ARTICLE: NI Agreement review must ditch sectarian voting rules

NI Agreement review must ditch sectarian voting rules

By David Ford MLA

After almost six years, it should be abundantly clear that all is not well with the Agreement. That is why Alliance has made proposals which go beyond the current political impasse in Northern Ireland. Within the context of this Review, parties must be prepared to make the necessary changes to the Agreement which not only restore devolution, but ensure that Northern Ireland can continue to move forward.

The two principal problems encountered in the working of the Agreement are the sectarian and divisive voting rules in the Assembly and the lack of coherence in the Executive.

At the core of Alliance’s proposals lies the notion of a voluntary coalition, adhering to collective responsibility. Weighted majority voting in the Assembly would ensure de facto cross-community support for the formation of an Executive and other key decisions, freeing MLAs from communal Designations.

The response from the other political parties has been revealing. So far, it seems that both Nationalist parties have rejected our proposals outright. The UUP seems likely to do so, despite some informal comments, while the DUP is interested in talking further.

There is an unwillingness among the parties that reached the Agreement in 1998 to face up to the need for change, and in particular to take on board both the lessons of the difficulties in implementing the Agreement and the implications of the November election results.

The SDLP and Sinn Fein seem to be arguing that the Agreement as fashioned in 1998 is perfect and that no changes can be contemplated. This was clearly not their position when three Alliance MLAs changed their Designation to unionist in order to elect David Trimble and Mark Durkan in November 2001. Cross-community power-sharing is a core principle, and the system of communal Designation was merely a mechanism to ensure this – a mechanism that has failed.

Despite the inclusive rhetoric of the Agreement, there was an underlying assumption that there would be a strong UUP-SDLP axis at the heart of government. This was narrowly achieved in June 1998, but had broken down by 2001. Even with those parties in the ascendancy, it proved hard to form and sustain a power-sharing Executive under the current rules.

ON Questions and Answers just before the election, the SDLP Leader said that a small majority of Unionism could not be allowed to block the wishes of the great majority. However, that is exactly what current rules provide: effective vetoes for the DUP and Sinn Fein.

If the Assembly was called into session tomorrow, no First Minister and Deputy First Minister team could be elected. After six weeks, another election would be called. On the Unionist side, the results would simply confirm the position of the DUP. On the Nationalist side, Sinn Fein would make even further gains at the expense of the SDLP.

Even if it was theoretically possible for the DUP and Sinn Fein to assume the top two positions, it is hard to see how such a government would be stable, let alone effective. The lessons of history show that it is hard to govern from the two extremes across the centre.

The UUP has downplayed the need to discuss changes to the Agreement, and stressed the need to deal finally with the issue of paramilitarism before any further discussions could take place. It is crucial that the issue of continued paramilitarism is addressed, but there are other wider structural problems that must also be addressed.

Alliance has suggested that the terms of paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration should be written into the Pledge of Office. This is to ensure that there is an unambiguous and common definition of all paramilitary violence – including training, targeting, beatings, exiling and intelligence-gathering – and to bring an end to these activities. In any event, under a voluntary coalition, if any of the partners failed to live up to their obligations, then the coalition would likely fall and a new one would have to be formed.

Some commentators make the assumption that the Alliance proposals are designed to exclude the DUP, while others suggest that Sinn Fein are the intended victims.

The Alliance proposals are not designed to deliver any particular outcome, emphatically not a quick fix to get over a particular set of election results. In the light of six years of failure, we are suggesting necessary structural changes to ensure that the Agreement survives, and that Northern Ireland possesses robust institutions of government, capable of dealing with any balance of power between parties.

With current numbers in the Assembly, it is possible to envisage a voluntary coalition Executive that includes the DUP but does not include Sinn Fein, or with Sinn Fein but without the DUP. It is even possible to have a government containing both. Perhaps, under a different set of election results, neither would be in government.

Fundamentally, if we are to get away from the old sectarian squabbles, Northern Ireland must get away from the notion that a government must always contain virtually all unionists and a virtually all nationalists to be recognised as cross-community.

The DUP has talked much of renegotiating the Agreement. That is nonsense: the clock cannot be turned back on fundamental concepts such as power-sharing devolution, and accountable north-south structures. The continued strength of the Agreement continues to lie in creation of a set of political institutions with cross-community legitimacy. The opponents of the Agreement have failed to set out any alternative to the fundamental principles of the Agreement that would be capable of generating cross-community support.

Alliance believes that it is now time to make some considered, progressive changes to the Agreement to make it work better, within the context of the fundamentals of the Agreement established in 1998.

The choice facing us is not between defending the precise structures of the Agreement and renegotiation. The only choice is whether progressive changes are made to the Agreement, or whether it withers away. Today, the reformist position is the only practical pro-Agreement stance.

David Ford MLA is Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland

(Irish Times, January 16, 2003)

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