Where now for government in Northern Ireland?
One of the problems with a lot of the debate around the current breakdown is that it does not start from the beginning. The beginning is always a good place to start!
So what, fundamentally, is the problem?
The specific problem is that Northern Ireland lacks an Executive (a devolved government). This is partly because it has a unique and peculiar requirement (in practice) that the two largest parties must be in (and indeed must lead) that Executive – nowhere else in the world has this. This has the practical consequence that both the DUP and Sinn Fein must be content in order for a government to be formed – if either is not, at any time, it may opt simply not to have one.
Fundamentally, therefore, if an Executive is to be formed under the current system both the DUP and Sinn Fein will have to be happy. One of the realities of negotiation, however, is that the fewer issues you leave on the table the harder it is to achieve a negotiated deal. Currently, the DUP does not want a standalone Irish Language Act but Sinn Fein absolutely requires one – there is no way around that, so the fact we seem down to a single issue is problematic. For a solution to this, the reality of deal-making is that other issues need to be opened up so that both “sides” can show clear wins to their own supporters. (Underlying all of this is a distinct lack of trust between the two parties – in many ways an Irish Language Act is not the problem, but rather represents the problem.)
For reference, I think the DUP and Sinn Fein will still come to a deal – although it may be a way away yet. Arlene Foster’s speech on Thursday shows the DUP has moved its support base on the issue of front-loading Irish language legislation, as is necessary to rebuilding trust. Sinn Fein had to reject the idea of re-forming the Executive immediately because it recognises that, as far as its support base is concerned, the next crash will be terminal so restoration has to be on a firmer footing. The route to formation of an Executive is clear to both parties, but they do need to bring their supporters with them. In summary, frustrating though it is, time is required to ensure not only that an Executive can be formed, but that it runs smoothly.
If after all of this it proves impossible to form an Executive under the current system, the first obvious thing to do is change the system so that no single party can simply choose not to have devolution whenever it feels like it. An obvious alternative is a qualified majority system. In practice, this would mean that any coalition of parties could form an Executive provided it could pass a Programme and a Budget – which, given the realities of the Petition of Concern, would mean that it would require the active consent of a majority and at least the passive assent of another sixth or so (totalling 61/90 MLAs not opposing). Inevitably this would mean such an Executive would be cross-community and it is worth noting it could be formed in any manner, allocating extra ministries by negotiation to any designation which would otherwise be underrepresented under the current d’Hondt allocation system. (In practice, currently, the most obvious route assuming no DUP-SF option would be a DUP-SDLP-Alliance coalition not opposed by the UUP and Greens; another option would be an SF-UU-Alliance-Green coalition; in theory an SDLP-UU-Alliance coalition with some Green/Independent support could stand if either the DUP or Sinn Fein opted not actively to oppose it, but this is of course unlikely). The Assembly would then operate as currently.
Should this not be an option, an outside alternative would be a “Commission Executive”; an Executive of experts in each departmental field appointed by the Secretary of State, perhaps lacking some overall Executive powers but holding all the powers of departmental Ministers. The Assembly could in fact operate as currently, even passing legislation where necessary, although in practice it would no doubt tend towards more of a scrutiny function with Committee sessions more relevant than plenaries.
A commonly suggested further option then is a form of Direct Rule with Assembly scrutiny. This is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. Direct Rule Ministers would ultimately be accountable to Westminster (and it is Westminster which would pass any legislation required, at least in theory). However, there could be a role for scrutiny specifically by Committees of elected MLAs (it is hard to see any role for plenary sessions), which would turn their role (at least temporarily) into more like that of London Assembly members. The concern about this is that it would become semi-permanent, with MLAs never again inclined to take over the role of Ministers having to take responsibility for unpopular decisions. However, the Direct Rule Ministers would always be able to make the straightforward point that if they are doing such a bad job, MLAs may always form an Executive of their own; so this option is not without merit, particularly if the genuine issue is concern about performing Ministerial functions through complex Health reforms and the future UK-EU and NI-EU relationship.
We have to at each stage be clear that we have a correctly elected Assembly – the one the people chose. Electing another one is an option if the two main parties feel they need a mandate to re-start an Executive, but not otherwise – creating further division (an inevitable electoral consequence) is the last thing we need. Removing MLAs and closing the whole thing down is not a serious option either and not something a UK Government determined to avoid long-term Direct Rule will likely countenance (not least because it would take a long time to re-start). So some role for the correctly elected Assembly needs to be found, not least because the operation at least of ad hoc Committees would help rebuild cross-party relationships (as is necessary).
To do this alongside a correctly functioning Executive of some kind is then an urgent task of government. It may be at this stage that a gradual restoration is the only type of restoration available – although as noted above, never give up hope.
Nor should we beat ourselves up too much about this. It is often complex in divided societies to form coalition governments (Belgium went over a year and half without one), and we should be thankful that neither of the main parties has caused absolute breakdown.
Where there is a will (and, contrary to widespread public opinion, I believe there is) there is a way. Eventually…