On Voluntary Coalition

I note, during coverage of today’s UUP conference, that once again that Robin Swann is advocating voluntary coalition.

He’s not the only advocate of voluntary coalition, and he’s certainly not the first. In fact it has been an ideal for both the  UUP and DUP, since the old Stormont parliament was prorogued in 1972, to return to the approach of government by a simple majority. Jim Allister is also well known for supporting this view. I’ve heard other Unionist spokespersons talking about it too.

I’m partially inclined to agree with Robin and Jim; voluntary coalition would certainly change the game.

But I’m assuming they’re proposing a simple Westminster-type arrangement where an Executive is formed voluntarily and granted supply by a simple majority in the Assembly. If so, I wonder if they have looked at the arithmetic in the Assembly lately.

In a 90-member assembly a government would need 46 votes to prevail. There are a total of 40 MLAs who are designated “Unionist”, so it’s pretty clear that they can’t form a government. 39 MLAs are “Nationalist”, so they can’t form a government either.

When I looked at the effect another Assembly election could have on the parties, accounting for the swing towards the DUP seen in June, I reckoned on 43 Unionist seats. This still wouldn’t be enough to keep an Executive in place, although Nick Whyte’s more detailed analysis reckoned on further opportunities for Unionists to pick up seats from non-Unionists.

Perhaps Robin, or someone else from the UUP, might clarify the form of government they would like to see. Are they actively seeking a setup somewhat similar to Belfast City Hall ? Would they consent to be governed by an SDLP+SF+Alliance+Green coalition ?

I think everyone knows what the answer to those questions are.

The key to reforming the arrangements of government up in Stormont involves finding a solution such that the administration has broad-based consent to govern. The problem is that voluntary coalition government must, inherently, be accompanied by an involuntary opposition. Sadly, I don’t think we are yet at the point where there is trust in the system to allow this, not least among the membership of Robin’s party.

Perhaps it’s time for politicians to stop advocating things which cannot realistically happen in the short or medium term, and work with other parties to come up with reform proposals that could attract support across the community ?

Software engineer living and working in greater Belfast. Pragmatic social democrat with the odd leaning towards capitalism. Political interests include economic policy, social and political reform.

Alliance Party member, but writing in a strictly personal capacity.