Draft legislation for Petition reform and voluntary coalition – now

When I read some reports that a deal was “imminent” at Stormont last week, there was of course a side to me which welcomed the prospect of Ministers being back at their desks. But part of me was fearful – it is indeed for the DUP and Sinn Féin (the parties obliged to form the Executive) to agree to the deal which enables it to be formed, but any deal involving solely those two parties was never ever going to address the underlying structural problems which have been evident to some since 2006 and evident to many since March. The main problem is that of vetoes – one never likely to be sorted by the two parties holding them!

To be clear, there is a deal on language and culture right in front of the two main parties. Importantly, there is a longstanding and highly necessary proposed reform of the Petition of Concern (restricting its use to matters of identity, equality and institutional reform) in front of them too. These will deliver everything reasonably demanded. So it is time to set up an Executive, pass the language and culture legislation, and enable the Assembly to scrutinise and legislate without minority vetos.

But a broader reform deal is also required so that this kind of banjax can never occur again. This can only realistically occur with properly mediated all-party talks aimed at a comprehensive agreement to last years, not months.

The fundamental problem remains that the DUP and Sinn Féin are both required to set up the Executive, and without an Executive there can be no Assembly. This means that the DUP and Sinn Féin, each with little over a quarter of the vote, have an individual and absolute veto over whether the Assembly (not just the Executive) operates. This is ludicrous.

They have now utterly abused that veto – so it is time the process began to remove it from them.

Legislation should be drafted immediately to reform the Petition of Concern and change the arrangement so, instead of an election in the event that the two largest parties veto the formation of an Executive, the Secretary of State may appoint Ministers agreeing to form a power-sharing administration – i.e. on a cross-community basis from the parties willing to take responsibility to govern (as I have written elsewhere, they would not be appointed by d’Hondt but rather to ensure equitable power-sharing and they can operate the Executive Office in a collegiate basis; this means, at any point, the two largest parties could agree to assume power by appointing a First Minister and deputy First Minister, but there would at least be Ministers and an Assembly in place for as long as they didn’t).

To be clear, there is no need to proceed to pass such legislation immediately as it would ideally be subject to all-party Agreement. However, it would be the first step in a process of removing vetos which serve now not only to block progressive polities even where they have large popular support, but even to block the very establishment of devolved government. The beginning of such a process would at least make people think a bit as all-party negotiations begin…

And let us also be clear: no one with a significant mandate would ever be “excluded” other than those who have opted to exclude themselves by putting narrow sectional interests ahead of the well-being of the people they are elected to serve.

Ministers should be in place but, regardless, we do have MLAs in place. Many want to get on with the job, and they are a ready-made forum for all-party talks to enable them to do so.

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