Although the SDLP Leader appears to have determined that there will be an all-inclusive Executive or nothing (and nothing seems favourite at present), there are clear signs that the merits of a voluntary coalition have attractions for some leading members of that party, as well as Alliance and many unionists.
The creation of a voluntary coalition of the willing would allow those parties that wish to move ahead and restore democratic and accountable power-sharing government to do so. They would not be held hostage by any party blocking progress, whether it be through political intransigence or association with continued paramilitary and criminal activity.
Alliance has advocated a system of cross-community power-sharing consistently for thirty years. The concept of a voluntary coalition was central to our proposals for the Review of the Agreement, entitled Agenda for Democracy.
The original proposals in the Good Friday Agreement produced a complex and unique form of Government, notably in the entitlement of all parties of sufficient size to seats in the Executive (whether or not there was any shared policy) and the requirement that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must be supported by majorities of both unionist and nationalist MLAs.
The first was not conducive to good, joined-up Government, while the second fell apart spectacularly in November 2001 – though Alliance saved the day.
By contrast, Executives are formed in Dublin and Edinburgh on the basis of a freely negotiated Programme for Government, supported by a simple majority of TDs or MSPs.
While nobody would suggest that Northern Ireland could be governed on the basis of 50%+1 being an adequate majority, the same principles that apply to the Dail could apply here, with an Executive formed through a voluntary power-sharing coalition. Parties would negotiate a balanced Executive, with an agreed programme for government, based on collective responsibility. This would have to achieve a cross-community weighted-majority vote in the Assembly to come into effect.
No party would have an automatic right to be in the Executive; there would be a number of possible coalitions. If the Executive lost the confidence of the Assembly or had irreconcilable differences, or if the balance between parties changed, it would be possible to form a different Executive.
This is how Governments are formed, at regional and national level, throughout Europe. It would provide more efficient, effective and cohesive government. It would encourage greater co-operation among parties, and better promote the concept of all parties working for the common good, rather than simply for narrow interests.
Our proposals were not developed to exclude Sinn Féin, but to provide for more coherent and effective cross-community government. It is entirely possible for Sinn Féin to be part of such arrangements, provided that they can meet the same standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as other parties.
However, where any party does not have the confidence of others, this system removes any veto, and allows other parties to move forward.
Regrettably, the SDLP is taking pressure off Sinn Féin by ruling out consideration of a voluntary coalition. It is demanding that the Governments face down the DUP and Sinn Féin, but does not seem prepared to back up tough rhetoric with any action. The SDLP talks of not giving either the DUP or Sinn Féin a veto, but – by insisting that no political progress can take place on anything other than a fully inclusive basis – it does just that.
Proposals for a voluntary coalition would be entirely consistent with the Principles of the Agreement, as confirmed by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in the package of proposals published by the Governments in December.
If other parties wish to engage around these proposals, there is plenty of room for negotiation and modification. I am willing to explain Alliance proposals, and to hear the views of others. However, the SDLP seems to want all of the details of any voluntary coalition before they would even consider it.
I believe that a coalition of the willing would be a considerable improvement on the previous mandatory coalition. Even those who support the old system should appreciate that there is not the trust and confidence among the parties to operate it, and that it failed to function as intended in the past.
None of the other alternatives seems particularly workable, but Alliance is willing to enter into discussions with the SDLP, UUP and DUP on their proposals, as well as ours.
The notion of government through appointed commissioners, who would assume control of individual departments, has major limitations. It seems a much bigger departure from the Agreement than any voluntary coalition would be.
Crucially, the link between the Executive and the Assembly would be broken. Proposals from Commissioners would do little to promote responsible decision-making among local parties, who could continue to engage in opposition politics. The SDLP would no doubt be the first in the queue to criticise any Commissioner trying to take difficult decisions.
It might be better to ask the current Permanent Secretaries to take on this role. They would be familiar with their Department’s work and programmes. However, by having civil servants playing such a political role, even this would run contrary to the important tradition of independence in public administration.
Proposals for a shadow Assembly or a more modest scrutiny committee do not provide a realistic alternative either. This might have been worthwhile preparation during a short-term run up to full devolution. However, many people would fear (with some justification) that some Unionists would settle for this and lose sight of the bigger goal of full legislative devolution.
Still, it is likely that pressure will grow for some formal role for Assembly members as the political deadlock continues indefinitely.
If there is to be meaningful progress, it is time for leadership from both the British and Irish Governments. Their official line at present is to insist on a firm commitment from the IRA of an end to all paramilitary and criminal activity. At the same time, they send out the message that no political progress can take place until this occurs.
There seems to be a certain reluctance on the part of the British Government to challenge Sinn Féin. The Irish Government is more pro-active, perhaps due to electoral considerations, but Tony Blair appears to have decided to do nothing to upset Sinn Féin, regardless of the consequences for the rest of this community. Perhaps Gerry Adams’ threat that Republicans should be prepared to ‘resist’ any efforts at exclusion is preying on his mind.
However, the Prime Minister and Taoiseach share a responsibility to ensure that the Agreement is implemented. If Republicans continue to insist on excluding themselves, the two Governments and other parties should engage in serious discussions to establish a secure, positive way forward.
David Ford MLA is Leader of the Alliance Party