On November 17th, Stormont reached an agreement to ease the political crisis engulfing Northern Ireland. Named ‘A Fresh Start’, it was finally reached after an intensive 10 week period of talks. It addressed welfare reform and paramilitarism, and was agreed to by Sinn Fein and the DUP, the nation’s two largest parties.
However, as preciously rare as agreements emanating from Stormont are, and as much as this agreement should be praised for what it does achieve, ‘A Fresh Start’ falls fatally short of addressing the wider, disabling structural problems of Northern Ireland’s governmental institutions. These still dog the democratic process, and without these being addressed, Ulster may be destined to continue to wander from one political crisis to the next. All of the problems which I catalogue below have not been addressed in the new agreement, and neither have the ever-toxic Legacy issues. The leader of the moderate Alliance Party and the current Justice Minister David Ford encapsulated the feeling among the other political parties when he stated: “At best, this deal saves devolution from collapse, but Alliance is sceptical it will place the institutions on a sustainable basis, never mind offer a fresh start.” The leader of another party described the deal as a “sticking plaster” agreement.
The structural inadequacies of Northern Ireland’s government don’t only need to be addressed; they need to be ripped apart to be built anew.
In 1921, Northern Ireland was created as a separate entity; six counties of Ireland were divorced from the other 26.
Ulster/the North of Ireland is made up of nine counties; six of these now reside within Northern Ireland. Those six were chosen, or those other three were not chosen, to be part of Northern Ireland on the basis of a sectarian calculation; which counties had more Protestants than Catholics? Those go into this new Northern Ireland. A country which was constructed on sectarian lines sadly would continue in that vein for many decades to come; sectarian inequality would be built into a country drawn up on the basis of numerical Protestant supremacy.
With this, I simply note that how the country was formed played into how it was subsequently run; the rotten nature of an institution’s foundations will cripple its future success. In that vein, I turn to the Northern Irish devolved government.
The current situation
Issue one: Stormont is based on a mandatory coalition.
The mandatory coalition requires a partnership between the largest parties from each community. Therefore, the system of government is predicated on the idea of unionist/loyalist and nationalist/republican political parties; the presumption being that whether you believe we should live in a United Ireland or not is determinative in your politics. Equally, it carries with it the assumption that Catholics and Protestants will only ever vote nationalist/republican and unionist/loyalist respectively. It assumes that voters won’t yearn for anything beyond the “sectarian head count” (a quote from the former Northern Irish Editor for the Sunday Times, Liam Clarke) which Northern Ireland currently has passing for elections.
Even the moderate, ‘non-designated’ (neither nationalist nor unionist) party, Alliance, is built upon the premise of the need to be a broker between the parties which are ‘designated’ either nationalist or unionist. This means the most centralist party is not considered unionist or nationalist and therefore cannot hold the position of First or Deputy First Minister. This leads people to attach a futility to centralist positions, allowing the designated parties to scrap amongst each other using the most arcane tribal rhetoric; the political scene begins to descend into sabre-rattling which deafens any policy discussions on the most important issues. The best examples is how unionist politicians will focus on the issues of flags or bonfires while neglecting educational attainment, even though more than 80% of Protestant boys on free school meals won’t get five GCSEs. Or for instance, in reaction to the announcement that current Provisional IRA members were behind a Belfast murder, the DUP, in an act of supreme grandstanding, vacated their Health Minister post; currently, there are 400,000 people on the NHS waiting list in Northern Ireland, which is more than one in five of the total population. A former Health Minister has stated that “[a]t a time when[the DUP Health Minister] was playing ‘hokey cokey’ and disappearing for weeks on end, we have both patients and staff placed in this awful predicament.”
Northern Ireland’s whole politics is based on the idea of them and us. One of voters’ greatest complaints is the orange (unionist) and green (nationalist) tinge of all its politics. Yet the entire system is predicated on this being the case; one of the most frustrating aspects of Northern Irish politics is part of its very foundation. The most extraordinary facet to this is that whether you do or do not believe in a United Ireland is not a major consideration for people; an extremely weighty poll commissioned jointly by RTÉ (the Irish broadcaster) and BBC Northern Ireland found that only 11% of the Northern Irish population, Catholic and Protestant together, would support a United Ireland in their lifetime if it came with higher taxes, which it most certainly would. It also highlighted that the majority of Catholics support Northern Ireland remaining within the UK in the short-to-medium term. The old presumptions on which the whole political system is built are outdated and inaccurate.
Issue two: Effectively (this is a slight simplification), the biggest parties from each community both have a veto in the legislative Assembly, known as the ‘petition of concern’. The intention of the veto was to prevent one community dictating to the other on sensitive issues like flags, parades and emblems. It has instead been used by Sinn Fein to spiral the country into an economic crisis by vetoing a welfare agreement they had previously reached, and by the DUP to continue to prevent gay equality. In November, a majority of the Assembly voted in favour of gay marriage, only for the motion to be blocked by the petition of concern.
Such uses of the petition of concern have embedded a sense of futility and stagnation into politics. The combination of all these issues leads to a lack of accountability and low aspirations among voters about what their representatives will achieve; a government which is worryingly inept and has skewed priorities is the outcome. For instance, attempts to modernise Northern Irish adoption law have been in process since 2006, but as consultation of the Bill was yet again delayed, it has missed the opportunity to come into law before 2017. In contrast, the notorious ‘conscience clause’, which was a DUP attempt to legalise discrimination against the gay community, had a consultation produced within weeks of it being proposed by the party. Or how, as the UK’s poorest region, Northern Ireland has a £80 million poverty fund that the Executive took three years to use. This meant the money had to be reallocated year on year, as Ministers could not agree on how the money should be divvied up between nationalist and unionist areas.
To make politics not just continue to exist, but to work, a complete overhaul is required.
I would argue for the following changes.
A voluntary coalition, which must be cross community, would be revolutionary. So, rather than putting parties in coalition together for just being separately the two largest, a cross community coalition should be established among at least a bare majority of the Assembly. Currently, Sinn Fein and DUP garner votes which will place them into a coalition with one another by boasting about how they won’t work with the other. This system forces two intrinsically opposed parties into a coalition together, in the vain hope that they’ll manage to govern the country in partnership, despite their publicly expressed mutual distain. In October, amidst the political crisis, DUP stated they must “hold [their] noses” before working with Sinn Fein, such is their “stench”.
Its mandatory nature also allows them to flaunt collective responsibility, enabling them to shirk responsibility for Executive decisions by blaming their partners in government. If parties instead choose to work with one another, coming together into government on the basis of governing through compromise, collective responsibility would bind them and they could be more readily held to account for their time in the Executive. As radical as it may sound, having a coalition among people who don’t hate one another, and are willing to compromise and stand by their collective decisions, could work.
Remove the petition of concern, excluding flag, emblem and parading issues. This has been a major source of misuse, with it even being used by the DUP to stop a minister of theirs found to have broken ministerial rules in his department’s sub-contracting deals from being disciplined.
Create an opposition. A voluntary coalition necessarily will give birth to an official opposition, adding a new rigorous level of accountability. In essence, Northern Ireland currently has a one man opposition, out of 108 members of the Assembly (MLAs). His name; Jim Allister. His policies; abhorrent. However, when he is not decrying the “gay agenda”, which he sadly does with regularity, his Freedom of Information Requests have enabled him to show up the ineptitude and waste of current institutions. Most recently, taking a lead from the Irish News, he highlighted that despite resigning during the recent political crisis, DUP ministers continued to pull a salary and the DUP’s claim that they had repaid this money back into the coffers was proven to be false.
If a third, rather than a one-hundred-and-eighth, of the Assembly had the focus and drive of a democratic opposition, the Executive would face an accountability it never has before. Not only that, it would create an alternative to vote for. If the group of parties in government don’t work, those in opposition will be voted into power.
This all sounds basic, I know, but it is not how politics works in Northern Ireland.
The current system was what was required in 2007; it provided sufficient safeguards and vested interest for the DUP and Sinn Fein to come into government together as “chuckle brothers” Ian Paisley Snr. and Martin McGuiness.
But Northern Ireland as a country and a people has progressed since then. At this point, peace will never be lost, but a functioning devolved government remains elusive. Working to maintain a failing system isn’t good enough. The foundations are rotten; plastering cracks in walls won’t do it. We need to rip it down to build anew.
We have peace; we have a vibrant, passionate, talented and forgiving people. It’s time we had institutions and politicians which reflected that, rather than the haunting remnants of a splintered past.