Northern Ireland now has a DUP-SF-Ind coalition government. This is officially opposed by a UU-SDLP coalition with general support from Alliance.
That is a practical reality, and I believe it establishes a convention which should now be formalised.
There is no dispute that the current “coalition government” has democratic legitimacy, holding as it does 67/108 seats and accounting for 54% of the first preference vote (versus 36 and 32%, even including Alliance in the opposition).
However, the arrangement is not yet formal. If at the next Assembly Election, likely to be contested over 85 seats, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP between them were to secure 43 seats (a majority), they would still not be able automatically to enter office alone as a coalition government even though they would clearly have defeated the government and won the election. The DUP and Sinn Fein could still insist on taking seats in the Executive. That is a nonsense.
If at the next Assembly election the balance of the designations remains roughly as it is (50%-40%-10%), any coalition representing a reasonable number of the two largest designations and the majority of MLAs should be able to take office alone. So if, for example, the UU-SDLP bloc where to win 43 seats, that should be it, election won!
Of course, a far from unlikely outcome is that neither the DUP-SF bloc nor the UU-SDLP bloc will reach the magical 43 seats required for a majority. There is nothing to stop them negotiating across blocs (i.e. if DUP-SDLP or UU-SF can form a majority), but if that fails there is then also nothing to stop either bloc negotiating with Alliance, independents or other parties to try to reach a majority. Put simply, if UU-SDLP-Alliance has a majority in the Assembly after the next election, there is no doubt it would have democratic legitimacy to form a three-party coalition (with DUP-SF opposition). To repeat, that is not currently formally the case – indeed, the DUP and Sinn Fein could insist on taking Executive seats, potentially excluding one of the three parties which could form a majority coalition from entering office. In any neighbouring jurisdiction it would be clear that the voters had rejected in the incumbent two-party administration and sought to replace it with the alternative three-party one – yet that would not happen unless the defeated parties opted generously to leave office of their own accord! Oh dear.
So, if we must maintain designations (they will have to go eventually, but it seems we are not there yet), then I would propose the UK Government legislate that:
- any Executive may take office provided it is not opposed by a majority of MLAs from any designation (“Unionist”, “Nationalist” or “Other”) holding over a sixth of the seats in the Assembly, nor by a majority of MLAs in total; and
- any Executive with Ministers from each designation holding over a sixth of seats in the Assembly may take office provided it is not opposed by a majority of MLAs.
This is fairly close to the underlying idea that all Ministers would take office on the basis of cross-community support (something which initially applied only to the First and deputy First Minister and which currently only applies to the Justice Minister). However, it re-defines cross-community vote slightly to take account of the post-Agreement and clearly ongoing growth of the “Other” designation (something which should be done generally), and is specifically phrased “not oppose” rather than “support” – MLAs may opt to abstain to allow a particular government to take office without overtly supporting it (essentially a “confidence and supply” arrangement), and may opt to overturn controversial proposals on a cross-community vote or even seek a vote of no confidence in the Executive collectively at any time during the five-year term. (It is also specifically phrased to say “any Executive” – the incoming Executive would not be bound by the pre-existing departmental arrangements; for example, it is quite normal for incoming Scottish or Welsh governments, even if of the same party as the outgoing ones, to split or merge departments or shift functions between them.)
In effect, Unionist and Nationalist voters would vote for their preferred party within the bloc, but “Others” would also be motivated by a real sense of potentially attaining power; if no combination of a single Unionist and single Nationalist party made it to an absolute majority between them, they would be bound to seek the support of an “Other” party (something they may choose to do anyway if they wished to increase their majority or simply avoid internal controversy – in effect what the DUP and Sinn Fein have done this time with the Justice Ministry).
In other words, with would have both power-sharing and democratic choice…