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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