The public wants a Stormont that works
Northern Ireland’s fractured politics come with risks. The current system mitigates against dangers, like majority rule, but is failing to deliver basic governance. Other options are available.
People aren’t stupid. They know Stormont is a basket case, and they want better.
At the same time, they see how the institutions provided a path out of the Troubles and into a post-conflict period that, no matter how frustrating, is emphatically better than what came before.
Northern Ireland has specific circumstances. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) made a fine effort to account for those and to create circumstances that would allow political violence to mostly be left in the past.
However, that was only one of (broadly) two aims of the GFA.
Governments are supposed to design policies and implement them. These policies are supposed to, broadly, reflect the needs and wishes of the population. On this, the institutions often fail.
Even now, in a time of crises (yes, plural), our government has stalled.
Can all this be done better? Can we create democratic structures that still account for Northern Ireland’s unique sensitivities and community divisions, but which also lead to productive government?
And, if a better system is drawn up, under what circumstances can we implement it?
Even though any new structures would surely follow the spirit of the GFA, sweeping changes to such a specific and overwhelming democratic choice couldn’t be taken lightly.
If change is to happen the public has to be involved – and it has to be on board.
In June, academics from Queen’s University and the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool published research “exploring citizens’ views on reforming the system of devolved government in Northern Ireland”.
Public Attitudes to Institutional Reform in Northern Ireland: Evidence from a Deliberative Forum used deliberative research to examine people’s views.
These sorts of study have drawbacks. Whereas big surveys and polls take in the views of thousands of people whereas focused studies only work with small groups.
They also have strengths. The 47 people who took part in this study could have their views closely examined, and challenged, during proper discussions. The deliberative forum focused on four areas:
- What citizens in Northern Ireland expect from their devolved government.
- Views on the current model of power-sharing, commonly known as ‘mandatory coalition’.
- Views on possible alternatives to the current model.
- Views on how institutional reform, if desirable, should come about.
What people want – and expect - from a government is unsurprising.
“Participants equate ‘good’ devolved government with stability, delivery in terms of public policy commitments, inclusivity, and with an Executive which governs cohesively and with common purpose.
“With the exception of inclusivity in the Executive, there was consensus across the discussion groups that the current model of devolved government has disappointed in these areas.”
How about everything else?
Asked their views on the current system, the participants were able to identify two big positives of post-1998 Stormont: it has presided over a period of sustained peace, and it is representative of Northern Ireland’s different political traditions.
Unfortunately, they struggled to find other positives.
“Participants found it easier to cite the weaknesses of the current model of government. Broadly speaking, these can be summarised into three main frustrations: Executive instability and collapse, a lack of cohesion and cooperation within the Executive, and a perceived dominance of communal identities and associated disputes…
“[T]here was strong support for the principle of power-sharing. However, aspects of the current institutional framework were widely deemed problematic, such as the ability of one political party to collapse or prevent the formation of an Executive.
“There was also some ambivalence towards the idea of community designation in the Assembly. Some participants argued that the precedence afforded to securing agreement between nationalists and unionists undervalues the views of those who do not identify as nationalist or unionist…
“[T]here was much criticism of parties’ focus on ‘orange and green’ issues at the expense of more pressing policy concerns, as well as the tendency for some to walk away from the institutions when it suited their political purposes.”
Researchers presented the participants with two basic alternative models to the status quo: simple voluntary coalition and qualified voluntary coalition.
Simple Voluntary Coalition (SVC), as described to the participants, would involve ditching d’Hondt and allowing parties to strike deals about who forms government after an election (meaning that, in theory, any combination of political parties could form an Executive, provided they had enough MLAs).
Qualified Voluntary Coalition (QVC) is similar to SVC – including the end of d’Hondt – but with some qualifications that place parameters on the negotiations to form an Executive. Foremost amongst these would be a rule that it is not possible to form a government in which only one political tradition is represented (so avoiding majority rule by either unionists or nationalists).
The study said that the detail of such structures was new and unfamiliar to the people taking part, but that the level of interest they showed indicates that “the time is ripe for a more extensive and informed public conversation about institutional reform.”
The idea of a simple voluntary coalition raised concerns among those involved. While they could see how SVC would lead to more “cohesive” coalitions, they were concerned about the risk of governments that were exclusively unionist or nationalist.
Participants were more enthusiastic about the idea of QVC, because of its in-built cross-community safeguards, but did have concerns about lengthy negotiations after elections “particularly given the track record of Northern Ireland’s political parties vis-à-vis protracted negotiation”.
“There was clear consensus that changes of some sort are necessary to improve devolved government. Upon conclusion of the deliberative forum, a majority of participants (70%) — including a majority of unionist, nationalist and other participants — agreed that the Good Friday Agreement remains the best basis for governing Northern Ireland, but that it needs ‘to undergo some changes to work better.
“However, there was no consensus for replacing the current system outright. For example, identical levels of support were expressed for QVC and for maintaining mandatory coalition in the post-event survey…
“Attachment to the status quo, despite its weaknesses, was explained by some participants in terms of ‘fear of the unknown’. Even those with some attachment to mandatory coalition were supportive of reforming it, for example by removing the veto which enables one party to collapse or prevent the formation of an Executive.”
The “everybody knows what’s wrong”-stage of citizenship, with people largely in agreement with the specific shortcomings of the current Assembly and Executive structures and largely in agreement about at least the principles of what any new model should provide, provides relatively fertile grounds for change.
The path to reform is about as straightforward as it is going to get (which is not to say that it is easy, or even close).
Stormont can be changed, but even small changes are tricky. The public has to be involved, and it has to be on board. The deliberative forum itself agrees.
“Participants were strongly of the view that the public should be widely consulted on whether Northern Ireland should retain, reform, or replace its current system of power-sharing. In this regard, there was strong support for the idea of holding a referendum on the matter. Some participants acknowledged that there could be practical difficulties with a referendum and that voters would need accessible, trustworthy information in advance. Citizens’ assemblies, for example, were recognised as a potential vehicle for the public to both learn about and have a voice in any institutional reform process.
“It was also recognised as important that a majority of unionist, nationalist, and ‘other’ MLAs supported any substantial reforms to the institutions. Participants acknowledged a role for the British and Irish governments in any reform process, but there was a general view that the two governments should only facilitate rather than impose any reform(s)…
“Crucially, the public would feel both aggrieved and cynical about substantial changes to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions were they to occur without extensive and inclusive public consultation.”
The next few months could be pivotal for Northern Irish politics.
Perhaps a functioning and stable Stormont will appear - and begin to address major policy challenges affecting the lives of everyone who lives here.
Or perhaps not. In which case, the time is right for a conversation about change.
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