Reform Agreement or it will die: Ford

Opening statement by Alliance Leader David Ford MLA at the first meeting of the Review of the Agreement.


Alliance welcomes the commencement of this Review.

Alliance is a strong supporter of the Agreement. The Agreement had and continues to have many strengths. In particular, it has established a set of political institutions with cross-community legitimacy in a deeply divided society.

The fundamental principles of the Agreement remain sound. These include: human rights, equality of opportunity and equality of citizenship, entrenchment of the Principle of Consent, power-sharing devolution, accountable north-south structures, and commitments to democracy and non-violence.

But we must be frank in acknowledging that all is not well with the Agreement. Its implementation has been extremely problematic. It is not simply a matter of the lack of trust between parties: some of the structures of the Agreement exacerbate the lack of trust.

This Review is not the negotiation of a new Agreement. It cannot be that. Instead, it is a necessary exercise to make the Agreement work better.

It has been implied by some that the choice facing Northern Ireland is between defending every dot and comma in the detail of the Agreement and ripping it up and starting again. We take an entirely opposite view. The choice is between continued drift and deadlock, and facing up to the need for positive and progressive change. Without change, community support for the Agreement will continue to haemorrhage.

To argue that there is nothing wrong with the structures of the Agreement – or even that the structures worked splendidly – simply flies in the face of the reality of the past six years. Let me make it clear, an unwillingness to face up to the need for change is tantamount to defending an unworkable and unsustainable status quo.

Today, reform is the only practical pro-Agreement option. Without reform, the Agreement will wither away – and with it any possibility of any form of agreement for the foreseeable future and a prolonged period of unsympathetic and unresponsive diret rule is inevitable.

Alliance has produced detailed proposals for this Review, which were presented to the two Governments and published a month ago. I do not propose to go into the detail of the many proposals today, but to look at some of the key issues.

We need to examine the system of voting in the Assembly. At present, the communal designations entrench divisions, and breach the fundamental democratic principle of equality of votes among political representatives. Those who designed this system saw it as a safeguard for ‘the minority’, but the reality is that that it encourages stagnation.

This was clearly demonstrated in the votes to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister on 2 and 6 November 2001, when the only difference in the votes cast was the temporary, technical and tactical redesignation of three Alliance MLAs as unionists on the latter date. Proof positive that the structures of the Agreement are flawed.

Under the current voting system, the Agreement has created a system of ‘winner takes all’ politics within both Unionism and Nationalism. In the past, under the structures, both the UUP and SDLP were given an effective veto over progress. Today, those vetoes have been given to the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Alliance believes that the political structures of the Agreement must recognise the deeply divided nature of Northern Ireland, yet they must not reinforce those divisions. The structures must be sufficiently flexible to allow for positive change in our political culture, and eventual movement towards a modern liberal democracy.

Sectarian designations should be abolished, and the voting system amended, with a weighted-majority of around 60 or 65% used on key decisions that require cross-community support. This would ensure that significant votes achieved de facto cross-community support without sidelining the votes of MLAs whose aim is to represent the best interests of the entire community.

Alliance has major concerns about the appointment of Ministers and the creation of an Executive.

Trust and confidence is clearly a requirement for any set of political institutions in any society. But trust and confidence is only part of the equation for good governance. No set of political structures can compensate for a lack of trust, but certain sets of structures have a better chance of working when it present.

The appointment of Ministers simply on the basis of Party Leaders choosing Departments without any sense of shared policies, let alone collective responsibility, was an attempt to allow an Executive to be formed without trust being established. The result was a dysfunctional Executive with an incoherent Programme for Government.

In fact, there seemed to be barely any co-operation between the First and Deputy First Minister, let alone collective responsibility within the Executive.

For Alliance questions of trust and confidence, and questions of sound structures go hand-in-hand.

The current ‘shot-gun’ marriage of an involuntary coalition is not designed to build trust and confidence. If parties are automatically guaranteed a place in government, where is the incentive to seek accommodation with their partners or indeed deliver responsive Government for the people.

Alliance’s proposals will turn this approach right on its head. All parties should be welcome within the tent, but no party should be able to dictate terms, or to exercise a veto over progress. Only parties which have earned the trust of others can be part of a voluntary coalition.

The voluntary power-sharing coalition that Alliance is suggesting would provide for an Executive that is formed following negotiations between the parties, and is capable of adhering to collective responsibility. Crucially such a coalition must be capable of achieving the support of a weighted-majority of members of the Assembly to ensure a cross-community membership.

This system is the only feasible way of managing the devolution of the sensitive issues of policing and criminal justice. To devolve criminal justice to a single Minister (or even two Ministers) appointed by the vagaries of the d’Hondt formula to a Department which is a private fiefdom is unworkable.

One of the weaknesses of the existing structures is the lack of a strong, properly resourced opposition. Democratic accountability demands a strong opposition and ensures inclusive governance.

Alliance’s proposals are not structured to engineer any particular outcome, but to provide good governance, and to provide legitimate government. They would ensure that any party which was regarded as defaulting on any part of its obligations would not have a veto on progress.

Alliance is further proposing 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 assaults and targeting, as well as attacks on the security forces.

Political structures, are important. However, it is important than discussions do not focus exclusively on structures, but also address the wider problems in society that create the context for the current political impasse. The deep divisions in Northern Ireland society, and the associated community relations problems were neglected in the Agreement and exacerbated in its implementation.

For some, the Agreement has been about managing separate but equal communities through some form of ‘benign Apartheid’. Apartheid can never be benign: no matter how skilful, conflict management cannot be constantly maintained. We need to resolve conflict, not manage it.

Alliance has a vision of a shared society. We are determined to turn this aspiration into reality. The Assembly must provide a vehicle for the necessary policy changes.

We now have an opportunity – a second chance – to get things right. This is not about a quick fix just to get devolution up and running again. This time we have to put in place the structures that can carry Northern Ireland forward in the long term, whatever future election results bring. To fail is not just to undermine the Agreement, but to fail the people of Northern Ireland.

The task facing us is immense. The people of Northern Ireland need devolution to be restored. The people want to see safer streets, better health care, improved schools and more jobs. A working Assembly is vital to deliver for the people we all represent.

The task ahead may be difficult but it is far from impossible. The people expect the politicians they elected to deliver. Alliance is committed to playing its part.

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