What’s the point of Stormont?
Election season is open. Whether there will be a functioning Assembly after the polls close is yet to be seen.
Elections mean that promises are made, manifestos are published and ideas are put forward about the shape of local politics and policy over the next few years.
This could be academic. Arguments over Brexit and the NI Protocol led to the resignation of First Minister Paul Givan last week and could mean no government is possible when the election results are returned.
Stormont is no stranger to this type of crisis. Single-issue arguments have frequently stalled other Assembly business – or, like in 2017, derailed the institutions entirely.
The Equality Coalition is a membership organisation that campaigns for human rights in Northern Ireland. Founded in 1996, it now has over a hundred members – including NICVA – working across various local sectors.
Last month, it issued a series of policy asks which were based on research looking at rights in NI covering the past quarter century – from the Good Friday Agreement to New Decade, New Approach and everything in between.
Many of the Coalition’s asks centre on the functional existence of Stormont itself. The briefing paper is divided into three sections, the first of which concerns safeguards over legislative and executive power and puts a lot of focus on two aims: keeping Stormont up and running, and making it run better.
Northern Ireland faces many significant challenges. Addressing them all will be difficult or even impossible. Tough choices need to be made about where to prioritise money and other resources.
Health and Social Care is on its knees. Schools are stretched in general, while the state of special educational needs provision is particularly bleak. The local economy has been a disappointment for decades.
These problems are massive. Is Stormont fit to take them on?
Keeping Stormont afloat
NI went without a government for three years – 2017, 2018 and 2019, more or less – and the backlog of policy needs still persists.
Issues like the need for Bengoa-style changes to health and social care, or a reform of the education system where half of all schools are over budget, cannot be kicked down the road any longer.
The more coherent and stable Stormont is, the better equipped it will be to respond to NI’s challenges.
The Equality Coalition wants to see “strengthened safeguards over power-sharing” through a rebalancing of ministerial and Executive power, including:
- Revision of the Petition of Concern mechanism “returning it to how it was originally envisioned within the GFA – i.e. as an equality and human rights scrutiny tool… with use of the petition only leading to an Assembly vote if an interference with rights is verified.”
- The removal of the NI Executive veto over ‘controversial’ and ‘significant’ ministerial decisions, as was introduced at St Andrews and which has “turned the intention of the GFA on its head and become a subjective tool to block rights-based policies.”
- A review of the ‘cross-community’ designations – unionist, nationalist, other – to ensure power-sharing involves proper participation from across society.
- Removal of the First Minister’s and deputy First Minister’s absolute power of veto that allows either off them to block items from being included on the Executive agenda.
- “Strengthening of the GFA duty to adopt a Programme for Government (PfG) containing policies and programmes and linked to an agreed budget.” The PfG is supposed to be the tentpole of government business during a political mandate – but the Executive has managed to simply not finalise once since it was re-established in early 2020.
- “Properly defining the ‘Good relations’ duty in line with Council of Europe recommendations and ending its use as a veto over rights-based policies.”
A lot of these are technical changes that cannot fully secure the future of a functioning Assembly or Executive. They can make it harder for political arguments to lead to institutional collapse – but will not eliminate the possibility entirely.
Moreover, while all the asks above are achievable policy aims, realising those aims is another matter.
Other safeguards over legislative and executive power
Another ongoing battleground concerns the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which, via the Human Rights Act (HRA), is a part of UK law.
The Coalition calls the incorporation of the ECHR into NI law a “key achievement of the Good Friday Agreement” and says that this incorporation should be safeguarded.
The context here is that the current Westminster government has made reform or repeal of the Human Rights Act one of its ultimate policy aims, with the HRA to be replaced by a new Bill of Rights (BoR).
Instead of scrapping the HRA and removing the ECHR from UK law, the Coalition wants any future Bill of Rights to stand beside the ECHR. It says a local Bill of Rights could be “a key missing safeguard over the exercise of Executive and Legislative power in NI” and that a new BoR should be “inclusive of economic, social, and cultural rights, and of protections relating to the rights deficits resulting from Brexit”.
In direct terms, those policy asks are about shoring up individuals’ rights. However, they would also put constraints on how Stormont can behave.
Other concerns include better funding and resources for the NIHRC; full implementation of internal and international equality duties; stronger compliance from ministers and MLAs to the duties and commitments of their position, including on transparency and accountability; changes to local libel laws featuring the “reform of NI defamation law in a manner protecting academic, NGO, and media freedom of expression”; and full implementation of commitments to individual rights arising from “the Brexit process”.
What’s the point of Stormont?
The idea is that, as a jurisdiction and a society, Northern Ireland has its own unique challenges which can best be governed from within, and that a functioning Stormont is closer in every sense to the people of NI than any model of direct rule.
But what’s the point of Stormont if Stormont doesn’t function?
That’s a tougher question to answer. Stormont is supposed to be a symbol showing that local society can move on from the past and work together in the present in pursuit of a better future.
However, no government can be purely symbolic. The Assembly and Executive are supposed to function on a day-to-day basis in substantive way and, when they don’t, that’s not just a failure of substance – it’s not a great look for the symbolism, either.
So, again, what’s the point of Stormont?
The answer gets to the heart of why the Equality Coalition’s asks are so important.
The fact is, as frustrating as the Assembly and Executive can be (and frequently are), they have a crucial role to play in building the best possible future for Northern Ireland.
Cynicism is understandable. Many of the big challenges for NI are long-standing and persistent. Stormont hasn’t shored them up so far, it’s natural to doubt that things will be different following elections in May. But are our prospects better elsewhere?
The UK government is in full-blown, ongoing chaos. While that can’t last forever, London politics has been lurching from crisis to crisis for years. Even when things settle down in Westminster, one way or another, it will be poorly placed to address the fine details of the challenges faced by NI.
Restructuring Health and Social Care, reimagining the education system, adapting to climate change – these are massive areas of need requiring root-and-branch reforms.
There will be controversies, there will be mistakes, and there is no way to keep everyone happy.
At least if changes are made at Stormont, there is more chance those changes will appreciate local needs and sensitivities – and they will be changes that have local accountability.
For all its faults, shortcomings and failures - that’s the point of Stormont.
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