As the dust settles on the 5th May Assembly Election calls for change to Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions have grown louder for two general reasons.
Firstly, the DUP refusal to nominate a deputy First Minister or elect a new Speaker, has left Northern Ireland without an Assembly and with only a caretaker Executive. The case that the devolved institutions are dysfunctional and brittle is self-evident, as it was from 2017–2020 when Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister and before that from 2002–2007 when the institutions were again suspended. In fact the Executive has been suspended for nearly 40% of its entire existence since first created in 1999. When the devolved institutions have managed to operate, they have been defined as much by their inadequacy as by their record of effective governance.
The second reason that calls for reform have intensified since 5th May is due to the electoral success of the Alliance Party, more than doubling its seats from 8 to 17 and becoming the third largest party in the Assembly after Sinn Fein and the DUP. It is reasonable to suggest that this is a sustained rise that is likely to endure, rather than an electoral blip. The election outcome was paralleled by the most recent NI Life and Times Survey results1 published on 22nd May, which reinforced evidence that there are now three dominant blocs in the electorate, with the non-aligned being the largest. Those defining themselves as ‘neither’ unionist nor nationalist were the largest group at 37%, which broadly maps onto the growth of the non-aligned vote. This poses a challenge to the current ‘two communities’ model of power sharing, manifested in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) itself, where the non-aligned ‘Others’ do not have the same rights as those who designate as either Unionist or Nationalist. Designation remains a functional but crude mechanism to facilitate a system of cross community votes and safeguards within the political institutions. However, with Alliance now the third largest party in the Assembly this system looks increasingly unsustainable.
Replacing the ‘Ugly Scaffolding’?
We are now faced with two key questions: First, do we want to try to reshape what former SDLP leader Mark Durkan called the ‘ugly scaffolding’ of the GFA in a speech he gave in 2008 at the British Irish Association in Oxford on the 10th anniversary of the Agreement? ‘If we are serious about a truly shared future then we have to allow for truly shared politics where parties can – and have to – appeal across the traditional divides.’2 Second, if we can agree to at least explore change, what reforms might be envisaged that could encompass the non-aligned in a way that makes the devolved institutions more robust and representative?
The good news is that both the Assembly and the Executive have already demonstrated their capacity for change in ways that have not proved overly traumatic for the parties or wider electorate. The Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) was rebadged as the Executive Office in 2016 as a result of the Fresh Start Agreement, while the Assembly was reduced in size and the departments condensed from twelve down to nine. Legislation has also been introduced to recognise an official opposition within the Assembly. Less positively, we lost the Civic Forum, originally conceived as being integral to the GFA but which got pushed into grass that was so long it got forgotten about. So the institutions have been evolving over time and are likely to continue doing so.
In addition to these changes, the parties in the Assembly have also been exposed to various ideas for reform through the work of the Assembly & Executive Review Committee (AERC). During the last mandate the work programme of the AERC identified community designation and the election of the First and deputy First Ministers as a primary strategic priority. This article is based on a submission to the AERC by a team from the University of Kent and University of Essex in which we looked at how the Assembly and Executive might better reflect the changing profile of the electorate while retaining existing power-sharing safeguards within the GFA.3
Four Ideas for Reform
Our submission to the AERC identified four interrelated reforms with the potential to make devolved government more robust and effective, while increasing the incentives for political co-operation.
Firstly we suggest that a transition away from First and deputy First Minister to Joint First Ministers (JFM) is long overdue. At the purely symbolic level, rebadging FM/dFM as Joint First Ministers would recognise that the roles are held jointly and based on equality and partnership. At the launch of the Alliance Party’s election manifesto, which supported this move, Naomi Long said; ‘It is a co-equal office, with co-equal partners in government. It is time that was reflected in the title’.4
Secondly, we argue that more thought could be given to a move away from designation for individual MLAs (Unionist/Nationalist/Other), towards a weighted majority vote (of 65%) for key legislation. In practice this would mean that key votes on legislation in the Assembly would be decoupled from binary community identities. It would also give equal rights to all MLAs in the Assembly, regardless of their designation, addressing an increasingly glaring democratic anomaly in the current system. The move to a weighted majority for key votes could promote coalition building between parties on an issue by issue basis which might also build more flex into party relationships within the Assembly. We do however, propose that designation is retained for political parties in the Assembly for the specific purpose of appointing Joint First Ministers to an expanded Executive Office.
Expanding the Executive Office
Our third idea relates to whether the Executive Office could accommodate all three blocs within an expanded three person Executive Office and Joint First Ministerial Team. This would open up the Executive Office to the non-aligned bloc and would mean Joint First Ministers (JFM) composed of the largest nationalist party in the Assembly as well as the largest unionist party and the largest party of the non-aligned designation. It should not matter which of these parties have the most seats in the Assembly and responsibility would be shared equally across all three. A JFM team of three would be more representative of the electorate in Northern Ireland and might also energise that constituency who currently feel the devolved institutions are failing to reflect their identity.
There may (as now) be issues relating to what happens if one of the three JFMs resigns – but these are not insurmountable challenges. The most straightforward option would be that as now, when one member of the Executive Office resigns then the others also have to stand down. However, given the current (and previous) periods of suspension of the devolved institutions, it might also be possible to build in a default mechanism, where a party that chooses not to nominate could be replaced by the next largest party of the same designation (if sufficiently represented in the Assembly) – or even that the Executive Office would be able to continue with two out of the three designations if one chooses not to participate. The point here would be to incentivise parties in all three designations to participate in the institutions and to effectively remove unilateral vetoes from individual parties.
This would obviously move the Executive Office away from the binary nationalist/unionist axis and provide representation to the large (and arguably alienated) section of the electorate. Some will see this as unreasonable, potentially providing a non-aligned party with a role that is not deserved due to its potentially smaller size in the Assembly. Others might see it as being more reflective of the political alignment within the electorate and a means of future-proofing the Executive Office, while at the same time not excluding EITHER the largest unionist or nationalist designations as could be the result of other potential reforms. This might also have a mediating effect, reducing the sense of the Executive Office being an adversarial tug of war between unionism and nationalism.
Finally, as there is a potential for disproportionate reward to be built-in if a non-aligned party is included in the JFM Office, this could be countered by changing the process of appointing the Justice Ministry – which currently goes to a non-aligned minister by default. Under the existing rules the Justice Minister is nominated in advance of the other ministerial posts and the candidate then has to be approved by a cross-community vote in the Assembly. After this parties can nominate to the ministerial portfolios in turn using the d’Hondt formula, depending on the number of seats they have in the Assembly. As parties can pick any portfolio under this process when it is their turn to nominate, Justice has been deemed to be a ‘special case’ due to the sensitivities associated with that office concerning policing and the criminal justice system. Put more bluntly, the DUP is not prepared to risk Sinn Fein picking the Justice portfolio under the d’Hondt process so alternative arrangements have been required. When Alliance Party leader Naomi Long was proposed as Justice Minister after the devolved institutions were restored in January 2020, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy spoke in support of her nomination, but suggested that ‘the post no longer needs this type of procedure and that the allocation of the Department of Justice should be done alongside the normal running of d’Hondt for all the other Departments.’5 Arguably, placing the Justice ministry within the d’Hondt process for the nomination of other ministerial posts would further ‘normalise’ the political system.
Contemplating change is rarely easy and the introduction of any reform in the areas outlined above needs to be carefully timed and negotiated with the support of all major parties in the Assembly. Despite everything, the post GFA institutions remain popular with public opinion – but without embracing change that replaces some of the ‘ugly scaffolding’, power-sharing as we know it in Northern Ireland is unlikely to survive.
- Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, 22 May 2022, https://www.ark.ac.uk/ARK/nilt/
- The research was undertaken by Professor Feargal Cochrane, Dr Thibaud Bodson, Professor Neophytos Loizides, Dr Edward Morgan-Jones, Dr Raluca Popp (University of Kent) & Dr Laura Sudulich, (University of Essex) Our full submission (& other submissions) is available in the AERC’s Legacy Report 2017–2022. http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/committees/2017-2022/assembly-and-executive-review-committee/legacy-report-2017—2022-associated-documents-and-papers/