Category Archives: Politics

How to form an Executive at Stormont…

I had a bit of fun with some correspondents last week on the idea of the “Commission Executive” I floated three weeks ago. Some of the questions posed in fact affect the formation of any Executive, and they probably need to be looked at (at least eventually, given yesterday’s events).

It is worth emphasising – and the media should do more to stress this point – that the fundamental issue currently at Stormont is our inability to form an Executive.

In other words, we have a legislature (the Assembly), but no government (the Executive).

The reason for this is that our system for forming an Executive is extraordinarily restrictive. Firstly, it assigns only three weeks to the task; and secondly, it absolutely requires two particular parties (the largest party and the largest party in the largest different designation)  to enter the Executive even if they agree on nothing otherwise.

Although the origin is understandable, this is a frankly bizarre and unwieldy system and, one day, it will have to change. There is at least a case that that day has now arrived.

The ultimate objective, whenever this change is made, would be quite simple. Any Executive which can be formed and pass a Programme for Government and Budget should be allowed to do so.

Such a system already requires that such an Executive would include power-sharing. To pass a Programme for Government and Budget under the current Petition of Concern system, it would either have to carry a two-thirds majority in a 90-member Assembly or it would have to carry a straight majority in the Assembly as a whole and in both largest designations. I wonder if anyone has even realised this?

The easiest way to legislate for this would probably be to say that if a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot be nominated under the current system, instead of going to an election, the largest party would be given a certain period of time (probably more than three weeks in practice) to see if it could come to a “Coalition Agreement”. If it could not do so, the next largest party would be entitled to try, and so on, until it was “clear to the Secretary of State that no such Agreement was viable” (or some other similar form of words).

That Agreement would include:

  • the number of Executive Departments and their functions (perhaps the legislation permitting this arrangement should clarify no fewer than six and no more than 10);
  • the names of the Departmental Ministers appointed to head each Department (no more than 10; this would in theory allow for Junior Ministers to be assigned to larger departments);
  • the number and names of no fewer than two and no more than four “Executive Officers” (these would cover the functions of First and deputy First Minister on a rotating basis – there is no reason they should not also be Departmental Ministers);
  • a Programme for Government; and
  • an outline Legislative Programme.

That Coalition Agreement would then be put to the Assembly and, if it passed (noting that to pass it would either require two-thirds assent or majority support from both designations otherwise it could be blocked by a Petition of Concern), the Departmental Ministers and Executive Officers would thus be deemed appointed to form the Executive and carry out the Programmes outlined.

Note also that such an Agreement makes no restrictions on the number or order of Ministers (other than they must stick within the confines noted) – so, for example, a small party from one designation agreeing to form an Executive with a large party from the other could still insist during the negotiations on the same number of seats in the Executive or even on attaining particular Ministries.

I think there would be three more apparently minor amendments needed:

  • Petitions of Concern could not be used to block Executive business (policy motions or legislation) arising from the Programmes outlined in the Coalition Agreement;
  • Ministers so appointed would remain in office until they were replaced (even beyond elections on a caretaker basis, as is perfectly normal elsewhere); and
  • there would be a requirement to pass an annual Budget.

This latter is particularly important, as failure to pass a Budget (also subject to Petition of Concern) would be constitute a vote of no confidence in the Executive – and indeed would be how no confidence would be expressed by the Assembly (noting that the opportunity would thus arise annually). A vote of no confidence in the Budget would then return the process to the beginning (an attempt at nominating a First and deputy First Minister and then Ministers by d’Hondt; attempts at a Coalition Agreement; then an election).

In other words, it would all be quite normal – but would still have the relevant checks and balances in place to ensure cross-community consent.

Just a thought!

#GE17 need not be a complete disaster for NI

In the short term, the UK General Election due to be confirmed in Parliament today is surely not good news for Northern Ireland. The Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, immediately understood that having at least one election in the offing is unlikely to create the necessary space for the type of compromise required to get an Executive back up and running at Stormont before 8 June. While some will now seek to gain electoral capital by denying it, there were signs that the parties were laying the ground for a re-start of some sort, but that re-start will at best now be somewhat delayed.

In the long term all may not be lost, however. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, there is a strong case that an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister leading a party with a manifesto commitment to remain in the European Single Market (something which jars with her own commitment to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which oversees the rules of that Single Market) should seek a democratic mandate for what she proposes to do. This may not appear at first sight to matter to people on waiting lists, or concerned about jobs, or wondering when their local school will be rebuilt, but in the current global climate democracy (or at least some semblance of it) matters.

Secondly, with regard to “Brexit”, the prospect of an increased Conservative majority may work out to be no bad thing. Arguably at least, it will enable the Prime Minister to take a more moderate negotiating position without being wholly reliant on hard-line back benchers. That, if it came to pass, would be no bad thing for Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, that likely increased Conservative majority would leave it less reliant (even potentially) on DUP MPs. This may make life easier for the next UK Government trying to find some sort of deal in Northern Ireland, as it will be seen as a (slightly) more honest broker.

Fourthly, there is the simple issue that it was never necessarily the case that a (relatively) quick deal in Northern Ireland would be a good thing. Perhaps (prospectively) taking the summer to re-build relations between the parties, assess reasonably the flaws in the institutions as they are, and work out the detail of what changes are necessary to place a future Executive on a firmer footing than the last one was.

Of course, for this optimistic assessment to come to pass, the Northern Ireland issue will need more careful management than it has had hitherto. Northern Ireland will need a voice in the Brexit debate and the DUP’s acceptance of ‘particular arrangements’ will need to be fully considered; the next UK Government itself will need to understand better its role with regard to implementing past and current agreements; and after 8 June all sides will need to be determined to put popular need ahead of electoral benefit for the good of the overall process. The outcome of the election is no sure thing either – while not calling an early election in 2007 worked against Gordon Brown, actually calling one in early 1974 worked against Ted Heath as well.

From 9 June, let us hope for determined and cool heads.

“Remain” side need to change tactics

I have written many times here of the risk of the echo chamber (particularly in this social media era) and of how left-liberals are in fact the most inclined towards inhabiting one.

Various organisations have sprung up across the UK to contest Brexit, in one way or other. They cover the whole spectrum from challenging the way the UK Government is going about leaving the EU to challenging the whole notion that the UK should leave.

Logically, they have an excellent case. There will be no £350 million a week for the NHS (particularly after a whole raft of new administrators have been appointed merely to administer Brexit); actually the EU does not have to give us a good deal (even Brexiteers now admit they may not even get a deal at all); and prices are beginning to shoot up (affecting primarily those on low and fixed incomes in places like Sunderland and Sheffield which voted to leave). Throw in lots of legal wrangling, uncertainty over how the UK will trade at all post-2019 and the fact that immigration from the EU will be untouched for several years even after Brexit, and in fact the case for simply remaining becomes rationally almost unanswerable.

Yet none of that actually matters. And, by the way, there is very little evidence that vast swathes of “Leave” voters have changed their mind; indeed, many of the 48% are now resigned to leaving the EU (quite possibly because they only voted “Remain” to avoid the currency crash which as already happened).

There is a real risk that the “New Remain” campaigners are about to make all the same mistakes as the old ones – not least because many of them are in fact the same people. They continue to focus on numbers (i.e. on “economic arguments”), when what won the referendum was a more emotional argument. Indeed, the only time “Remain” had a real lead in the polls was when its campaign was focusing not on figures but on global influence (i.e. on the contention that the UK is in fact more globally influential as a key member of the world’s largest trading bloc than it would/will be once it is isolated from it).

If people are serious about avoiding “Hard” Brexit, or even about avoiding Brexit at all, they have to convinced a considerable number of people who voted “Leave”. Let us ask a simple question: how many of those people are going to be persuaded by campaign messages which essentially say “Brexiteers are stupid”?

What is required instead (and I have no idea how possible or probable this is) is a campaign which appeals to the heart. For me (though I would love to research this in detail), it needs to start with a sense of loss from the potential lack of free movement, particularly for our young people seeking out new challenges and careers, which would surely arise from “Hard” Brexit. Then there needs to be some discussion of exactly how secure we are if we are essentially annoying our neighbours; and then exactly what our place is in the world (assuming we do not want to be Trump’s poodle, which is surely a safe enough assumption); and then perhaps about what a success multicultural Britain actually is. (That last is definitely a hard sell, but ask most foreigners what they most admire about Britain and its easy-going diversity may well be up there.)

In other words, what is required is a hearts-and-minds campaign which probably ends up asking “Is this who we are?”

That will be something quite different from George Osborne sitting in a hotel saying every household will lose £4300 due to Brexit. Which was a mistruth lie, by the way…

History should not be too kind to Mike Nesbitt

I never really fancied being a politician, but I was always attracted to the notion of being an ex-politician. It is a great time – everyone speaks well of you and emphasises what you did well while overlooking what perhaps was not quite so good. Sir John Major is loving it, as an obvious example.

It is important not to be too kind, however, otherwise we risk missing lessons which should be learned. This is so in the case of Mike Nesbitt.

Mr Nesbitt is now earning plaudits for his journey on same-sex marriage and cooperation with Nationalists, and I have long commended politicians willing to change their mind. I would be generous enough to suggest, on balance, that supporting progressive social policy and cooperating with Nationalists is Mr Nesbitt’s true position.

The issue is I do not believe it was ever otherwise. This means that Mr Nesbitt failed to back same-sex marriage and endorsed sectarian Unionist pacts even when he was himself wary of them. In other words, he was willing to put electoral advantage ahead of his own core beliefs. Although all politics is compromise, I am afraid I am inclined to be less generous about that.

Mr Nesbitt also lacked an understanding of the vulnerability of Northern Ireland’s political process. Quickly, and again primarily for electoral gain, he moved into Opposition (without telling anyone else) last May. It is unlikely the Stormont Executive would have fallen had all the parties remained in it, however. That move had costly ramifications – for people in the voluntary sector now unsure about their jobs, for people on waiting lists, for parents awaiting new school builds, and so on. That the DUP and Sinn Fein will fall out is an inevitable reality – the role of other parties, if they really care about country before party, is to ensure such fall-outs are not terminal.

Even during the last election, Mr Nesbitt vastly overstretched by suggesting Arlene Foster should resign (rather than just stand aside). Then, during the campaign, there was simply had no need to specify his second preference would go to the SDLP (potentially costing his party five seats in the border area in one fell swoop while saving only one), nor arguably had he any need to resign immediately while the count was still ongoing.

He led the Ulster Unionists into sectarian pacts and then into cross-community linkages; he led them to conservative social policy while trying to be liberal; and he left the stage with his party reduced to just 10 Stormont seats and in utter disarray having never solved the basic conundrum of why the party actually exists at all. We now look over the abyss into a potential second election which his party will enter effectively leaderless and which will only cause harm to the “country” as well as the “party”.

There is no harm in wishing Mr Nesbitt well in whatever he chooses to do next. But let us be under no illusions about the outcome of his stint at the helm of the Ulster Unionists.

British humiliating themselves internationally

I have written many times about how the world would be a better place if politicians could admit they got things wrong.

The simple fact – and it is a fact – is that those who proposed “Brexit” on the basis that the EU would be bound to give the UK a good deal plainly got it wrong. Now they should simply admit it.

From the very start, on these pages, I warned that entering negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship on the basis that at the end of those negotiations the UK would 100% have to leave was simply ludicrous. It hands all the cards over the EU and means – as is now happening – that the EU will simply dictate the terms of the UK’s exit. As Lord Heseltine said, this is not taking back control but ceding it.

A much more sensible route would have been for the UK to identify the reasons for the “Leave” vote and then propose a new relationship based, quite possibly, on greater border control (mind, it already has a lot more control of its border than it likes to admit) and perhaps even a reduced budget contribution (perhaps, for example, by separating UK aid to the developing world from EU aid). Whether that relationship was technically “in” or “out” would have been almost irrelevant – it would have maintained a free trading relationship with our closest allies, while also taking full account of the referendum result (i.e. of the reasons for it). The UK would have had a strong negotiating position, as other EU states would have been keen for the outcome to be “technically in” in order for no one else to be tempted to leave. The UK chose to ignore this sensible route.

And so it is that all the claims the Leave side made are proving false; and indeed many of the warnings the Remain side made are proving correct. Most of these claims and warnings involved finance, but in fact the most startling example thus far (and we are only a few days in!) came in the form of a bizarre comment by a Conservative and former Leader that the UK would go to war over Gibraltar if it came to it.

The whole point of the EU, its advocates constantly pointed out, is that it removes the need for petty nationalism and thus drastically decreases the prospect of war. If people in the UK, Spain and Gibraltar all have EU passports, agree EU standards and trade under EU rules, it frankly does not much matter whether Gibraltarians regard themselves as British or Spanish. If, on the other hand, this is made to matter by the UK not just leaving the EU but in fact even leaving the Single Market and Customs Zone, then conflict will inevitably ensue. It is, of course, utterly ludicrous for anyone to suggest that conflict will take the form of a ‘war’, but it will inevitably see tensions between the UK and Spain rise – noting that 26 other European states will have it in their interests to take Spain’s side.

This all simply leaves the British utterly humiliated. Far from a “modern” or “global” Britain, we now have buffoons hinting at war with Spain and restoring imperial measurement units (that no one else uses). The country is split down the middle – between those who want to live in the 1950s and those who want to live in the 1590s.

The whole thing is utterly ludicrous and demands an immediate rethink, before the UK’s delusions do some real damage – noting that such damage will only be to itself.

All-party peace talks now…

“All-party peace talks now” was the Sinn Féin slogan 20 years ago – but no more. During the recent shambolic process not a single all-party meeting took place. Anyone would think, given it is still devoting time to voter registration, that Sinn Féin just wants a second election.

Because there were no all-party talks, it was hard to challenge Sinn Féin on exactly what a solution to their problem looks like. It is unclear whether Sinn Féin knows. Because Unionists decided to spend most of the time just talking to each other, they showed no real willingness to deliver a resolution either. Because the UK Government is a player around legacy issues and an Irish Language Act (the past Agreement commits the UK Government to introduce one), it was never going to be seen as an impartial Chair anyway.

If there is to be a resolution, it will take structured talks establishing what the parties’ motivations are, what principles can be signed up to, and then an implementation programme.

There will also need to be a recognition that there are three distinct (if linked) sets of talks to get through:

1. Implementation of Past Agreements (this needs an independent Chair because the UK Government is a player here) – an implemention plan on Legacy, NI Executive influence on Brexit, and reserved Irish Language issues (broadcasting).

2. Institutional Reform – this could be chaired by the UK Government which is not a “player” in this case but which may need to legislate, including agreement on how to promote “respect”, use of Petition of Concern and enforcement of Ministerial Code (this may require an Act).

3. Establishment of Executive – a purely devolved issue with perhaps a local Chair, including agreement on devolved Ministers, a Programme for Government, a Budget and a programme of Health Transformation (this latter requires all-party agreement).

The Assembly itself in effect now becomes the Forum for such talks.

To be frank, this must be done properly and thus it may take some time (maybe as long as the RHI inquiry), but it is clearly do-able unless someone chooses to be deliberately obstructive.

So let’s do it. (We’ll come to how to deliver government in the meantime tomorrow.)

Petition of Concern reform key to progress

It will take some time to determine exactly where we are on how we can restore devolution, or indeed any sort of government, in Northern Ireland.

The key is reform of the Petition of Concern. Anybody serious about progress (and it remains to be seen who is serious about it and who is not) would recognise that.

Many of the current stalling points – the Irish Language Act, same-sex marriage and so on – would be solved by reforming the Petition of Concern. The key point here is that there will inevitably also be sticking points in future – and those too will be solved by reforming the Petition of Concern.

It is simply not possible to deal with such issues on a straight black versus white basis. That is what we have the Assembly for – assessing the grey and reaching compromise. Once that compromise is reached, has an Assembly majority, and does not impinge on anyone’s equality of opportunity or constitutional rights, then it should be carried through.

That is how democracy works. We should try it.

Unionists need to realise what suits England does not suit NI

It was the shrug of the shoulders as David Davis said the agriculture industry would now face tariffs of at least 40% which worried me. The fact was, after all, already known to those (albeit seemingly a minority) who had been paying attention.

The agrifood industry is perhaps Northern Ireland’s most successful and important sector. The fact is it often competes with or indeed cooperates with the Republic of Ireland’s. Now, the Republic of Ireland’s industry will have access to the European Single Market with no tariffs applied, and Northern Ireland’s will face tariffs of 40%+. I will leave it to readers work out whether that is good news for the Northern Ireland economy…

But it was already known. Frankly, Northern Ireland’s agrifood industry should have been far more outspoken before 23 June, but it was running scared of the DUP. There is no saving it from here – there is no precedent even for special arrangements (such as Norway’s) to allow anyone outside the Common Agricultural Policy tariff-free access to the Single Market within which that policy operates.

It is too late to recover the damage, although it would still do no harm to point out it was DUP policy to inflict that damage on Northern Ireland’s economy and on its rural community. One thing we should do is learn from it.

So just by the way, David Davis’ shrug of the shoulders should tell us something fairly obvious – what suits England does not always suit Northern Ireland. The DUP is now getting very excited about the prospects for future trade deals – but at least now let us learn the lesson. A trade deal which suits England (and is therefore entered into by the UK) will not always suit Northern Ireland.

Frankly, I rate the UK’s chances of trade deals as extremely low. I can think of only one which is likely – New Zealand. What would such a trade deal consist of? Well, how about exchanging the UK’s financial know-how for New Zealand’s advanced agricultural products? Such a deal would make sense for England. But it would decimate Northern Ireland’s economy by inflicting on it competition on top of removing from it access to its key market.

Some people seriously need to wake up. And not just David Davis.

Does Sinn Féin want to govern?

Sinn Féin unquestionably had a good Assembly Election, not just because its vote rose and the gap between it and the DUP fell to just one seat, but because its decision to have the election cost it just one incumbent and enabled new (predominantly youthful, female) MLAs to be elected top of the poll.

Electorally, therefore, Sinn Féin has earned a solid mandate. That leaves an obvious problem, however – what does it want to do with it?

The party’s case, that Arlene Foster’s actions smacked at best of incompetence and that Paul Givan’s and others were pure disrespect, was not without merit and the (Nationalist) electorate agreed. But what does a solution to this look like?

The question, ultimately, is simple. Does Sinn Féin want to govern?

The answer to this question, as it knows, will be watched across the island of Ireland. Until now, instability has generally suited Sinn Féin and, perhaps partly because success breeds success, it now lies second in the polls in the Republic of Ireland ahead of Fine Gael.

Ultimately, however, voters are not in the current global context in the mood for further instability. Brexit, Trump, ScotRef and everything else are quite enough, and the experience of the Troika and the Irish property meltdown is raw. If candidates wish to be taken seriously as governing parties in Dublin, they may have to offer change but they will definitely have to offer stability.

Therefore, while many things are falling its way, Sinn Féin too is at a crossroads. Does it actually wish to govern? Because it is not just the Secretary of State who is capable of “waffle”!

#Brexit farce runs out of control

The vote for the UK to leave the EU with no plan in place was the single biggest act of economic and political sabotage any country has brought upon itself.

The blame rests not with those who voted for it – there were grounds of national sovereignty upon which the case could be made for the UK to become politically clearly distinct from the EU – but on the callous leaders of the Leave campaign who argued their case without any notion of how it could be delivered without becoming a constitutional and financial catastrophe.

The cost of this catastrophe is already being borne by the poorest, of course (those who rarely get much coverage in the media). As the cost of living (and particularly of fuel) rises, those on low and fixed incomes have nowhere to go. After all, it is no use the economy growing 2% if the cost of living is growing 2.8% – quite obviously, that leaves us all worse off, and particularly those reliant on minimum wage pay or benefits (which are not growing 2%).

On top of all of this, we now have the added constitutional uncertainty and wrangle of potential Scottish independence – the threat of which was seen off in 2014 until people voted for a Brexit Fantasyland which was never ever on offer.

Let us remember it clearly: “They need us more than we need them” cried the Brexiteers. Now they face the very real prospect of leaving the EU without a deal and without a quarter of their territory.

Take back control? This is out of control.

By the way, stricter immigration controls are perfectly possible within the EU. So is it not time to accept that the whole thing is folly and end this farce, for the sake of our economy and our unity?