Blue sky thinking on political reform long overdue at Assembly

Sam McBride writes in the News Letter this week about potential political reform at Stormont and believes that the “idea that a voluntary coalition would automatically mean Sinn Féin’s exclusion from government is outdated.”

Of course that all depends on whose bums are on Stormont seats and what mechanisms govern the legislature. However as recent elections show there are some changes to voting patterns and the political environment in the north that add credibility to that argument. The north is now effectively 3 minorities reflected in the Assembly as unionist, nationalist and a smaller but growing other.

In 2016 John McCallister proposed a Private Members Bill that would have replaced the Petition of Concern and ended the designation system of ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘other’.

It was voted down and no significant legislation on reform have come before the Assembly since.

There is obvious public opposition to how the Petition of Concern is currently framed and the blocking mechanisms that we have seen deployed at Executive level. Clearly reform and alternative minority protections need to be given further consideration.

A welcome development is the fact that Petitions of Concern have not been deployed as often as in previous mandates but its hardly a direct comparison given the context within the Assembly has had to operate for much of this year.

With the reduction in the number of MLAs from 110 down to 90 in 2017 we now have a situation where no one party can trigger a Petition of Concern. This opens up a number of possibilities in this mandate, especially for private members’ legislation that comes from within the Assembly and not through the Executive where it could be more easily stopped in its tracks.

Indeed the current Assembly without the deployment of the Petition of Concern mirrors Belfast City Council in that Alliance effectively hold the balance of power between the unionist and nationalist blocs.

This could reduce the amount of legislation that gets gridlocked in the Assembly which is to be welcome. On the other hand the legislative timetable until 2022 is likely to be overflowing with Coronavirus and Brexit related business that will mean that much planned legislation may not get to be aired.

The Equality Commission issued a briefing document in response to the recent use of the ‘St Andrews Veto’ within the Executive. Introduced in 2006 the veto “changed how Executive decisions were taken by introducing a process where three ministers (without any criteria) can require a NI Executive decision to be taken on a ‘cross community basis’, rather than by a simple majority.”

The Commission is also critical of the way the PoC has been deployed  :

“The Petition of Concern to date in practice has therefore not been linked, as intended, to compliance with the ECHR and Bill of Rights. In the absence of this it instead became a veto exercisable without criteria by unionist and nationalist designated MLAs, with votes of ‘others’ not counting.” 

McBride is right to say that “what is driving people away from mandatory coalition is its failure to deliver good government.”

Blame will be put on different parties at different times in regard to who is responsible for that but ultimately there is a high degree of systemic failure. You cannot do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

The public want to see a systematic solution that includes minority safeguards but removes the potential of gridlock and paralysis that we have seen in recent years.

Recent events in the Executive have helped reignite the public scepticism and frustration that we saw in the run-up to the signing of ‘New Decade New Approach’ (NDNA).

Political reform should be debated more within parties and between parties as they need to take into account the fact that we have a changing society and the changing expectations of the electorate, especially new and younger voters.

The perception of government gridlock and failures, whether justified or not, could well have a huge impact on the results of the next Assembly election.

Some blue sky thinking is long overdue.