Stormont is dysfunctional. The Belfast Good Friday Agreement (BGFA) was supposed to bring people together in a new era of tolerance and power-sharing. Instead, party elites have sporadically cobbled together a stuttering non-war dispensation that has rolled out mediocre governance, leaving health, RHI, education and other services as beacon exemplars of how not to run a polity. Peace dividend it is not. Good governmental efficiency it is not. There must be a better way.
The BGFA is predicated upon the people of NI and the elites of ethno-identity parties seeing an advantage in not returning to conflict. QUB Professor Emeritus Brian Walker, in an excellent recent letter to the Irish Times, states that the BGFA gives unionists a guarantee in international law by both governments that NI will be part of the UK for as long as the people of NI vote for it in a referendum. Such a written guarantee had never been given before. The Ireland Act of 1949, to quote Prof. Walker, “declared that Northern Ireland would not cease to be part of the UK ‘without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland’ “. (All fine and well, unless the British government decides to prorogue Stormont, which it did do in 1972.)
For nationalists and their political parties, there is a clear way to a united Ireland: a referendum following sustained support for a UI among voters leading to a majority for unity among MLAs. The exact process is not defined in detail, but it is difficult to imagine a Secretary of State refusing a referendum in such a political scenario.
There is a fundamental flaw in the BGFA: the assumption that power-sharing between two mutually-antagonistic ethno-political identities, with a long history of violence between them, can only occur if power is shared between the ethno-identity party elites. i.e. ordinary people, trapped in their narrow majoritarian and minoritarian identities, cannot be trusted to make important decisions. This may have been true when majoritarian-minoritarian politics dominated NI. It is not the case since the 2017 Assembly election when the unionist bloc lost its majority. There are now more nationalist MPs than unionist MPs. And both the 2011 and 2021 censuses also show that, from a religious-background perspective, there is no majority community.
The BGFA needs to be reformed to reflect the new pluralitarian politics that are the future for NI. The PR-STV multi-seat constituency voting system should not be touched: it is a magnificent edifice of proportionality when it comes to choosing our party elites. The problem is that the political elites are then forced into a tribal straightjacket by the BGFA and the St. Andrews Agreement when it comes to the FM-DFM roles. As long as there are two such offices, politics will be based on zero-sum elite tribal games that benefit neither ‘side’ nor the non-aligned centre.
It is time to replace the roles of FM and DFM with one role, that of PM. Not Prime Minister but Prime Mediator. ‘That means one side would lose out’, you may object. But there are three sides now. Imagine if this PM role was elected by the NI electorate. To ensure any possible PM was in the Assembly, an extra election could be held two to three weeks after the Assembly election. (A second election – after a fortnight – is the norm in both French presidential and parliamentary elections.) For good measure the electorate could also elect, on a second ballot paper on the same day, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Assembly (who would also have to be MLAs). This would avoid the current farce whereby a new Speaker can’t be elected by MLAs since Paul Givan resigned as FM. For the PM election, NI would be a 1-seat constituency, and a 2-seat constituency for the Speaker / Deputy Speaker election.
In a non-majoritarian society, with parity between the two major ethno-electoral blocs, the successful PM would have to gain the majority of the ‘other’ transfers (unless an ‘other’ candidate was in at least second place up to the second-last count). Candidates would have to appeal beyond their base. This would have revolutionary implications for ethno-party elites. They would have to pick candidates who would be both committed to making NI work well and charismatic enough to appeal to moderate voters, hence the denomination of ‘Mediator’ for the post rather than ‘Minister’.
The two major parties would ostensibly hate such a proposal as this. But more nimble minds in those parties realise that it is all too easy at election-time to paint oneself into a corner by purist tribal rhetoric. They would also realise that having such a one-PM role rather than a two-FM setup offers the possibility of ditching past-oriented behaviours and language, and attracting moderate voters for their MLA candidates. The two governments need to recognise that politicians from less moderate parties need to be saved from themselves if NI is to prosper politically. Giving the people the power to elect their leader, Speaker and Deputy Speaker will help achieve that.
Philip McGuinness teaches at Dundalk Institute of Technology, and loves to walk around and over the wee perfect hills of the Ring Of Gullion.