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.