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…