Face Up to Democratic Change

If there is one thing that Alliance proved during the recent election of our First and Deputy First Minister it is that in the Assembly all votes are equal, but some votes are more equal than others.

Under the current bizarre voting system, key decisions such as this election require cross-community support – yet they completely ignore cross-community parties!

In the first vote, over 70 percent of the Assembly wanted to elect Messrs Trimble and Durkan into the posts, yet their democratic wish was blatantly cast aside because a majority of unionists was required, as well as a majority of nationalists. What could possibly be more undemocratic than allowing a minority to hijack the entire political process?

Nevertheless, following three Alliance Assembly members’ redesignation to unionist, the same percentage of the Assembly voted for the same people – but this time the vote was carried.

To me, that illustrates exactly why designations are just another form of discrimination. If you belong to a tribe, your vote counts. If you don’t, your voice is ignored. That doesn’t just mean Alliance Assembly members, but the 65,655 people in Northern Ireland who refused to be pigeon-holed and voted for centre parties in the Assembly elections.

The Agreement is still the best way forward, but it is not perfect. It states that there should be “full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem”.

However, it is also based on the idea of ‘two communities’, when in fact there is a significant proportion of the population who don’t fit neatly into the boxes of ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’, and who want to see real bread-and-butter politics in Northern Ireland.

The current arrangements were designed as a safeguard to prevent nationalists becoming the victims of a united unionist veto. But unionism is divided and the end result is that the anti-Agreement unionist minority can effectively hold the entire political process to ransom. That is in no-one’s interests, least of all nationalists.

Yes, we are a deeply divided society, but if we look to the future, how will the system cope if the strength of cross-community parties increases? What if Labour were to organise here and make inroads? Now that we have a chance to allow political stability to bed down, how do we finally make the break from sectarian politics to ‘normal’ politics, which aren’t dominated by the constitutional question?

The current system would bend and eventually break, as it lost legitimacy. If we don’t change the designation system in this review, in 18 months time we will simply face the same crisis at the beginning of the next Assembly as we did last week.

That is why Alliance has insisted on sorting out this problem now. We are committed to finding a long-term solution, not another short-term fix that we will all live to regret and which has become the unfortunate hallmark of Band-Aid politics here.

What Alliance wants to see is a voting system that is democratic, where all votes are treated equally all of the time. It must take our divisions into account, but not in a way that excludes people. Importantly, it must be easily understood. And finally, it must be flexible enough to accommodate changes in the population and political realignments.

Majority rule of 50 percent plus one is not an option, but a weighted majority would meet all these criteria.

The shortcomings of the voting system and designations are clear, and unless we seriously address this institutionalised sectarianism in the upcoming review of Strand One of the Agreement, we are doomed to crisis after crisis.

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