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.