Is voluntary coalition reaching the end of its useful time?

In Friday’s News Letter, Claire Bailey scathingly casts doubt over the durability of our current system of government by saying “The five-party executive model hasn’t been conducive to sound decision making. The competing priorities of each of the parties means that crisis management is beyond their capabilities”. Unfortunately, she didn’t take her opening paragraph to its logical conclusion in the rest of her article. But it’s a start.

This came not long after a Sam McBride article in the same paper that quoted a missive from Naomi Long to her party members as saying, “Let’s be clear: the only way to overcome the failures of leadership we have witnessed at the Executive in recent days is by ending mandatory coalition and breaking the governance structures that have held Northern Ireland back for far too long”.

While its undoubtedly easy to attribute both leaders’ words to frustration at the end of a frustrating few weeks, could Alliance and the Greens actually provide leadership that ultimately acts as a catalyst for radical reform of Stormont?

There’s no need to go back over the flaws inherent in St Andrews. But suffice to say the effect was to hole both the UUP and SDLP below the water.

Of the two, the SDLP has shown greater resilience than anticipated, while Alliance under Long’s leadership is currently enjoying an unprecedented wave of popular support. But can they significantly build on this while the electorate is shackled by St Andrews?

That would necessitate people from either community voting for them without any guarantees those on the other side doing likewise.  That’s what led us inevitably to various meltdowns in 2020 and surely, we now need to be given a real opportunity

The last Assembly election vote – at a time of extreme polarisation over RHI, Brexit and ILA – broke down 28% DUP, 28% SF, 13% UUP, 12% SDLP, 9% Alliance and 10% other. This was on a very high 65% turnout.

In last year’s Council election Alliance increased its vote by 87% at a time when turnout fell to 53% but also at a time when the St Andrews wasn’t an issue.  In the 2019 General Election – with turnout back up to 62% – Alliance hit a record 17% with the SDLP back up to 15% (despite not standing in three seats).

This suggests that people will vote imaginatively if the effect of that vote is a positive one. That simply can’t happen under St Andrews. Nor was it intended to. But Bailie and Long are right. The disjointed performance over something as basic as public health demonstrates clearly that mandatory coalition doesn’t work.

Weighted voluntary could lead to more thoughtful engagement. Not total agreement on all issues. No coalition ever delivers that. But an environment where a bad performance could lose a party its place at the table would certainly serve to curb the excesses and smooth the edges of the dogmatism of all the parties. That’s how good coalitions work the world over.

So why not here?

A couple of our high-profile journalists recently highlighted a couple of possible objections. On the Red Lines podcast, Suzanne Breen said that if a voluntary setup was introduced then Sinn Fein could be permanently excluded which would leave many nationalists feeling there was a danger of a return to the situation pre-1972.

While Ben Lowry tweeted about the McBride article “This sort of thinking from Alliance poses a real challenge for unionists. Traditionally unionists are most sceptical of mandatory coalition, but there is now an Alliance-centre-nationalist majority, and might be an even bigger one in the future.”

Suzanne paints an impossible scenario while Ben’s just betrays a worrying level of paranoia in suggesting that “centre” translates to inherently anti-unionist.

The reality is that neither designation has an overall majority. Nationalism because it doesn’t have even close to the numbers and unionism because it isn’t currently resonating strongly enough with sufficient younger voters in strong pro-union areas.

They could win it back with the right approach, but even if they do, they will NEVER have the sort of numbers to allow unionism to govern alone. Plus, no-one remotely believes any system will be agreed that allows for that possibility.

So, if those are the main objections to voluntary coalition and they can be ruled out so easily, is this not worth at least serious consideration? To be honest, its unlikely to happen even in the medium term because for all its faults the current setup suits the two big parties.

But it would be interesting to see what would happen if Long, Eastwood, Aitken and Bailie made a united case for reform. They should. They have nothing to lose.

Nor do the two main parties as suitable reform could finally free up and embolden the young, post troubles elements of their memberships in a way that could see them contribute every effectively to any new system.

They exist and they need to be encouraged, not stifled by a previous generation and an outdated system.