Category Archives: Politics

A minority coalition at Stormont could suffice

BBC Talkback kindly invited me on the programme on Thursday but unfortunately I had a prior lunchtime engagement. The topic was whether a minority coalition could function at Stormont.

We are a bit away from needing it but, for reference, yes it could.

Let us first of all step away to the other side of the world. In the 120-seat New Zealand Parliament, the incumbent centre-right Nationals received 56 seats in the recent election and were guaranteed the support of at least one other member, leaving them four short of a majority. Labour gained significantly but was left well back on 46, and unfortunately from its point of view most of its gains came from the Greens, its likely coalition partner, who were left on just eight – collectively still short of the National total and seven away from a majority.

Yet this week, a Labour Prime Minister was appointed. The populist NZ First had been left as the Kingmaker with nine seats, and announced it was willing to form a coalition with Labour. The Greens, no friends of NZ First, nevertheless agreed to a confidence and supply arrangement given their preference for a Labour Prime Minister over a National one.

Let us remind ourselves, therefore, that the New Zealand coalition government does not command a majority in Parliament, and is not led by the largest party. Yet it is now in place.

Let us head back to Stormont, reminding ourselves of my own proposed amendment to the system of Executive formation. Currently, the largest party and the largest party not in the same designation are required to appoint the First Minister and deputy First Minister (with an Executive then formed in line with party strengths). If one or other party required to a appoint a First or deputy First Minister does not do so, or does but then resigns, the Secretary of State is required to call an election. My proposed amendment is that, instead of requiring the Secretary of State to call an election at this stage, the Secretary of State would instead be allowed to appoint Ministers to an Executive provided they were capable of putting through a Programme for Government commanding the support of the Assembly. Let us recall that in practice this requires that it not be subject to a Petition of Concern; in other words, that it must have the active support of a majority of MLAs voting and at least the tacit acceptance (i.e. either support or abstention) of 61 out of 90. Achieving at least the tacit acceptance of over two-thirds of the democratically elected Assembly clearly demonstrates a sufficient degree of cross-community consent.

Under the current Assembly numbers, the most obvious coalition is DUP-SDLP-Alliance. This gives 48 seats, already a majority, and would be able to pass a Programme for Government unless Sinn Fein gained the support of both the Greens and People before Profit (or, somewhat less likely, some Unionists) to sign a Petition of Concern to block it. Let us note again that such a coalition would not be appointed by d’Hondt – the SDLP and Alliance (or indeed anyone else) would be entitled to argue for more/particular Ministries or policy guarantees, just as NZ First and the Greens did in New Zealand. (Let us also note again that I envisage no appointment of a First Minister or deputy First Minister in such circumstances – the Executive Office would be run by Ministers as a collegiate.)

This brings us to another unlikely but not inconceivable and certain intriguing option – SDLP-UU-Alliance. Between them, these parties have just 30 of the 90 seats, but notably no other party on its own could deliver a Petition of Concern to stop their Programme. In practice, Sinn Fein could again attempt to combine with both the Greens and People before Profit, or the DUP could try with TUV and an Independent, but neither would be likely (and even less so if the Greens and Independent were brought into the coalition negotiations and offered some policy commitments in the Programme for Government). In fact, the likelihood is that the only way a Programme for Government presented by an SDLP-UU-Alliance coalition could be blocked by the Assembly would be by the DUP and Sinn Fein both actively voting against it – and if they were prepared in effect to work together on such a vote, that would raise the obvious question (publicly) of why they are not prepared to work together to deliver a Programme of their own. It is far from clear that an election inevitably caused by such an action would serve either of the big parties well, which may just make them think again about whether it was such a good idea.

Of course, this process is fraught with difficulty and it is still not exactly first preference – but it is clearly not impossible. A minority coalition may be no less inconceivable in Northern Ireland than it is on the other side of the world.


Germany’s “Schwarzer Sonntag” election destabilises things further

Germany has voted and, as probably should have been expected but was not, the UKIP-like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has done better than the polls anticipated, apparently at the expense of Angela Merkel’s CDU. As ever, much of the analysis on this will be flawed.

Firstly, what is generally missed is that AfD (and to an extent the leftist Die Linke) are protest parties favoured by Easterners.


That point is evident above, although my phrasing is specific – AfD and Die Linke voters even in the West are disproportionately Easterners.

This is important not just for the obvious reason that disenchantment is greater in the former East. The East, in broad terms at least, is different and always was (and this was evident electorally even pre-War and there are obvious historical reasons for it going back centuries). It is inevitably less enamoured with concepts such as the European Union, not just because it was not part of it at the outset, but because it naturally looks East (towards Russia) rather than West (towards France).

German reunification remains a staggering achievement, but the fact remains it was unplanned and was never thoroughly accomplished. Most obviously, Easterners never went through the process of post-War Vergangenheitsbewältigung that Westerners did, and thus have a much lesser sense that they have making up to do. Indeed, they are disproportionately likely to descend from Germans expelled from elsewhere.

Secondly, results like this are often assigned economic reasons. That is a mistake. They have much more to do with an emotional sense that somehow things are changing too quickly and even that identity is being taken away than any rational notion that jobs are less secure and finances less balanced. Germany after all still runs a hefty surplus while maintaining full employment even among young people.

Thirdly, the CDU/CSU did not lose all the votes AfD gained. In fact, it is likely that more of AfD’s extra votes came from the SPD than the CDU/CSU. The latter’s losses will have ended up primarily with the Liberal FDP which, like AfD, just missed out on the 5% hurdle for parliamentary seats last time. There is this bizarre tendency, despite all the evidence to the contrary from all over Europe and beyond, to assume that because we describe parties like AfD as “far right” their gains must come from the “centre right”. Actually as often as not they come from the “centre left”, which is in stark decline in Germany as everywhere else. Presenting the whole thing as linear from left to right hinders our ability to understand just what drives AfD (or UKIP or FPÖ or wherever) voters, most of whom take profoundly left-wing positions on many issues.

Fourthly, describing AfD voters dismissively as “idiots” or even “Nazis” is no way to tackle the problem. It is true that progressive liberal types will never really grasp what causes someone to vote that way. However, we do need to try at least to grasp the issues on which a decision to vote that way are based. If someone tells us that, for example, immigration is an issue, we may well suggest that in fact immigration is a positive; but have we really grasped the issue raised? Perhaps the issue is not so much immigration itself, but the consequences for people in certain types of community who feel that community is changing to their detriment? How do we address that, if we are ourselves not from that community?

In conclusion, the election campaign was very boring but the result suggests a Germany which is not as at ease with itself as many outsiders assumed. Of course, 87% of voters did not vote for the nationalist populists, and we should note that. But Germany is a country where divisions still run deep, and this election has brought them into the open. They will have to be addressed in a way more managed than reunification was 27 years ago next week.

What is a “Protected Voluntary Coalition”?

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…

If £1b deal is “off”, DUP should bring down Government on Withdrawal Bill

The Withdrawal Bill is so utterly appalling that I suspect the reason people are not out protesting about it night after night is they simply cannot believe it. The notion of seizing primary legislation powers by Ministers who do not even command a majority would shame a Banana Republic.

Of course, this raises an obvious question. Since those Ministers do not command a majority, how can the Bill which seizes those powers be capable of commanding one? The answer is the DUP.

The DUP has a deal with the Conservatives that it will back the Government on confidence, supply, security and Brexit in return for extra spending (around £1 billion) in Northern Ireland over the next two years. Yet it became apparent yesterday that that spending has not been put into UK Treasury estimates. (Implicitly but clearly, it is being withheld until devolution is restored, but that is not the point here.)

One DUP MP followed the logic. If the money is not forthcoming, then the deal is “off”, he noted publicly.

If the deal is “off”, the DUP has no business giving the Government a majority to seize power for primarily legislation to a Cabinet made up solely of a minority party. Furthermore, this is not a confidence bill – voting against it does not bring down the Government, nor in fact does it block Brexit.

We are about to find out whether the DUP Parliamentary team has the courage to stand up to the Conservatives when deals are “off”. The answer will tell us much.

Citizens’ Assembly idea stands on own merit

One proposal to break the deadlock with the devolved institutions emerging primarily from the Green Party was the notion of a “Citizens’ Assembly”, an idea long supported on these pages given it has clearly worked for Ireland.

It is worth emphasising that a “Citizens’ Assembly” (I prefer to the term “Convention” in the case of Northern Ireland to avoid confusion) would not solve the problem, which is that we lack an Executive (i.e. Ministers).

Nevertheless, such a “Convention” has merit anyway. This is because elected politicians, understandably, are often unwilling to take risks for change for fear of falling foul of their own electorate – voters will always be more vocal about what they are losing than what they stand to gain, particularly if a specifically local issue is involved. A “Citizen’s Convention” would in fact give them a better idea of what people think and how far they are prepared to go for change.

It is certainly worth exploring regardless of what happens over the next few days and months – but it does not solve the actual problem directly before us.

Where now? (But let’s not beat ourselves up too much…)

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…


Making Irish a political football is disrespectful of the language

I have no problem with an Irish Language Act in principle – indeed I think it rather odd that Northern Ireland lacks one, given similar legislation for Gaelic in Scotland and Welsh in Wales.

I am also sympathetic to the broad point being made by Nationalists that the disrespect shown towards Irish by particular hard-line Unionists needs to be tackled quickly. It is not unreasonable to suggest that politicians should be held accountable for being disrespectful towards the Irish language or indeed any other aspect of culture and heritage cherished by people here.

However, making the Irish language the centre of the political breakdown is also disrespectful and unhelpful to it. What is being done by some (though not all) in Sinn Féin can only end up entrenching positions and thus sectarianising the language. This shows clearly that they too are seeking to put political advantage ahead of what is genuinely good for the development and promotion of Irish.

If people have a genuine interest in the progress of the Irish language and of the devolved (including cross-border) institutions, then they will not be so crude as to make the Irish language the fundamental sticking point. The broader issue of demonstrating respect and building relationships between parties – even if to some extent represented by attitudes towards and comments about Irish – has to be tackled for what it is.

The fact is if trust in general is lacking, we need to rebuild it carefully. We should not drag languages into it, for their own sake as much as anything else.

Bogside bonfire shows how far Republicans have yet to travel

The Bogside bonfire which saw everything from Union Flags to poppy wreaths burnt last week was a disgrace, and a serious challenge to us all.

It came at the end of a week when Sinn Féin had been busy trying to look moderate, talking up the maintenance of the British identity in a United Ireland. Frankly, a little like maintenance of a frictionless border outside the EU Customs Union, these things are easier wished in theory than delivered in practice. Shocking proof was soon apparent in the form of a night of gratuitous offensiveness.

No doubt Sinn Féin’s defence would be that it was not its bonfire. This is irrelevant. It may add that it condemned the burning of flags and that, in fairness, is true. Nevertheless, they have contributed to a society in which a large group of Irish Republicans went out of their way to burn things which are cherished by their fellow citizens (those also being their would-be fellow citizens in any United Ireland).

It is of course a little rich to hear condemnation of this from Unionists who failed to challenge condemn similar outrages in July or indeed who cannot understand that Health and Safety law should apply equally to everyone equally including Loyalists. However, condemnation from Progressives was rightly swift, and questions should continue to be asked about how such an event came to take place and how anyone at all thought it was a good idea and a positive experience.

The Bogside bonfire was a disgusting festival of hatred. Work is required, not least from the new MP for the area, to ensure it never recurs.

Those Americans who did not vote for Hillary must accept ghastliness of error

One of the reasons the West and democracy itself are in such a dire position in 2017 is that too many people have come to believe they can have it all their own way without owning the consequences of their selfishness. Prime among the people who have engaged in such selfishness are those who had the opportunity to vote for Hillary Clinton in November and did not do so.

Another reason is the tendency to overexaggerate anything, for example by calling anyone slightly right of centre a “Nazi”. The obvious problem is that when the Nazis actually appear, you look like the girl who cried wolf.

In Virginia at the weekend the Nazis actually appeared, an incident which can only be described as “terrorism” took place, and a young innocent woman was killed. Then, the only alternative to Hillary Clinton in November’s Presidential Election President was lily livered in his response, blaming everyone equally. Essentially, what happened is that the President of the United States gave succour to Nazis.

We should be unsurprised. The same man mocked disabled people, was outed as an outrageous sexist (and sex-obsessed) maniac, cranked up xenophobia and engaged in a campaign of mass deceit during the election campaign. It was obvious who he was. That is why anyone who had the opportunity to vote for the only alternative to him in November and failed to do so needs to look at themselves and accept responsibility for the dire state of the nation now. By allowing someone with the current President’s values into the White House, they are responsible for enabling the further promotion of those values. Those values and the inevitable accompanying behaviour are appalling and dangerous.

It is simply not good enough to say your favoured candidate wasn’t on the ticket, or that the Democratic nominee wasn’t great, or whatever other excuse you can muster. The choice was a sexist, xenophobic Nazi-backed disability mocker one one hand, or a civilised human being on the other. It was not a difficult choice, and those who failed to make it bear direct responsibility for the outcome.

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” – Martin Luther King

It is essential, at the very least, that the error is recognised and that it is never again repeated. With the right to participate in democracy comes the responsibility to elect those who will protect it.

Cable’s task is to make case for second referendum unanswerable

As I have noted several times already this month, the issue for both sides in the UK’s Brexit debate is that neither is truly willing to respect the other and deliver an outcome tolerable to the maximum number of people. Leavers continue to insist that leaving means leaving the lot – no Customs Union, no Single Market, pretty much no immigration. Remainers continue to behave as if we will all just wake up one morning and agree to make the whole issue go away – ignoring the profound fact that a majority of the British public would prefer to leave the EU (or, at least, aren’t bothered either way). Given the closeness of the vote and the fundamental political, social, economic and even global implications, it should be obvious to everyone that a Third Way has to be found – one which respects the outcome of the vote and the British public’s basic view of the EU, while not carelessly and needlessly inflicting massive economic and social damage.

This, fundamentally, is the case for a second referendum. I am somewhat uneasy with it – the world is not made up of binary choices and I am instinctively against referendums on that basis. Nevertheless, if Leavers are so confident that they can strike a deal to leave the EU which, upon fair examination, is acceptable to the British public, then they should have no problem consulting them on it at the polls. Likewise Remainers have to accept that any remote prospect of remaining in the EU, or probably even close to it, will require the same.

On 23 June 2016 the British public rejected David Cameron’s terms for remaining in the EU. Conversely, however, on 8 June 2017 they also refused to give Theresa May a blank canvas to leave the EU in any way she saw fit. It is quite clear, therefore, that the specific proposal to leave should be returned to the people (bearing in mind that a declaration to this effect would probably strengthen Britain’s negotiating hand by emphasising the democratic mandate required).

That is the uneasy but probably unarguable case for a second referendum. The new Liberal Democrat Leader has a clear task ahead…