The DUP has been criticised for handing Sinn Fein a veto in the governance of Northern Ireland. And it’s true we have, Stormont is indeed effectively controlled by the mutual veto’s of the two largest parties. I intend to examine to what extent this system is desirable to Unionism; how it ought to function and what is preventing it from functioning. (Peter Robinson has opened a debate on alternatives to the present system based on weighted majorities, but that is subject enough for a separate article.)
The previous alternative to mutual vetoes was the system of the division of power tried in the years following the Belfast Agreement. This system gave near absolute power to individual ministers who were pretty much free to do as they wished within their own departments. This was effectively repartition by department, allowing Sinn Fein the opportunity to implement their Marxist and republican ideology within whichever departments their ministers controlled, as we saw when Martin McGuiness ended the old 11+ transfer system at the stroke of a pen. This system was generally accepted as being unsatisfactory by Unionists and led in no small part to the peoples rejection of the Ulster Unionist Party.
At St. Andrews the DUP removed this level of power from individual ministers making it harder for them to take action in their departments without cross-party support on the Executive. This gained for Unionism a veto over the republican agenda at the price of allowing them also to have a veto over our own policies. Given the aggressive ever growing nature of republican demands I contend that this system has made good sense for Unionism and has been effective in ‘stopping the rot’ of never-ending concessions to Sinn Fein.
The Unionist position is essentially one of maintaining the status quo, this makes us essentially conservatives, (note the small c folks.) We already have what we want, Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, we’re happy with our constitutional position; what we have we hold. A system of mutual vetoes works well at preventing the erosion of our current position.
Republicans on the other hand need a system with in-built scope for change, by definition they aren’t satisfied, their goal of a United Socialist Ireland remains an unfulfilled dream. What they had before St. Andrews was a process with no effective brake other than a collapse of the institutions, and even then upon restart they normally elicited further concessions. Mutual vetoes has been a major step forward for Unionists, for the first time in over a decade the republican juggernaut has been halted, at least for the present.
Unionists have vetoed progress for Sinn Fein on the Irish language; this is desirable not because we should be opposed to the language, but because we should oppose the manner in which Sinn Fein use it to mark political territory. (Anyone who actually cares about the language from a cultural point of view should oppose what Sinn Fein tries to use it for as well.)
Unionists have vetoed settlements for on-the-runs and despite lots of smoke and noise Unionists have vetoed the devolution of Policing and Justice in a form desirable to republicans. As time goes on the form that any eventual devolution of Policing and Justice may take becomes increasingly different from what republicans must have first envisaged for themselves. Indeed, as Sinn Fein are now prevented from ever holding the Policing and Justice Minister post, by the same system of mutual vetoes, one is forced to conclude that their only reason for persisting to demand devolution is to save face!
Mutual vetoes have been effective on the long-term constitutional issues, however, it is clear that the current system is not delivering in day-to-day matters for the people of Northern Ireland. Why is this?
What ought to happen is that, recognising the bind the system puts them in, the parties should sit down at the start of the year and hammer out an agreed program along the lines of, “You want this, well you can have it if we can have that.” Not pretty, but it’s how coalition governments work everywhere else. German voters yesterday had the choice between an Angela Merkel government that would introduce a €7.50 minimum wage and an Angela Merkel government that would cuts taxes, depending upon which party ended up in a position to be her coalition partner.
Why hasn’t it worked here? Because, Sinn Fein, frustrated at failing to progress their Republican agenda, have let down all the people of Northern Ireland,including their own voters, by failing to engage in proper bread and butter governance!
If the current system isn’t working the goal must be to find a system that allows more effective decision making whilst maintaining protection against concessions to republicanism. Proposals for such alternatives are something I intend to consider in a future article.