeds or fails in firing up its base of core supporters to go knocking on doors. The background competition for resources and core supporters is also part of electoral competition, and it changes more than you might think even when the same number of seats are won. Plus the election won’t necessarily produce exactly the same results. Some key politicians may lose or win their seats, and the presence or absence of even a small number of people can change the dynamic within a party or across a negotiating table.

  • sparrow

    ‘Democracy Requires Another Assembly Election’
    Nope, democracy requires the dissolution of the northern state and proper democratic elections on the island of Ireland. Everything else is merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

  • Nat O’Connor

    True. And it didn’t serve Belgium particularly well not to have a functioning federal government. But Belgium also had five other parliaments and executives up and running at the same time, and the two big regional governments (Flanders and Wallonia) provide the bulk of public services, so there wasn’t the same paralysis around budget allocation and policy making that has gripped Northern Ireland.

    Spain also had a similarly long period of trying to get a stable government up and running, even though they did have a two-month rule requiring the king to dissolve their parliament and call new elections. They had several elections, but still took ages to get a government formed. Again, strong regional government kept many public services going.

    But in both Spain and Belgium, what was the alternative? The two possibilities were talks or elections. When talks were exhausted they held elections. And if necessary, more talks and more elections. But the bottom line was always going back to the people to seek a fresh mandate. That should be the bottom line in Northern Ireland too. None of the parties in Northern Ireland are seeking the return of direct rule, yet the media spends more time musing about it than it does about elections. IMO, I think that feeds into cynicism about devolved government that is unhelpful.

  • Nat O’Connor

    I don’t know whether or not your prediction would come about, though it is plausible. But if the middle ground parties lose as many votes as you think, some of this will be from people not voting at all as opposed to voting for the DUP and SF, who would still not represent more than 40-45% of eligible voters between them. That leaves a lot of potential voters (including many young non-voters) to be reconciled with a other options in subsequent elections. The UUP-SDLP electoral compact did not work out well for them. So they and the others should try other strategies. Political experiments like NI21 were likewise unsuccessful, but it is only through elections that strategies can be tried out. And if both the DUP and SF strengthened their vote, that might embolden them to take the risks involved in entering government. I believe there are politicians in both camps who genuinely want to get on with governing.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Mick Fealty nailed it in another post. NI Elections is a Political Party Millionaire Game. All parties outside the big two are financially on their hands and knees at the moment. More Quick Shock Local Elections will bury them !

  • The Saint

    I think Belgium have mandatory voting, I think it would be a good thing.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Nicholas White to comment

  • Kevin Breslin

    Apart from Margret Ann McKillop and the Palmers there has not been many high profile defections to the alternative parties though.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m not much use as a pseopologist, but I’m not entirely sure I agree. The PTP system pushed tactical votes towards the bigger parties during the Westminister election. Those votes should mostly drift back under STV.

    I think the UUP are in serious trouble as there are not many reasons, outside tradition, for pro-union voters not to vote for the DUP anymore, not least because the UUP helpfully asked their own voters to do so. I think Alliance will hold its ground for the moment. It’s a different picture in nationalism and depends to what extent nationalists want support SF’s boycott strategy and what kind of alternative the SDLP offer. The initial signs, where Eastwood jumped to be the first out the gate to shut down Arlene Foster’s attempt at a compromise, are not promising.

    Another effect to consider is the effect of losing Westminster seats. In the past, when the assembly shut down, the SDLP and UUP had income from Westminster to keep their party machines in operation and help employ a few party staff. With that income gone, and if the Assembly gets shut, those two parties will have serious funding problems. The same applies to Alliance and the Greens, albeit to a lesser extent as those parties have long had to make do with not having parliamentary seats. For all the goodwill in the world politicians have to eat, and they’ll end up drifting out of politics if they are unable to make a living from it.

  • Kevin Breslin

    UUP-SDLP pact was worth around 2 seats a piece to them, so I disagree.

  • Neiltoo

    So how far does one go back in history before the borders of a state are legitimate?

  • eamoncorbett

    You’re not forgetting the general public here Nat, they are the ones most inconvenienced by elections , the more frequent the smaller turnout in general but with some exceptions. The same protagonists with the same attitudes generally win largely due to the constitutional set up .
    Fix the constitutional crisis that overshadows everything, then hold elections.

  • sparrow

    Or put another way, how long before the people of Ireland forget that their country is illegally partitioned and give up trying for reunification? I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that one. This is the place where 1690 is still celebrated every year, where GAA clubs are still named in honour of United Irishmen. Something that happened 90 odd years ago is just like yesterday.

  • Nat O’Connor

    Unfortunately, the only ‘fix’ for the constitutional crisis is time and effort, and I don’t think we should postpone elections as they are part of the long-term solution, as they were in the Netherlands and other places I mention above. I don’t agree that ‘The same protagonists with the same attitudes generally win largely due to the constitutional set up’. If you look back at the six Assembly elections, there is actually a lot of variation in what vote share each party received. Also, a lot of younger people have come of voting age and older people have passed on during this period. I’m also not sure that people generally find voting to be an inconvenience, although some people don’t like the campaign period with the posters and doorstep canvassing. But we’d expect some negative reaction to elections given that a third of adults don’t vote, some of whom have opted out of politics completely. Yet a majority of people do vote and presumably regard the right or duty of voting as more important than any inconvenience. I’d be more worried about the number of young people who don’t vote, as it is their future being decided (but that concern exists across the democratic world).