Soapbox: Steven Agnew argues it’s time to look at voluntary coalition

The Green Party NI’s leader Steven Agnew writes …

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and I find it depressing that we could reach that anniversary without the devolved institutions back up and running.

This is a genuine concern after witnessing nine months where the DUP and Sinn Féin seem to be practising the art of the impossible.

We have been served well by the Good Friday Agreement, but our devolved institutions must adapt to survive.

A dull, throbbing pessimism has taken over since the disaster that was the Sinn Féin/DUP Executive.

Right now this disaster is playing out in the homes of families across Northern Ireland. We know that our health service is fracturing under budget pressures and the failure to deliver long term reform measures without a Health Minister.

The sense is growing that Sinn Féin has no intention of going back into government. Their abstentionist position at Westminster is well known but the question is whether it has been extended to Stormont?

They now may deem it better to be sitting outside and throwing stones than being accountable when Tory austerity and the realities of Brexit begin to bite.

Unfortunately, such an approach offers nothing for patients on waiting lists or head teachers operating with shrinking school budgets.

It’s time to practise the art of the possible and look for another way.

Many make the assumption that without agreement there must be direct rule from Westminster, or else another election. I believe in local democracy and oppose Direct Rule in principle, but also because it would result in unmitigated Tory rule. Another election will achieve nothing. Unless of course we change the institutions to which we are electing people to.

What if we did make a change? As supportive as I am of the Good Friday Agreement, I have consistently argued since its fifteenth anniversary that it should be reviewed, reformed and revitalised.

I commonly get asked why I and others who want to see Stormont work, cannot form a coalition of the willing.

Currently the law does not allow for that as it requires the two largest parties to take up power. However, just as we have had a voluntary opposition – parties who chose not to take up Ministerial positions – we should now move to voluntary coalition.

If, as I suspect, Sinn Féin have no intention of going back into government, let them step aside, and let those of us who want Northern Ireland to work get on with the job of making that happen. Or, if they are truly committed to a rights based society, let them produce a programme for government around which they can form a cross party coalition.

Voluntary coalition is not a new idea but it’s time to look for what is possible and preferable to the current situation. No party should have the power to tear the devolved institutions down and leave the electorate in Northern Ireland powerless.

That’s why a voluntary coalition can usher in an era of fresh politics and politicians that put people first.

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  • runnymede

    This is of course what the system should have been from the start

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Steven and the Greens would have to spell out how a voluntary coalition would be assembled with cross community parties support ?

  • Karl

    Voluntary coalition today will merely exclude 30% of the electorate from power. I believe thats how NI got to be in the mess its in, in the first place
    NI politicians are political pygmies and cant be trusted to run a proverbial from a brewery. The electorate arent much better because there are no consequences to who they vote for, having had the economy subsidised to a stupid degree for the last 20 years.

    Incremental change to a system as rotten as this is pointless. Direct rule is the only meaningful consequence until the children grow up.

  • The worm!

    Yes it should, but it’s also easy to remember why it couldn’t.

    However that’s all water under the bridge, it’s the only way forward now.

  • 1729torus

    The opposition makes coalition semi-voluntary in that you can choose whether or not to enter, you just can’t exclude others.

    The next step towards voluntary coalition would be a rule allowing for the dismissal/impeachment of a member of the Executive for gross incompetence, subject to an absolute 2/3 vote in the Assembly.

  • The worm!


    Bring in voluntary coalition, and hold another election. Either the DUP and Shinners would have to buy in to the idea, or the SDLP, UUP, Alliance, Green vote would soar. We would have proper politics and a proper democracy.

    What the resultant assembly would end up looking like would be fascinating.

    Now compare that with the tired, dreary, miserable, political landscape we have at the minute.

    It would be like waking up to a bright warm sunny morning after a horrible miserable shitty summer!

  • Stephen Kelly

    Are all you guys pensioners like me or on the dole or using your bosses time and computers or running slow businesses or as i suspect very successful entrepreneurs with excellent brains and a lot of free time.

  • The worm!

    I AM the boss!

  • Stephen Kelly

    See i knew it a successful entrepreneur with an excellent brain and a lot of free time.

  • The worm!

    Well I’ll take that as a compliment Mr Kelly, if I may?

    However, things are probably not as you imagine. I DO work, pretty hard and physical too, I imagine my hands look very different to many on here!

  • Stephen Kelly

    Excellent an entrepreneur who can work physically as hard as you and keep an eye on your computer to see what the pensioners are up to on slugger that’s mighty. I can see the block grant shrinking already. One small request please stop shouting even the wee bit thank you.

  • The worm!

    No I’m not one of those sort of entrepreneurs I can assure you, any money earned is through hard honest physical endeavour, as it should be!

    Some of us less computer literate souls use capitals as an “idiots” method of emphasis, so no offence intended.

  • Stephen Kelly

    Don’t get that are you calling me an idiot. I was perfectly civil to you.

  • The worm!

    “Don’t get that are you calling me an idiot.”

    I wasn’t, just read the post again properly!

  • Stephen Kelly

    (having had the economy subsidised to a stupid degree for the last 20 years.)

    I am sorry but i do not agree with you i think the block grant should be increased by at least 5 billion then we would be properly looked after. Since the majority want the British to stay here and the British have no problem with that. Add on the fact that the north east of Ireland ( the carved up six counties)can never ever be economically viable the least the British can do is pay us handsomely to fulfill all our needs.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “SDLP, UUP, Alliance, Green vote would soar” But would it ??????

  • The worm!

    I think that would be inevitable for many reasons.

    Neither of the two main protagonists are going to have a majority under any circumstances so there WILL have to be a coalition. So at least one of the these, possibly more, are going to have real clout in the post election negotiations.

    So firstly, I reckon there are quite a lot of people who would more instinctively vote for these parties but have “lent” their vote to either SF or DUP recently for various well documented reasons. Without the two party nature of the election, a lot of these should return their vote to where they would probably prefer to have kept it all along. But now can vote their preferred way with the hope that it could actually be meaningful as well.

    Secondly, all these parties now have a real opportunity to win votes, votes that they’ve possibly never had before, by campaigning on everyday issues. It would be up to them to sell the policies that they would be insisting on to “make a deal” knowing that at least one of them will be in government. Political parties electioneering on everyday issues, in Northern Ireland, imagine that!!!!

    Thirdly, while the election results show increasing intolerance and intransigence with moderate opinion almost obliterated. I don’t honestly believe that reflects public opinion, I think it reflects the political “cul-de-sac” which we are jammed up in and so many people would delight in having the opportunity to vote in a thoughtful considered fashion that they would leap at it in their droves.

    All just my opinion of-course, but I would dearly love to find out!

  • Hibernia

    Voluntary coalition is just code for another generation of unionist misrule and second class citizenship for nationalists in the North of Ireland

  • Jeff

    The worm, stephen constantly looks for offence

  • The worm!

    Apparently so.

    You’ve probably offended him by saying that.

  • john millar

    Au contraire Tax should be devolved at once There should be no “subvention” NI should stand (or fall off) its own feet.
    Clear the decks no end

  • john millar

    “dismissal/impeachment of a member of the Executive for gross incompetence, subject to an absolute 2/3 vote in the Assembly.”

    I like it-tho I would prefer 60% vote

  • RWP

    Not on the current assembly numbers it isn’t. What if the Assembly was a coalition of DUP, SDLP and Aliiance – that’d be enough for a majority.

  • The worm!

    Precisely, or what about SF, SDLP, Alliance and Green?

    The permutations are plentiful, and fascinating.

    Never mind the horse-trading that would be necessary on individual motions as numbers would always be close.

  • aquifer

    Hard to take seriously when the centre parties cannot even offer a shared Programme for Government.

  • Stephen Kelly

    LOLOLOL believe me at my age and what i have lived through you get very very hard to offend damn near impossible, easier to raise a laugh.

  • Stephen Kelly

    LOLOLOL cant leave you out the wife was asking me what i was laughing at and when i showed her, being a good wee retired lawyer she said treat them equally and walked of shaking her head. She sometimes reads over my shoulder at the comments and always walks of shaking her pretty little head lol.

  • Stephen Kelly

    Policies Let me tell you what i think of policies. Myself and my very good wife help out at a homeless group. When election time comes all literature goes strait in the bin. Last time round an SDLP pamphlet caught my eye and i lifted it back out to read. It was vote for a woman called Hanna and her hopes for the assembly i think. Now considering my charity work with the homeless i was a little annoyed. Because her two main concerns on the front of the leaflet were more money for the arts and more breast feeding facilities at our overpriced assembly and i think other places maybe, cant remember put it back in the bin in disgust. I just thought dear god has she no eyes, reads no papers, talks to no one, the poor and the homeless are far more worthy causes.

  • Ryan A

    Doubt it would soar, but it would probably put a significant hole in the DUP/SF vote considering the amount that has been drummed up over the years to keep one of the aforementioned as top dog. PUP probably would recover some support too in East and North Belfast if this horrendous scaffolding was binned.

  • Paddy Reilly

    At the time that would not have worked, but as the Unionist contingent has now fallen to below 50%, we can try something else. If you want a workable system, I would suggest:

    1) Petitions of concern suspended;
    2) No exclusionary coalition allowed. Ministerial posts to rotate on an annual basis according to party strength.