Assembly Designations: past their use-by date?

David Ford is an Alliance activist in Antrim. He was an MLA for South Antrim 1998 – 2018, Leader of Alliance 2001 – 2016 and Minister of Justice 2010 – 2016.

One of the issues which will have to be addressed when the inter-party talks resume is the use (or rather misuse) of the Petition of Concern. I understand that there is a fair degree of agreement, originating from discussions between Alliance, the SDLP and the UUP, on new regulations defining the circumstances in which the mechanism would be used, but these have not yet been accepted by the DUP.

Nevertheless, while preventing the misuse of the PoC is a necessary precondition for the effective working of the Assembly, it will not be sufficient in the medium term.

The Petition of Concern is based on the Assembly means of achieving what is termed ‘cross-community consent’. There are two formulae, although in practice only one has ever counted. Under so-called ‘parallel consent’, for a measure to pass requires that it achieves not merely a simple majority of MLAs present and voting, but also a majority among both those who have Designated as unionist and those who have Designated as nationalist.

This weighted majority is required for certain key issues – such as passing a budget or a programme for government – and was also used for jointly electing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister under the Good Friday Agreement. Ironically, for a ‘cross-community’ vote, the votes of those representing cross-community parties only count once, while unionist and nationalist votes are counted twice.

This was understandable in an Agreement aimed at bringing nationalists and unionists together 21 years ago, even though it discriminated against the eight (out of 108) MLAs who were described as ‘other’ in the first Assembly. However, there have been significant changes since then.

At St Andrews, in order to spare DUP blushes in having to vote for Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, Tony Blair agreed to changes to the GFA so that FM and DFM would no longer be elected. Instead they are nominated by the largest party of the largest Designation and the largest party of the second largest Designation. This has certainly raised community tensions at election times.

Recent elections have shown a significant increase in votes for parties whose members do not Designate as either unionist or nationalist. The Assembly elected in 2017 had eleven (out of 90) such MLAs and votes cast in the three elections of 2019 suggest that in an early 2020 election (probable in the case of no agreement by mid January) this group (Alliance, Green and PBP) could grow to between 16 and 20 MLAs. This compares with a DUP group potentially in the mid 20s and a Sinn Féin Assembly party potentially in the low 20s. (Salmon of Data has already discussed this: while my predictions differ slightly, we are in broad agreement.)

It is simply undemocratic that an effective veto power should continue for some parties in these circumstances. But simply removing the Petition of Concern does not address the other issues where the votes of unionists and of nationalists count twice while others only count once.

That is why there will need to be a major reform of the voting system in the Assembly. It is untenable to persist with a mechanism that discriminates against up to 25% of voters. While it is tempting to consider minor tweaks (also requiring a majority of others?) they do not make an unfair system fairer.

The obvious solution, from both mathematical simplicity and fairness, is to remove Designations altogether and to require key votes in the Assembly to be passed by a simple weighted majority – which might be two-thirds initially but could reduce to say 60% over time. Given the relative strengths of unionism, nationalism and others, this would ensure that key votes had a de facto cross-community majority while removing the veto from any single party (unless it had more than a third of all MLAs).

I believe that this would also improve the quality of governance in Northern Ireland. At present, parties nominate Ministers based on a mathematical formula and then see if they can agree a Programme for Government. Instead, parties would negotiate after an election to see what combination of parties could achieve agreement on a Programme with enough votes to give it a weighted majority, and who would take which Ministerial posts.

This has happened once before. In 2010, Alliance sought and received agreement from the FM and DFM on a Programme for the Department of Justice, and a Minister was subsequently elected by the Assembly, with over two-thirds support. Despite all the difficult issues that the Department of Justice has to deal with, this enabled significant progress to be made on the agreed Programme. I believe that other Departments, and the Executive as a whole, would benefit from similar levels of agreement.

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