Straight and to the point from my online sparring partner Andrew G. – as noted here last week, it is not so much the system which is broken as our willingness to share the burden, and often unpopularity, of government.
I have written many times before that the problem in Northern Ireland remains that each side is being sold a vision of outright victory, where the “other side” will just go away. For Unionists, Northern Ireland is “British” (whatever that now means), and thus “British” people should have precedence. For Nationalists, Northern Ireland is “Irish” and thus “Irish” people should have precedence. Anyone else is a “guest” – oh yes very welcome of course, but on the home side’s own terms only…
Whatever system you come up with, we still therefore live in a society where people elect parties to deliver outright victory. Since outright victory is impossible, this means eternal gridlock. Each side of that gridlock demands elections and so on, which will only deliver further gridlock. However, we need to remember something: it is not the politicians delivering gridlock. The politicians are only there because we put them (or allowed them to be put) there. We are responsible for the gridlock!
Therefore it doesn’t much matter what “system” you have in place, until we elect parties who are honest enough to recognise compromise isn’t a dirty word, and that in an inevitably multi-party government it will be absolutely necessary, there is no chance of progress. Frankly, we need to stop being selfish and demanding it all our own way or no way. (I have written before how “Progressives” are as guilty of this as anyone else.)
In short, the issue isn’t that we don’t have an opposition, it is that we don’t have a government! It is not that the government isn’t held to account – it is that it is, to the extent that it is even held to account by its own members, rendering effective governance impossible. (That is not to say that a large minority cross-community ‘opposition’ wouldn’t help, by the way – it is just that the problem needs defined properly and we need to be realistic about the prospects of delivering this.)
It so happens, to force some progress, I would establish an external “Independent Standards Commission” on a similar basis to the previously existing “Independent Monitoring Commission”. This would have a remit to do two things:
- assess the validity of Petitions of Concern, with the power to instruct the Speaker to render them invalid if: a) they do not have signatures from more than one “designation”, and b) it is not clearly indicated how the issue would negatively impact in a discriminatory way on a specific group; and
- hold judicial authority to remove/bar a Minister found guilty of breaching the Ministerial Code.
This would mean that Petitions could only in future be used as they were intended in the Agreement (i.e. as a genuine protection); and that the Ministerial Code (which was central, we should recall, to the DUP’s “victory” at St Andrews) would be enforced.
This would have an important practical outcome as it would no longer be necessary for both the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree on things for them to pass: either the DUP or Sinn Fein would be free to seek an alternative majority (in practice requiring at least two designations) from among other parties to get things through. This would have the effect at least of limiting gridlock. It would also re-establish the primacy of the Rule of Law and consensus – Ministers would no longer be able to attack the police or the judiciary, nor would they be able to go on “solo runs” on big issues only to find them subsequently overturned in Court.
However, this would still only be a sticking plaster until such time as the electorate realises that if it wants progress for all of Northern Ireland, it has to vote for parties who represent progress for all of Northern Ireland. It’s that simple.