The “Opposition” Debate in Northern Ireland is incredibly frustrating. Those debating it mean well and have a point, but they haven’t gained much popular support because it is fundamentally a technocratic argument. What is more, those arguing for an “Opposition” are strangely mute when it comes to explaining how one would really work in Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances.
To be clear, the problem is that we must have power-sharing in government; it is tricky enough to secure that, without then also having to ensure power-sharing in opposition as well. This is to leave aside the obvious point that Nationalists have a problem with the concept of Government versus Opposition in Northern Ireland as they instinctively take it to mean the old majoritarianism which served them so poorly.
The difficulty is, further, that people seem unable to imagine properly how this would work in Northern Ireland. I would suggest it would work the same way as it does in Denmark, with the exception that Northern Ireland would require a qualified majority (around 70%) rather than a straightforward one (50%).
There is an episode of Borgen entitled “Who can count to 90?”, so entitled because the Danish Parliament has 179 seats, and thus 90 are required for a majority. Yet in fact the title is slightly misleading. As lead star Birgitte Nyborg soon finds out to her advantage, the Danish system does not require the Government to count to 90, merely to ensure that the Opposition can’t – in other words, the Danish system requires only that the Government not have a majority against it.
What this means, in practice, is that a Government can be formed in Denmark consisting of parties which collectively do not have a majority of the seats – this is in fact the norm, and in fact became the case again only last week when one of the governing parties resigned from the Government but did not bring it down. Essentially Parliament is made up of three groups – parties in government, parties in opposition, and parties in the middle with whom the government has to negotiate to get legislation through, but who are content enough with the government’s broad direction so as not to bring it down. This is what happened last week – a left-wing party left the centre-left government, but did not bring it down for fear the result would be an election resulting in a centre-right government. It may have some disagreements with the existing government, but still fewer than it would have if the other side got in.
A similar system could be tried in Northern Ireland. Assuming 108 Assembly seats and 30 signatures required for a “petition of concern”, petitions of concern could be amended to a system where the Executive sits and governs as normal provided it does not have 30 or more MLAs against it. This does not mean it would need 79 in its favour; it simply means it needs 79 who are content enough with its broad direction to allow it to govern – while negotiating on specific pieces of legislation on a case-by-case basis.
This would affect how people vote, because parties would go into elections pledging to insist on certain policies, and request (but perhaps not insist on) others. After an election, parties would negotiate to form a government – bearing in mind that ministerial posts and policies form part of this negotiation, and even the very number of departments and divisions between them are on the table (as is normal with any coalition negotiation).
However, let us say the outcome of the election is exactly the Assembly we have now – DUP 38, SF 29, SDLP 14, UU 13, AP 8, NI21 2, Green 1, TUV 1, UKIP 1, IndU 1.
Conceivably, for example, the DUP and SF could simply put together an Executive, and ask the Assembly if it is content to allow it to govern. Even if the SDLP and Ulster Unionists opposed it vehemently, they would still need to persuade three more MLAs to bring it down. The DUP and SF could negotiate with those MLAs too – perhaps making one the Speaker, and/or offering certain policies (say on the environment or integrated education or Europe) to others. Alternatively, the SDLP and/or Ulster Unionists may opt deliberately to go into opposition for longer-term electoral reasons (both because the electorate rarely forgives a party for immediately forcing another election; and also because a period in opposition may allow time to research and rebuild properly).
Alternatively, for example, the DUP could make an offer to the SDLP to form a government alongside, say, the Ulster Unionists and Alliance, but with an equal number of Nationalist and Unionist Ministers – perhaps reducing the number of departments to seven or nine, or introducing Junior Ministers in each Department, to make this feasible. Provided no one other than Sinn Fein actively opposed the resulting administration, it could stand (although in fairness this is highly unlikely); conceivably Sinn Fein would even let it stand, perhaps for a reduced term, knowing full well that it would be bound to make significant gains at a subsequent election (it would surely win 30 seats at least, to ensure it had to be in the next Executive).
Another option (perhaps the most likely) would be for the DUP, SF, Alliance, NI21, Greens and the Independent Unionist to form a qualified majority administration – so long as the parties stayed together, they could govern without restriction, just as the Conservative-LibDem and Fine Gael-Labour coalition administrations currently do, as no combination of other parties gets to 30. You would then have an SDLP-UUP-TUV-UKIP opposition.
Any of these options would ensure a power-sharing government. The simple question would be asked after each election – who can count to 79? Or more specifically, who can ensure the Opposition cannot count to 30?
But don’t bet on it happening tomorrow!