Rewarding the centre: Positive-sum, cross-community politics

James Devlin is a postgraduate researcher at NUI Galway.

The recent general election results were marked by the high positive swing to the Alliance party. Alliance were rewarded with one seat, came within 2000 votes of a second, and increased their share of the vote by approximately 10%, including in areas where they have previously struggled. In doing so, Alliance affirmed their performance in the recent European elections, confirming a general swing in Northern Ireland towards the centre, driven by frustration over the ongoing impasse at Stormont.

This signifies an interesting prospect for the next Assembly elections, where a non-aligned party may take a ministry through the d’Hondt system fair and square for the first time.

But what if the trajectory of a growing non-aligned bloc, represented not just by Alliance but by the Greens and People Before Profit, is sustained? Any system is not fully tested until it has been subjected to conditions which were inconceivable to those who designed it. How would our political system, which relies on community designation, react to cross-community MLAs being returned in greater numbers than one, or both, of the tribal blocs?

Not as badly as feared. The voice of the people in such a scenario won’t be completely ignored. But not brilliantly, either. The St. Andrews Agreement now infamously states:

“The Nominating Officer of the largest party in the largest designation in the Assembly shall make a nomination to the Assembly Presiding Officer for the post of First Minister. The Nominating Officer of the largest party in the second-largest designation in the Assembly shall similarly nominate for the post of Deputy First Minister. The d’Hondt procedure will then run, as already set out in the 1998 Act, to fill the Ministerial posts in the Executive.”

And according to the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, the provided for community designations are “Unionist”, “Nationalist”, or “other”. A party which refuses to designate is held to be “other” by default.

So, in the scenario that unionist voters abandon tribal politics and vote for non-aligned candidates in greater numbers than unionist ones, they are rewarded with a nationalist First Minister and a neutral Deputy, or vice versa. And similarly, the reward for nationalist voters returning a majority of candidates who are neutral on the constitutional question is a unionist First Minister and a neutral deputy, or vice versa. In the context of a shift to the centre from both camps, it’s a toss-up as to which fringe gets the DFM post, and it would likely be from the hardest, most extreme and most irreconcilable edge of the unionist or nationalist spectrum, the men who could not be moved. In this fashion, the Northern Ireland Assembly is set up so as to discourage people from voting outside of their tribal blocks.

Instead, St Andrews and the GFA set up two parallel contests within nationalism and unionism respectively, and parties campaign to attract a majority of unionist or nationalist votes. The system incentivises voters to vote for candidates who will most strongly represent the concerns of their tribe, the strongest champion to send into the “battle-a-day” arena of Stormont, to make the most robust case in an eternal tribal tug-of-war over resources, investment and the very identity of Northern Ireland. It rewards candidates who play to the extremes.

Blame for Northern Ireland’s dysfunctional politics and stalemate is often laid at the desk of the parties, or the electorate, but it is not their fault. Their behaviour is a completely rational strategy in a system set up as a zero-sum game, where co-operation and moderation are discouraged and have an inferior return. This is clearly not ideal. And, unfortunately, the continued growth of the centre-ground will further increase the incentive to campaign on an extreme platform for the extremes of the vote, and increase the risks of “losing” – a community might lose their seat at the executive altogether.

What we need, if we wish to foster a co-operative and moderate political culture, is exactly the opposite of what we have now – a positive-sum game, which rewards non-sectarian politics.

The idea of constitutional change to resolve the Stormont impasse has so far been relatively minor: reform or removal of the Petition of Concern, removing the power to collapse the Executive (effectively a Fixed-term Parliaments Act for Northern Ireland), and vague calls for “more involvement” from London and Dublin. But the longer the impasse goes on, the deeper structural reform is required, to ensure the sunk costs of the Assembly’s slumber is compensated by a similarly significant guarantee that it won’t happen again.

At the moment, efforts focus on outlawing tactics, to prevent teams from “playing dirty” and stamping out known cynical plays. But cynical players are ever inventive in new ways to circumvent the rules and subvert their spirit, and removing cynical play does not mean that a “clean” defensive strategy is not rewarded. The best, and lowest risk strategy, is for the teams to remain in their defensive caps and hold what they have.

Instead, we need to foster open play.

Rewarding the centre:

We need to create space for the “others” in our political structures, and reward parties and candidates who engage in cross-community politics and can win and retain genuine cross-community support. Currently, the “other” operates on the periphery of NI’s political system, not called upon unless they are the least unpalatable option for a particularly thorny job (such as the Justice Ministry). But as they operate on the periphery, it is easy to make changes to the space the “other” operates in, without upsetting the apple cart.

Conversely, routines to handle the non-aligned vote need to be created before it becomes significant enough to cause problems in a binary, tribal system which was never designed with this in mind.

1) First, the default category “other” for parties or MLAs who refuse to state their allegiance, or refuse to designate at all, is dismissive of their place in society and needs to be amended. It should be replaced by a positive designation of a representative as “cross-community”. A self-designation of a candidate as cross-community shall be understood as an affirmation from the candidate that they will strive to represent the interests of the whole constituency from which they were elected.

2) If the “cross-community” bloc is the largest denomination in the Assembly, a representative of that designation shall be selected to be First Minister, and there shall be no Deputy First Minister. As a cross-community FM is understood to represent the whole community, there is no need for a counteracting dFM. As such, parties are rewarded for successful cross-community appeal. Returning a plurality of cross-community MLAs will be understood to be a rejection of tribal politics by the electorate.

3) Ministers from the cross-community pool, including the FM as well as ministries distributed under d’Hondt, will be selected, not by the nominating officer of their party, but by a vote from the entire house.

This ensures that ministers have the confidence of a majority of the house that they may handle their brief as they see fit, ensuring buy-in for ministers across the political spectrum. This also encourages the selection of ministers based on competency rather than seniority within their party, and encourages single-issue candidates. If a candidate or party campaigns on a cross-community platform on a single issue, such as health, education, justice, etc, and can secure cross-community buy-in from both the public and the house, they may be awarded the ministry to act on their mandate.

4) Designation should be declared individually by MLAs, rather than by party, encouraging candidates to seek cross-community support and rewarding those who are successful. These candidates will be treated as part of the cross-community pool for the purposes of allocating ministries under d’Hondt and for determining if single or dual first ministers are required. This incentivises parties to allow their candidates to campaign on a cross-community platform and rewards them with additional ministries with which to enact their manifesto. It also helps to create a pool of competent ministers who can appeal to the whole community.

5) Designation shall be declared by a candidate upon their entry into the electoral race, rather than at the opening of the Assembly, and cannot be changed thereafter. This gives the public certainty as to the platform of the candidate they are voting for and ensures that such pledges are not modified or backtracked upon later.

6) To weight the system more heavily towards MLAs who have significant personal and cross-community appeal rather than party loyalty, the total number of MLAs elected per constituency should be reduced to three, resulting in an Assembly of 54 sitting MLAs. This weights the system towards MLAs with a high personal profile who have demonstrated competency either in representing their constituency or as a minister, and reduces the number of MLAs who “make up the numbers” and rely on party branding for support.

The effect of these changes would be to incentivise candidates to appeal to the whole community, and incentivise the public to select cross-community candidates who have demonstrated competency in government or shown it on the campaign trail. It permits a path towards a normalised political system with a single FM and ministers endorsed by the majority of the House. It leaves open a route for candidates who are members of a “binary” party for whatever ideological reasons to pursue a cross-community endorsement, and rewards them with ministerial posts for doing so.

In this way, a pool of cross-community candidates from along the left-right political axis is built up, rather than an homogenous centre group dominated by any one party or ideology. It encourages the election and selection of ministers who can show competency regarding their brief and campaign on specific manifesto pledges. As such, successful cross-community appeal is rewarded and the value of a confrontational strategy which panders to extremes is reduced. The transition to a non-aligned political system happens once the electorate is ready for it and once there are a significant enough number and range of cross-community candidates.

A positive-sum game which rewards co-operation, and a route to a constructive, functioning Assembly and normal politics for Northern Ireland.


James Devlin is a postgraduate researcher at the National University of Ireland, Galway, originally from south Tyrone, and is not affiliated with any political organisation.

Stormont” by stevelavo is licensed under CC BY-ND

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