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?