Something being considered by some commentators to break Northern Ireland’s institutional deadlock – if not yet by anyone with particular influence – is the notion of a “protected Voluntary Coalition”. This is a slightly odd term, but let us run with it.
Fundamentally, such a coalition would work by running the election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and allocation of Ministries by d’Hondt as normal (let us leave Justice aside for now). However, if a party refuses to take a seat – even the First or deputy First Minister – this seat simply goes to the next party due it.
Now, in practice this would not work because the result would be horribly lopsided. If, for example, Sinn Féin refused to nominate at all, we would end up with a DUP-SDLP Executive Office but with a DUP-dominated Executive, which would reflect the Assembly as if Sinn Féin weren’t in it (and would thus render Nationalists a small minority – barely, in fact, even the second largest designation).
A crude way around this would be the change the system slightly so that in fact seats were all allocated, as with the deputy First Minister, to the next party due in the same designation as the refusing party. This would not be perfect either as, in theory, it would see the SDLP allocated too early. Nevertheless, it would happen to give a DUP-SDLP Executive Office and three Ministers each (alongside one Alliance) which, funnily, is also the most likely outcome in theory with a pure voluntary coalition. This would be rather unsatisfactory, however.
Another more dramatic option would be to say that if either party due to take First Minister or deputy First Minister refuses, both parties are removed from the system and, in effect, their seats offered to the remaining parties. This would seem ludicrous and yet, with a little ironing, is probably more likely to work than any of the above. It would in fact give an SDLP-UU Executive Office supported by three SDLP Ministers and two each for the Ulster Unionists and Alliance.
The political reality is that this would not be viable, but should an amendment be made (as I have previously suggested for pure voluntary coalitions) that in fact in such a case the office of First Minister and deputy First Minister would simply be left vacant (with Ministers acting collegiately to fulfil the functions of the Executive Office) and perhaps the Justice Ministry allocated in some way, you could end up with an Executive of three SDLP, three Ulster Unionists and two Alliance. Such an Executive would command only thirty seats, but interestingly it would typically require both the DUP and Sinn Féin to vote against its proposals in order for them to fail (in all likelihood). Nor would such a case be anti-democratic – if those charged with governing refuse to do so, it is quite normal to offer the “opposition” the opportunity at least to try before forcing an election.
So, what you might call a “double-protected voluntary coalition”, despite only being a minority government, may not in fact be totally inconceivable. We may not be too far from having to give it a try…