On talkback this week there was a fair but cutting analysis of the many manoeuvrings of the 1990s to bring about the peace settlement and the near universal condemnation of how its inheritors in today’s politics have failed at the mission statement set out at this time.
Brian Rowan quotes sources calling it a ‘last chance’ for Stormont to prove that it can actually work. For if an institution fails in its adoption of rules of change it becomes finite. An assembly that cannot reform key constitutional instruments (blunt though they may be) such as the PoC cannot hope to fulfil its larger function – the reform of society to make life better here.
By bogging itself down on constitutional procedure we risk our assembly devolving into a Roman senate style standoff with an emperor secretary of state fiddling while our public services burn in the fires of Brexit and institutional stagnation – Feeney calls him the ‘proconsul’ in the Irish news which is what makes this analogy all the more fitting.
I have written this week about how our piecemeal devolution settlement, particularly on fiscal policy, has in part contributed to the culture laid bare in ‘Burned’ by Sam MacBride’s excellent description of the events exposed at the RHI inquiry, which he expertly weaves into his analysis of how the modern Northern Ireland state functions.
With this in mind, PoC reform and the accountability it would inject into key Stormont votes is more crucial than we might give it credence (bearing in mind that it was used over 100 times between 2011-15). It was a compromise made in a world that felt like compromise was impossible, the fires of the 1990s and eventual cessation of hostilities. But that context is gone, the compromise is no longer the key to action and is in fact the source of log jam and inaction.
To my generation who grew up in a period of ‘normalcy’ because of the peace, this history is important, but it isn’t our narrative. We want institutions to believe in, the fact that most young people are ardent supporters of the EU and international institutions generally is actually something of a conservative revolution oft pointed out to me particularly by left wing Brexiteers. We need to see that the assembly can and will be changed in order to make this place work.
David Ford penned a piece discussing the eventual abolition of community designation and replacing it with qualified or weighted majorities instead. What is interesting in all of this is how far we are diverting from British legal norms and instead drifting into a US constitutional style of governance.
At the Irish times podcast in Dublin it was put to Sam McBride that Northern politics was ‘contrived, albeit for good reason,’ to which he concurred. By contrived what is meant here is that politics is done by the very technical legalistic mechanisms of the PoC and community designation. Both tools are increasingly redundant and seem to block progress more than the fathers of peace in 1998 thought they would. Therefore to avoid future dysfunction why not take such constitutional reforms outside of the assembly institutions?
The GFA never had much of an amendment or reform mechanism universally accepted other than the NI act passed in Westminster, leaving the nitty gritty of constitutional reform locked inside the dysfunctional Stormont system. Instead of community designation why not have make a referendum a legal requirement if an essential element of the GFA is to be altered? It would free it from the institutions and reduce the stink of a ‘two party carve up’ which Saint Andrew’s has created an image of for posterity.
Jay is a Derry native now living in south Antrim and working in Belfast. His writing spans Law, Economics and International relations.