A minority coalition at Stormont could suffice

BBC Talkback kindly invited me on the programme on Thursday but unfortunately I had a prior lunchtime engagement. The topic was whether a minority coalition could function at Stormont.

We are a bit away from needing it but, for reference, yes it could.

Let us first of all step away to the other side of the world. In the 120-seat New Zealand Parliament, the incumbent centre-right Nationals received 56 seats in the recent election and were guaranteed the support of at least one other member, leaving them four short of a majority. Labour gained significantly but was left well back on 46, and unfortunately from its point of view most of its gains came from the Greens, its likely coalition partner, who were left on just eight – collectively still short of the National total and seven away from a majority.

Yet this week, a Labour Prime Minister was appointed. The populist NZ First had been left as the Kingmaker with nine seats, and announced it was willing to form a coalition with Labour. The Greens, no friends of NZ First, nevertheless agreed to a confidence and supply arrangement given their preference for a Labour Prime Minister over a National one.

Let us remind ourselves, therefore, that the New Zealand coalition government does not command a majority in Parliament, and is not led by the largest party. Yet it is now in place.

Let us head back to Stormont, reminding ourselves of my own proposed amendment to the system of Executive formation. Currently, the largest party and the largest party not in the same designation are required to appoint the First Minister and deputy First Minister (with an Executive then formed in line with party strengths). If one or other party required to a appoint a First or deputy First Minister does not do so, or does but then resigns, the Secretary of State is required to call an election. My proposed amendment is that, instead of requiring the Secretary of State to call an election at this stage, the Secretary of State would instead be allowed to appoint Ministers to an Executive provided they were capable of putting through a Programme for Government commanding the support of the Assembly. Let us recall that in practice this requires that it not be subject to a Petition of Concern; in other words, that it must have the active support of a majority of MLAs voting and at least the tacit acceptance (i.e. either support or abstention) of 61 out of 90. Achieving at least the tacit acceptance of over two-thirds of the democratically elected Assembly clearly demonstrates a sufficient degree of cross-community consent.

Under the current Assembly numbers, the most obvious coalition is DUP-SDLP-Alliance. This gives 48 seats, already a majority, and would be able to pass a Programme for Government unless Sinn Fein gained the support of both the Greens and People before Profit (or, somewhat less likely, some Unionists) to sign a Petition of Concern to block it. Let us note again that such a coalition would not be appointed by d’Hondt – the SDLP and Alliance (or indeed anyone else) would be entitled to argue for more/particular Ministries or policy guarantees, just as NZ First and the Greens did in New Zealand. (Let us also note again that I envisage no appointment of a First Minister or deputy First Minister in such circumstances – the Executive Office would be run by Ministers as a collegiate.)

This brings us to another unlikely but not inconceivable and certain intriguing option – SDLP-UU-Alliance. Between them, these parties have just 30 of the 90 seats, but notably no other party on its own could deliver a Petition of Concern to stop their Programme. In practice, Sinn Fein could again attempt to combine with both the Greens and People before Profit, or the DUP could try with TUV and an Independent, but neither would be likely (and even less so if the Greens and Independent were brought into the coalition negotiations and offered some policy commitments in the Programme for Government). In fact, the likelihood is that the only way a Programme for Government presented by an SDLP-UU-Alliance coalition could be blocked by the Assembly would be by the DUP and Sinn Fein both actively voting against it – and if they were prepared in effect to work together on such a vote, that would raise the obvious question (publicly) of why they are not prepared to work together to deliver a Programme of their own. It is far from clear that an election inevitably caused by such an action would serve either of the big parties well, which may just make them think again about whether it was such a good idea.

Of course, this process is fraught with difficulty and it is still not exactly first preference – but it is clearly not impossible. A minority coalition may be no less inconceivable in Northern Ireland than it is on the other side of the world.


Draft legislation for Petition reform and voluntary coalition – now

When I read some reports that a deal was “imminent” at Stormont last week, there was of course a side to me which welcomed the prospect of Ministers being back at their desks. But part of me was fearful – it is indeed for the DUP and Sinn Féin (the parties obliged to form the Executive) to agree to the deal which enables it to be formed, but any deal involving solely those two parties was never ever going to address the underlying structural problems which have been evident to some since 2006 and evident to many since March. The main problem is that of vetoes – one never likely to be sorted by the two parties holding them!

To be clear, there is a deal on language and culture right in front of the two main parties. Importantly, there is a longstanding and highly necessary proposed reform of the Petition of Concern (restricting its use to matters of identity, equality and institutional reform) in front of them too. These will deliver everything reasonably demanded. So it is time to set up an Executive, pass the language and culture legislation, and enable the Assembly to scrutinise and legislate without minority vetos.

But a broader reform deal is also required so that this kind of banjax can never occur again. This can only realistically occur with properly mediated all-party talks aimed at a comprehensive agreement to last years, not months.

The fundamental problem remains that the DUP and Sinn Féin are both required to set up the Executive, and without an Executive there can be no Assembly. This means that the DUP and Sinn Féin, each with little over a quarter of the vote, have an individual and absolute veto over whether the Assembly (not just the Executive) operates. This is ludicrous.

They have now utterly abused that veto – so it is time the process began to remove it from them.

Legislation should be drafted immediately to reform the Petition of Concern and change the arrangement so, instead of an election in the event that the two largest parties veto the formation of an Executive, the Secretary of State may appoint Ministers agreeing to form a power-sharing administration – i.e. on a cross-community basis from the parties willing to take responsibility to govern (as I have written elsewhere, they would not be appointed by d’Hondt but rather to ensure equitable power-sharing and they can operate the Executive Office in a collegiate basis; this means, at any point, the two largest parties could agree to assume power by appointing a First Minister and deputy First Minister, but there would at least be Ministers and an Assembly in place for as long as they didn’t).

To be clear, there is no need to proceed to pass such legislation immediately as it would ideally be subject to all-party Agreement. However, it would be the first step in a process of removing vetos which serve now not only to block progressive polities even where they have large popular support, but even to block the very establishment of devolved government. The beginning of such a process would at least make people think a bit as all-party negotiations begin…

And let us also be clear: no one with a significant mandate would ever be “excluded” other than those who have opted to exclude themselves by putting narrow sectional interests ahead of the well-being of the people they are elected to serve.

Ministers should be in place but, regardless, we do have MLAs in place. Many want to get on with the job, and they are a ready-made forum for all-party talks to enable them to do so.

BBC cannot be “partial” between expert opinion and nonsense

This article on the BBC website at the weekend quotes, in response to an expert assessment of the probability of rising food prices after Brexit, not one but two Tory Leaver MPs and no other political voices at all.

This is ludicrous, and is a classic example of the problem in how the mainstream media seek “balance”.

Frankly, there are only two reasons anyone should be quoted in such an article, or for that matter invited on to a topical programme – either they represent popular opinion (as evidenced by an electoral mandate) or they represent an expert view (as evidenced by qualifications or demonstrable expertise).

Mr Grayling was fully entitled to state his view as he represented popular opinion (and offers some guidance into government thinking). However, unless he represents at least two thirds of public opinion (which he plainly doesn’t), any further political opinion should come from someone of a different view. It is utterly bizarre that a further view is referred to from another politician of the exact same opinion. At the referendum 51.9% voted Leave and at the election 43% voted Tory – so there is no way that both politicians quoted in any piece should be Tory Leavers.

The justification for this presumably is that the expert view was in effect backed by traders – in other words, those carrying out the survey and those affected by it. However, this is just as bad – because it implies that “impartiality” means putting up two (similar) expert views against two (similar) political views as if both are equally valid. They are not.

Mr Grayling is someone elevated (for reasons which frankly baffle me) to cabinet level via politics, but he in fact offers no actual demonstrable expertise on the subject of food prices after Brexit beyond that which is already plainly slanted by his own political leaning. Nor does Mr Redwood. The job of an “impartial” report is to emphasise precisely that point – Mr Grayling has his opinion and has a mandate to express it, but it is not in fact shared by any experts we can find (to the extent that we had to find someone of exactly the same political background and bias to back him – in other words, the very story here is that no one with any actual expertise or without his pre-existing leaning would).

The whole purpose of the BBC – its mission – is to provide informative and impartial reporting. To do this, it must distinguish between expert opinion and partisan nonsense, and recognise that it is not its role to be “impartial” between them.

Social media is already full of people willing to spread partisan nonsense and thus deliberately to misinform and cause division. If the mainstream media cannot counter that with a determined effort to emphasise what is likely to be accurate and what is mere prejudice, it will have no purpose at all. Of all organisations, the BBC has to be up to the challenge of saving mainstream media and promoting informed opinion and expert viewpoints appropriately before it is too late.


Interestingly, since I drafted this piece, it looks like the article has been modified and Mr Redwood’s quotes replaced by those from a Labour Minister. 

Better late than never!

Practical sovereign border need not be practical customs border

The mainstream media are not having a good run. From mistaking the A6 section currently being upgraded for the York Street Interchange to claiming people said things they did not say even when basing it on a tweet, you do wonder if the downward spiral can ever be arrested. The latest nonsense was that the EU would attempt to “move the border to the Irish Sea”. It can and has no reason to do any such thing.

The border between the UK and Ireland can only be moved to the Irish Sea by the people of Northern Ireland freely voting to move it there. That is all there is to that.

There is, of course, the interesting practical reality that the UK has stated its intention both to leave the EU Customs Union (which in practice it must if it leaves the EU) and to avoid any physical infrastructure at the actual border. This, to be clear, is its sovereign decision. As with any decision, it has consequences – the most obvious being that customs checks will not be able to happen at the actual border given the lack of infrastructure.

To be clear, this customs square does need to be circled.

There are a few options. The first and most obvious is for the UK to form a new customs union with the EU – a UK-EU Customs Union similar to the many similar versions already existing. Many Brexiteers do not like this because it would restrict any future trade deals, but it should not be ruled out – those trade deals aren’t exactly coming along well (not least with trade war being all but declared on the United States) and it would solve a lot of practical and expensive problems, not just in Ireland.

The second is formally to place Northern Ireland within the EU Customs Union. Within the British Isles there is already a precedent for this – neither the Isle of Man nor the Channel Islands falls inside the EU Customs Union currently (but the UK does; so this means they are not in Customs union with the UK despite being UK sovereign territory within the Common Travel Area). Nevertheless, it would be politically and constitutionally awkward for an actual part of the UK not to be in customs union with the rest of it – there are in fact precedents for this too across Europe, but nothing like the size of Northern Ireland.

The third is to make Northern Ireland a Special Customs Zone. Unionists will instinctively dislike this too, but they should beware hypocrisy on this. Unionists have after all successfully argued for lower Air Passenger Duty to apply on trans-Atlantic flights from Northern Ireland specifically because its airports have to compete directly with those on the rest of the island (in other words, specifically because of its geography); they have also argued for reduced corporation tax to apply in Northern Ireland on exactly the same basis; and indeed they even argued for beef from Northern Ireland not to be labelled “British” during the Foot and Mouth crisis. Northern Ireland is already a Special Air Passenger Duty Zone, may soon become a Special Corporation Tax Zone, and was even a Special Beef Labelling Zone – all on account of its geography and all with Unionist backing. The case for a Special Customs Zone would be made on the precise same basis – geographical reality.

Precisely how such an “SCZ” would work would need expertise greater than mine. But let us follow the working. Customs checks need to be carried out. Customs checks cannot be carried out at the actual (sovereign) border. It is logical for them to be carried out at ports (as vehicles, notably those carrying freight, are stopped there anyway so it causes no further disruption). Imports from and exports to Great Britain would flow freely of course. However, it may be possible for imports from and exports to the EU to flow relatively freely too, subsequent only to a check that their origin or destination (as appropriate) is in Northern Ireland. In return, Northern Ireland could ensure relevant standards will be kept in line with the EU’s under a “Special Customs Zone Treaty”.

Such a treaty would have added benefits, as it may also free up trade with the EU to be conducted by Northern Irish companies without serious hindrance (all while remaining within the UK Single Market). Northern Ireland could sell itself as a “Special Gateway Zone”, with advantageous access to EU markets with its own duties and corporation tax arrangements, while all the time trading freely with the rest of the UK.

All this needs now are politicians actually interested in governing the place, and doing so in the interests of all its people collectively…

Democracy means you don’t win ’em all

Last month a Judge once again ruled in favour of the Department for Infrastructure as it proceed to construct an expressway (not a motorway, note well) between Randalstown and Castledawson. This is an important piece of infrastructure, linking Greater Belfast both with the North West and with Mid Ulster. Review after review has demonstrated that the Department has all of its assessments correct; appeal after appeal has failed.

Yet for some reason the appeals keep coming, at great expense to the taxpayer. Up to a point, people have the right to appeal through the legal system. The problem here is that they also have the responsibility not to inflict further expense (and delay) on us all when they have no legal case.

Despite some ludicrous media coverage, the fact remains there is no legal case whatsoever against construction. Just claiming there is one does not mean there is. Bizarrely, almost no coverage has made this straightforward point. The only headline after the latest appeal was thrown out should have been “Department’s work yet again shown to be fine”, or even “Man urged to stop wasting thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on spurious appeals after being shown to have no case whatsoever”.

As I have noted before on these pages, there is a serious and growing problem with people not accepting democratic decisions just because they do not like them. The fundamental problem with Executive formation in Northern Ireland is that neither of the two largest parties wants to drop their veto and take their chances with actual democracy – democracy where you win some but, by definition, you will never win them all.

Democracy requires and demands compromise and responsibility. These seem to be in short supply everywhere these days.


Assembly technicalities which need sorted

It seems the two parties who have to do a deal at Stormont are getting a little more serious about actually doing one.

Here are some important technicalities around the Assembly’s operation which need sorted at this stage:

  • Appointment of the Speaker – this should be by secret ballot of MLAs from nominees who are members of party groups which provide neither the First Minister nor deputy First Minister, accompanied by two additional secret ballots to elect a Principal Deputy Speaker and a Deputy Speaker from different parties (and designations for as long as these address); and the position should then rotate annually for the Assembly term;
  • Ministers remain in office until replaced – whereas currently Ministers cease to hold office on Election Day, they should in fact remain in office (at least in a caretaker capacity, perhaps on reduced pay) until new Ministers are appointed post-Election;
  • Assembly can meet – after an Election, the Assembly should be able to meet without having to appoint a First Minister and deputy First Minister;
  • No Two-Week Rule – if a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot be appointed within two weeks of the first post-Election Assembly meeting, the Secretary of State should be entitled to enable the nominees to keep talking towards agreeing a common Programme (rather than having to call another election);
  • No One-Week Rule – likewise, the resignation of a First Minister or deputy First Minister should not obligatorily be followed by an Assembly Election (although that should remain an option); and
  • restriction of Petition of Concern solely to the overall Programme for Government, Legislative Programme or Budget; or to issues of identity, equality or constitution not contained in those.

Of course, in the longer (but not that much longer) term, in the event of resignation of First Minister or deputy First Minister (or failure to appoint within a reasonable time of an election), the Secretary of State should be entitled to ask other parties if they are willing to form a voluntary, power-sharing coalition capable of passing a Programme and Budget (meaning in effect they would need a majority of those voting and no more than a third overall against, thus demonstrating a reasonable cross-community consensus via a qualified majority). This system should be in place before the next election.

In the longer run, the particular arrangements for appointment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and election of the Justice Minister should be abandoned. Ultimately this should all be done via voluntary coalition commanding qualified majority arrangements, as above.

These are all technical, but they are essential to ensure we are never again left entirely without devolved executive authority and legislative scrutiny.

UK must apply to join EFTA immediately

I’m going to let you all into a secret. I don’t dislike David Davis. I do have a problem with him, however, beyond a difference of opinion over Brexit.

Where the Foreign Secretary blatantly takes position merely to further his personal interests and the Trade Secretary engages in pure delusion about the state of the world, David Davis at least appears to be following a logical path from his own past positions (even if one almost inevitable consequence is ID cards, which he once resigned from Parliament to oppose).

The problem is that we have this peculiar notion that people who are capable of getting selected for and then winning a parliamentary seat (a particular set of skills) also make good negotiators (a quite different set of skills). Putting politicians in charge of actual negotiations (rather than establishing desirable directions for them) is, therefore, quite crazy.

And it is evident Mr Davis is not a negotiator. That is my problem with him, beyond his support for policies I believe are profoundly damaging (but to which he is entitled in a democracy). For over a year now, Mr Davis has been “negotiating” and even his own side’s position remains entirely unclear. He is obviously hopeless at this, and therefore shouldn’t be doing it.

One obvious example is the quite astonishing failure to apply to join EFTA. This is the free trade alliance of which the UK was a member before it joined the EEC in the first place, and which would provide significant clarity on what its trade relationship with the EU would look like post-Brexit.

And here is the thing – merely applying does not mean the UK has to go through with it and join. But it would put the option clearly on the table, potentially to operate from April 2019, this giving the UK some leverage that it will not have to walk away with “no deal”. It would, at the very least, give the EU side something to work with in terms of a future trading relationship which could then be turned into workable solutions on other issues such as citizens’ rights and the Irish border.

It defies belief that the application has not been made at this late stage. It is basic negotiating strategy. The UK needs some negotiators!

Respect goes many ways

It was encouraging to see Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill sharing press statements on Bombardier and sectarian intimidation, and sharing a platform at Conservative Party Conference. Having the Leader of Sinn Féin in the Assembly at that event serves as a useful reminder of how far we have come, and credit is due for attending.

There is also evidence of what Arlene Foster described as “solid progress” at the talks. It is inevitable that this is not accompanied by any particular evidence of a “breakthrough” on key issues because of course the old maxim that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” applies.

At the heart of the issue remains the fairly fuzzy notion of “respect”.

I have always been troubled by the requirement in the Agreement to demonstrate “mutual respect”. It is useful at one level that it must be “mutual”, but I have also always thought respect has to be earned and offered, not just demanded.

The crux of the problem, it appears to me, remains to be that it is just demanded.

At the conference, Michelle O’Neill was quoted as saying “the North [i.e. Northern Ireland] isn’t British”. There is an element to this which is an appeal to her base and is thus not politically unreasonable if the talks really are progressing, but it runs directly contrary to the subsequently stated notion of “protecting British identity in a United Ireland”.

This followed another, ahem, error, when Sinn Fein Councillors were found to object to the term “Londonderry Air” appearing on a sign welcoming people to Limavady. The “Londonderry Air” is the name of a tune, as a simple matter of fact. Again, this type of nonsense runs directly contrary to respecting the broadly British identity cherished by many in Northern Ireland.

Notably, under the Agreement, respect for the British identity of Northern Irish people is guaranteed even in the event of a United Ireland. It therefore forms part of any definition of “implementing past Agreements”.

Therefore, the fundamental issue remains – both Unionists and Nationalists profoundly believe Northern Ireland is “theirs”. To back this up, the former focus on the aspect of the Agreement dealing with sovereignty (which places Northern Ireland within the UK unless there comes a time where its people decide otherwise), and the latter focus on the aspect dealing with nationality (which enables a “person of Northern Ireland” to be British, Irish, or both – and thus solely Irish, if they choose). In fact both sides need to focus on both – regardless of sovereignty, people here may choose to live entirely British (and not Irish) lives or entirely Irish (and not British) lives; but they also have to respect their fellow citizens who opt for the other one (or indeed both).

So, while evidence of progress at the talks is good, one outcome must be a much broader understanding among a much broader section of the population about what the Agreement (albeit as amended with DUP consent in 2006) means. Northern Ireland is in fact a crossroads – as in the middle of Downpatrick where “Irish Street”, “Scotch Street” and “English Street” meet. It is all the more interesting because of that. But all aspects of our collective identity need to be emphasised, understood and respected…

Las Vegas – the anger trumps the sadness

To be brutally honest, I found anger trumped sadness in my reaction to the Las Vegas massacre at the weekend. To express horror, grief and condolence is natural when people simply attending a concert are mass-murdered – yet the number of Americans who seem to find such levels of violence acceptable is astonishing. The number murdered in Las Vegas will be only a small proportion of those murdered across the United States this week.

It is worth emphasising a view I have expressed here before. Essentially, I do not think Americans are particularly violent because they have guns; I believe they have guns because they are particularly violent. There is a profound culture of using violence first and asking questions later, which in large swathes of the country engulfs everyone from law enforcement officers to average citizens. In a country where almost every administrator is elected or appointed by someone who is elected, it is this which blocks serious action on gun control, or indeed on many other things (such as proper police oversight). Quite possibly, this culture has a historical (and thus understandable) origin, but its continued political resonance in an otherwise civilised society is a mystery of horrific consequence.

Arguably, every country has its blind spots. The UK has its binge drinking, France its racially segregated banlieues, and the United States its culture of violence first. Yet for as long as a country as economically and technologically advanced as the United States cannot work out that everyday violence cannot be part of civilised culture, there will be more Las Vegas-style horror stories – and more grief overcome by anger.

The tragedy of Catalonia

I had the great fortune, from 1992 to 2008, to visit Catalonia for one reason or another every two years on average. On occasions it was for research work (democracy in regions, multilingual systems and so on); once for a conference; once to visit the centres for “linguistic normalisation”; occasionally just on holiday. I stayed with families there, worked in offices there, lunched with friends there, and so on.

For all that, I am not remotely qualified to comment on the current situation there, even though I am in direct contact with residents and activists in and around Barcelona.

Nevertheless, I have to say that people who are even less qualified to comment are, for some reason usually linked to justifying their own political positions in their own home regions, choosing to do so. People are free to comment as they please, of course, but uninformed (or worse still misinformed) comment is becoming a serious problem of our age. We are not in fact imparting knowledge or ideas, but rather reinforcing misconceptions. This is not good.

It is not good not least because it leaves no room for moderation. On one hand, we have the straightforward argument (advanced broadly by the Spanish Right) that independence referendums are unconstitutional and thus illegal. On the other, we have the notion that “self-determination” is both absolute and a synonym for “freedom”.

At great risk of wading into uninformed waters, I will address that latter first. Catalonia has not remotely begun to prepare for independence. The process of forming an independent state there would make Brexit look like a cake walk. Basic issues, like the fact a significant minority of the population are not Catalan, are simply wished away. The reverse is also true – many of the culturally “Catalan lands” are not in Catalonia. Even staunch Catalans had in fact generally if uneasily talked up “sovereignty” rather than “independence”, implicitly understanding the former to mean an equal place for Catalan language and culture in a federal Spain rather than the creation of a new nation state – a much tidier outcome given that “Catalonia” and “Catalanismo” have obviously distinct boundaries. So people abroad arguing for “Catalan freedom” as if there was a longstanding and well planned desire in Catalonia for outright independence are merely casting their own prejudices on to Catalonia, without any real interest in the complexities of the region or indeed the interests of its people at all.

Of course, the same applies in reverse. Simply to declare an independence referendum “unconstitutional” is bizarre – by definition (with the noble recent exceptions of Canada and the UK) independence/separation will always be unconstitutional, as it is in itself an expression that the constitution is deemed to have failed. Despite the removal of some polling boxes and the violence at some stations, it seems around 38% of the Catalan electorate voted for independence – compare 37% who voted for Brexit in the UK! That fact can never be undone. Given the choice of remaining within Spain under the current constitutional arrangement (which does not give Catalans, as they see it, linguistic and cultural equality), or leaving it, a lot and indeed probably a majority of Catalans would rather leave.

The blame game is also unhelpful. The failure of the Catalan police to follow legal direction is extremely worrying, and should concern anyone considering trying to build a new sovereign nation-state there. The more globally obvious failure of the Spanish police to follow that direction without allowing and even resorting to violence leaving hundreds injured has caused Spain a serious reputational problem made only more serious by its government’s apparent failure to recognise it.

A solutions game would be more helpful. It remains fundamentally the case that neither side – broadly “Catalonia” (represented by the Catalan regional government) and “Spain” (represented by the Centre right minority government of Mariano Rajoy) – really wants Catalonia to have to leave Spain, but this would now be an inevitable consequence of inaction. Yet it is extremely dubious whether the current leaders on either side are willing to look at the requisite action as this would inevitably require compromise – something which, sadly in the modern world, is rarely politically popular.

How they pull back from the brink with the fingers hovering over the button remains unclear, and that is Catalonia’s tragedy. On this day of unity, let us just hope that this region of sublime high culture can find some clarity in the days and weeks ahead.