Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

In Defence of Power Sharing

Well as a very wet-behind-the-ears new blogger here at OpenUnionism, I was given advance notice a few weeks ago that our opening topic on this here blog was going to be ‘aspirations for the new Assembly’. So I’d been trying to collect my thoughts on what I thought was ‘Assembly aspirations’ stuff – things like devolution of policing & justice, finding an alternative to the cruel and ruthless ‘academic selection’ education system which consigns so many children to less than the best from the age of 11 through no fault of their own, and how the Executive can best protect Northern Ireland’s working families from harsh UK-wide public spending cuts …

Loads of big issues for the NI Executive to tackle – but also little to nothing by way of consensus between the major parties on such ‘big’ issues. Perhaps this is why First Minister Peter Robinson felt it advantageous to distract everybody’s attention by proposing nothing less than the abolition of the cross-community power-sharing mechanisms agreed upon in the 1998 Agreement. Nothing like starting a good aul’ traditional bunfight when the emperor needs new clothes.

Robinson proposes to rewrite the Agreement by replacing cross-community power-sharing with a new mechanism whereby the support of 65% of MLAs would be enough to form a government or pass legislation. This would put an end to the principle of power-sharing set out in the 1998 Agreement, which says that the NI Executive must have the support of a majority of both Nationalist and Unionist MLAs to function.

65% seems like a rather arbitrary figure, so let’s have a look at what such a threshold might mean if it were applied to the current Assembly:

With a 65% threshold 71 MLAs would be needed to form an Executive or pass legislation. Unionists currently hold 55 of 108 Assembly seats (about 51%) whereas Nationalists hold 44 seats (about 41%). There are 9 MLAs designated as neither nationalist nor unionist.

So with a 65% threshold, if all the ‘other’ MLAs sided with the nationalist parties, an Executive could conceivably be formed with the support of as few as 18 of 55 unionist MLAs (roughly 33%). Under the 65% formula you could have an Executive which 2 out of every 3 unionists in Northern Ireland were opposed to. (I can’t remember the DUPs calling for this back in 2003…)

Even worse, with a 65% threshold, an Executive could be formed with the support of just 7 of the 44 nationalist MLAs (15.9%) – fewer than one in six!

Does anyone out there seriously think that an Executive opposed by 84% of Nationalists, or by 67% of Unionists, could maintain the kind of cross-community legitimacy any Northern Ireland government needs?

As a unionist, I disagree with SF on loads of issues, but I don’t think they’re being unreasonable in seeing Robinson’s proposal as being basically aimed at excluding them from the Executive. In 2007, 63.3% of nationalist voters supported Sinn Fein over the SDLP – how can it possibly be in the long-term interest of Northern Ireland or Unionism to exclude the representatives of 63.3% of nationalist voters from the devolved government?

For the NI Executive to maintain cross-community legitimacy, the principle of 50% MLA support from each community must be maintained. This is certainly not to say that the current system of power-sharing is perfect. The “everybody in government, nobody in opposition” model is totally crap deeply flawed. Room must be opened up for a proper Assembly opposition. You can’t expect good governance in politics without competition.

So lets have reform. Lets get rid of ‘everybody in government’. Lets create space for a constitutional opposition in the Assembly. Lets ensure that the opposition parties are appropriately resourced, as they are in Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh and Westminster. Lets stipulate that the Executive gets formed by the largest party from each community – at present this would be DUP & SF – in the future it could be DUP & SDLP, or UCUNF & SF,  or UCUNF & SDLP, or indeed new parties yet to come….

But Unionists would be wise to strongly defend and maintain power-sharing – which protects Unionists as much as it does Nationalists. The NI Executive and Assembly are the cornerstones of Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom. And it’s the power-sharing principle which underpins the legitimacy of the Executive and Assembly among both sides of Northern Ireland’s community.

Power-sharing underpins the legitimacy of the institutions which underpin the Union. Unionists who attack power-sharing are undermining the legitimacy of the institutions which underpin the Union – same aul’ unionism shooting itself in the same aul’ foot…


Filed under: power sharing

4 Responses

  1. otto says:

    So a piece of legislation would require >50% of any designation in the room + >50% overall. It’s nice and simple anyway.

    But what about government? If D’hondt is used in the absence of agreement does SF in the current assembly get 44/108 of ministries with the DUP getting 55/108. What about United Community? Are they excluded from minsitry allocation altogether? If not you could imagine a situation where Alliance get a ministry but neither the SDLP nor the UUP do.

  2. slug says:

    I can see your point. The problem for me is not really with the idea that on the whole a majority of nationalist and unionist representatives broadly defined should be happy.

    The problem is that it would be desirable to move on from this idea of dividing NI into two communities. it would also be desirable to allow a little more flexibility for deals in the assembly. I am not so sure that a Voluntary Coalition would necessarily favour unionists–they would still have to get nationalist parties to agree and that would require compromises before governments could be formed.

    With mandatory coalition, the status quo is embedded further because there is no need to do any deals to get into government. This leads to no change.

    Also what does “unionist” and “natioanlist” actually mean in this designation context? Is it an ethnic term? That is the only rationale for the system. But is there a “unionist” community and a separate “nationalist” community? That is a crude generalisation. The system does not acknowledge that a lot of people don’t actually want to be labelled “unionist” in a community way as a sort of ehtnicity. There are “others” – increasing numbers of them as new migrants arrive – who see themselves as not one or other but perhaps both or neither.

  3. thedissenter says:

    At the end of the day this is about lack of trust. The current system seems to be widening mistrust and perpetuating the divisions. The dysfunctionality is a function is a function of rigged democracy. The current system means change is not possible without creating a ‘loser’. Why do we always talk of majority? The Scottish nationalist administration is a minority administration. But then, the Scots have access to an open democracy.

  4. otto says:

    Is the simplest thing just to convert the 30 MLA requirement for a petition of concern to the negative controlling minority in a weighted majority? Doing so (and losing designation) would mean that a piece of legislation would require a 72% majority for passage.

    The “danger” would be that a majority of nationalists (or, in theory, unionists – there’s only 55 of these) might not be able to prevent a bill but that’s already a feature of the 30 MLA threshold.

    So a 72% weighted majority makes designation redundant and allows for cross-community “anti” coalitions.

    If the threshold for petitions of concern is 30 what loss of veto is created by an end to designation and a requirement for 72% weighted majorities?


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