Ciaran Cadden is a second-year student reading PPE at the University of Manchester.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is usually a wise approach – but the opposite could not be more true in the case of the political turmoil in Northern Ireland.
Although the snap general election has temporarily put the latest Stormont crisis on hold, there’s no escaping the facts. The system is broken and shall remain that way unless we change fundamental concepts of governance in the devolved assembly and move towards voluntary, as opposed to mandatory, coalition.
Think of it as two magnets. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein represent two negative poles of a magnet. No matter how hard we try to get them to attract, to come together and work, they will constantly repel each other.
A change is therefore needed in order to make the executive work for the people of Northern Ireland and to provide a strong representation of Northern Ireland’s interests in the looming Brexit negotiations.
The Northern Ireland Act of 1998, which proceeded from the Good Friday Agreement states that, in contrast to the Westminster system, the Stormont executive must comprise a coalition between the two largest parties from Unionism and Nationalism, respectively.
Of course, the intentions are noble and admirable, forcing cooperation and dialogue between representatives of the ‘two sides’ within the Assembly. However, it is not so helpful and admirable when one party can hold the country to ransom over a couple of demands.
Whether Sinn Fein like it or not, the Executive is based on compromise and, as the second largest party at Stormont, they wield significant influence. But they should not be able to paralyse the country in a time when we most need a stable institution to voice our interests and fight our corner as Article 50 is triggered.
In a parallel world, a system of voluntary coalition would be in place whereby a range of parties would negotiate a deal in order to move the province forward. The remaining parties would form an opposition and hold the Executive to a level of account, an important scrutiny process which is currently lacking.
A system of voluntary coalition would thereby bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the devolved institutions in Holyrood and Cardiff, respectively. Further, sought-after change would be seen at every election, as the ‘Big Two’ of the DUP and Sinn Fein would not be returned to the Executive on a permanent and perpetual basis.
In practical terms, the idea of voluntary coalition is practical and achievable even to Nationalists: the SDLP have previously expressed support for the idea. At the last election, the number of MLA’s was reduced to 90 from 108 as a means of streamlining and providing efficiency. A system of voluntary coalition would involve 54 (60 per cent) of the elected representatives having to agree on a system of government, and the remaining 36 would form the opposition.
Sinn Fein have expressed discomfort at the idea, suggesting it would marginalise the nationalist community. Yet the numbers do not reflect this logic. Currently the DUP hold 28 seats, the UUP 10 and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) hold 1. This would reflect the declared Unionist parties who hold seats falling short of forming an outright coalition by 15 seats.
Therefore they would need to appeal to the Alliance Party, SDLP, and Greens, thus forcing a real debate on issues in order to reach compromise and agree a programme that better reflected the views of Northern Irish voters.
It is clear the political framework of Northern Ireland is not working, and the concept of mandatory coalitions is becoming rapidly outdated and unreflective of how the framers of the Good Friday Agreement envisioned it working. A move towards voluntary coalition would steer Northern Ireland’s politicians towards a real about policy, as opposed to endless soundbites and ‘red lines’.
The nature of opposition would strengthen the electorate’s faith in holding the Executive to account and real, genuine power sharing would move Northern Ireland forward. In a time when we as a United Kingdom face arguably the biggest negotiations in our history, it is right and fair that Stormont properly represents the people of Ulster.