Getting a functioning, lasting Executive should be the focus of the debate

We seem to be getting close to a final deal which will likely see the reformation of the Executive after 400 days without devolved government in Northern Ireland.

This is not the first time a collapse has happened, since the implementation of power-sharing in 1974 we have seen more than 4 collapses of an administration for one reason or another.

The key question is now trying to make it stick.

Any new Executive is going to face major challenges with Brexit just over a year away, the DUP’s balance of power role at Westminster and the potential of Sinn Fein as a part of a future government in Dublin. All of these scenarios could potentially destabilise a fragile arrangement.

That’s even before we get to the conclusions of an RHI inquiry and the introduction of more welfare changes across Northern Ireland.

We need a deal that will hold through these challenges, not crash on the rocks of political reality. How can we do this?

  1. You sink or swim together- There needs to be a realisation that the DUP and Sinn Fein, sink or swim together in this. There can be no notion that one side is dominating the other. Perceived strength will be useful to make your base happy, but as we saw with the previous administration it can have longer term consequences that can cause real trouble.
  2. Ending the idea that devolution is a zero sum game- “Politics is the art of compromise” that statement should be bolted on the walls in Stormont. I have lost count the amount of times parties boxed themselves into a corner as a result of holding the line on something that cannot be delivered. It’s a coalition government between ideologically different parties, compromises will happen on a daily basis. Climbing down off of grand visions and addressing some real concerns is going to be more use to you in the longer term than fueling unrealistic expectations.
  3. Settling some of the major issues- From culture to legacy there needs to be mechanisms to settle some of the major issues. Having a constant environment of confrontation and disagreement will simply crowd out any real attempts to create an agenda around other issues.
  4. Process issues-This isn’t sexy but the way in which we are governed should be examined. How the Assembly elects the Speaker should be changed to a secret ballot of MLAs and the office holder should like the Speaker in other jurisdictions have to recuse themselves from party business for the duration of their term. We also need to see how we can reform the Petition of Concern to ensure it is not abused (the Call In system used in local councils is worth considering here).
  5. Opposition-It is going to be tempting for the opposition parties to rejoin the Executive in a spirit of unity. However, a strong government, requires a strong opposition. How can ministers ever improve and how can policy making ever get better if the governing parties are not subjected to real scrutiny? Are we really going to go back to farce of situation with some parties voting against a budget of an administration they are a member of? It is necessary for an Executive to include the DUP & Sinn Fein, it’s not essential for the others to join.

These are just some of the ideas that I feel can make a government work better in Northern Ireland. People were not on a streets to get this show back on the road and after 10 years that should tell MLAs something. We need to have agreements made that will be honoured in full and promises made that can actually be delivered on.

There needs to be a government that doesn’t seek to antagonise or alienate people through dysfunction.

If you’re in the tent, then you’re in the tent.




David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs