How would “Opposition” work?

With a view to the “Opposition” debate, I blogged last week that the Alliance Party had long ago called for “Qualified Majority Voting” in the Assembly – that is to say, essentially, the “cross-community” requirement for Northern Ireland’s devolved Government should be met by compelling it to have 65-70% support, rather than by a mathematical formula which gives all the large parties a place in it. What is interesting about this is that it has benefits which go well beyond the mere presence of an Opposition to scrutinise the Executive.

So, let’s say, given census results, we go with a requirement of two thirds. How would this work?

After the next Assembly Election, parties would be free to enter into discussions concerning the formation of an Executive and a Programme for Government.

Key point 1: the Programme for Government *pre-dates* Executive formation – making for more coherence of purpose rather than a compulsory horse-trade.

The parties in negotiations are free to negotiate departmental mergers or shifting of departmental responsibilities as well, provided they do not exceed 10 Departments as per the 1998 Agreement.

Key point 2: there would be fewer and better targeted Departments, almost certainly. 

The Executive (and its Programme) is then proposed to the Assembly and stands as long as no more than a third of Assembly members vote against it. Subsequently, it could only be brought down on “confidence and supply” (i.e. the Budget Bill), with perhaps a requirement for this to take place annually.

Key point 3: the Executive would not need qualified majority (two thirds) approval, just not qualified minority (one third) disapproval – allowing an Executive to be formed without the two-thirds majority necessarily being represented within it (other parties may choose to endorse it only on “confidence and supply”, in return for certain policy measures in the Programme for Government, in exchange for the Speakership, or whatever).

Legislation would then proceed as normal, except where a petition of concern is brought on equality or good relations grounds, in which case the same qualified minority (one third) disapproval requirement would kick in.

Key point 4: policy-based bargaining as opposed to sectarian carve-up would become the norm.


In addition, the Opposition would be fully funded, with guaranteed research funds, access to information, and (at least some) Committee Chairs.

Key point 5: the Opposition would be properly resourced and informed, not just left to look ignorant and “outside the loop” as under the current system.

Such a system would continue to guarantee power-sharing while also, in due course, enabling the removal of designations (as they no longer do anything).

Key point 6: guaranteed power-sharing would exist – and indeed such a system would mean not just a power-sharing Executive, but also almost certainly a power-sharing opposition.

Now tell me, why should legislation for all of this not be passed in time for a 2016 Assembly Election?


4 thoughts on “How would “Opposition” work?

  1. Harryaswell says:

    LOL!! Why? Well, almost certainly, Sinn Feinn and also the DUP will resist any change in the cozy relationships that exist right now. I also suspect, though I don’t actually know, that these changes are far more involved and complicated than you show here.

  2. David says:

    Hi Ian,

    What would be the implications of a mandatory coalition whereby the largest two parties must form an executive and the other parties form the opposition?

    Why could there not be a shadow executive. The d’Hondt formula could run a second time only this time the parties could not pick a department that they picked the first time. These shadow departments could hold the executive departments to account. (I know the draw back here is that you are both in and out of government at the same time but at least we would have accountability.)



  3. David,

    That would become a sectarian head count, with Liberal, Green and other parties left out of any meaningful debate. In practice, neither “side” would wish to be under-represented in that Executive, and would thus vote heavily for the leading party on their “side” regardless of policy or governing competence. You could, indeed probably would, get two parties who agree on nothing with each other opposed by two parties who agree on nothing with each other. That is pretty much what we currently have. It doesn’t work.

  4. […] have attempted to answer the first two of these, but I have no idea how to go about the third and […]

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