Last Friday, the Assembly was caught up in yet another crisis. Despite over 70% of Assembly members voting to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, David Trimble and Mark Durkan could not be elected.
Few democrats outside Northern Ireland – and there aren’t many here either – can understand how a minority can obstruct the wishes of a majority that big. The voting system was supposed to protect minorities, not allow them to block all progress.
That is why Alliance held urgent talks with the Secretary of State, and then with him and the other parties that support the Agreement on Friday afternoon, and these talks continued through Saturday. What we are determined to see is an agreed change to the voting system, so that the will of the people can be carried through.
We have only ever made progress in the talks when parties worked together: there was no room for a solo stunt by Alliance or any other party. And we do not need a short-term fix, we need a long term review which really addresses the problem. There have been far too many cases in the past where parties have resorted to a fudge which has caused further problems later.
I believe that we have achieved as much as was possible since Friday afternoon. We have agreed that a review will be held, under the Agreement, of what we call ‘Strand one’ – the local, Northern Ireland matters. All parties can put forward their concerns for discussion, but – clearly – the review must address the most important issue: the failure of the electoral system to deliver what the people wanted.
In the context of that review, the rules of the Assembly will be changed, to allow (for a short time only) any Member who wishes to do so to change their ‘designation’ and change back in a week. Normally, any change will continue in force until the end of the Assembly term.
This is what should now happen.
This morning, shortly after 10.30, the Ulster Unionist and SDLP Chief Whips will propose the motion to amend Standing Orders. Provided that the Assembly supports it, a number of Alliance MLAs will then temporarily adopt the description of unionist, so that we can move to elect David Trimble and Mark Durkan to the two posts.
We will not do this to ‘save David Trimble’ as has been alleged, but to save the peace process that, for all its faults, is still the best prospect for all the people of Northern Ireland. A temporary, technical and tactical change is the only way we can avoid the looming breakdown which could have set us back 30 years.
The difficulties that Alliance members face in calling themselves unionists – even for just one vote – should not be underestimated. The party executive held a long emergency meeting to discuss this on Friday evening. I was given the mandate to do all we could to resolve the problem, without compromise on basic principles.
That is why I argued that the change to the rules had to be clearly promoted by other parties, working to an agreed agenda, seeking to resolve the long term problem of the voting system in the Assembly. I am glad that this was finally recognised, and other parties eventually accepted that they had to play their part too.
Over the past 31 years, Alliance has established a clear identity as a cross-community and anti-sectarian party. Alliance is not either a Unionist or a Nationalist party. We see ourselves as an alternative to both. We are concerned to overcome divisions and move away from sectional politics. We are as proud of our designation as ‘centre’ as others are of their unionism or their nationalism.
There is a limited vision of the Agreement in which Northern Ireland is forever divided into separate groups living uneasily alongside each other. Our vision is of a truly united society, in which diversity is something to be welcomed.
We believe that the current voting system discriminates against Alliance MLAs and those they represent, as well as entrenching divisions. We have said this for a long time: indeed it was a problem on Good Friday 1998. But last Friday showed that it causes problems for all of us.
The current rules were supposed to prevent Nationalism becoming the victims of Unionism. But in practice, the system has allowed an anti-Agreement minority to hold the entire process to ransom. This is not in the interests of any of us.
A return to 50%+1 majority rule is not an option. But a system requiring greater support – between 60% and 70% – for vital votes would, in practice, require a cross-community balance without the current inflexibility. It would also open up the political process to encourage genuine pluralism: that can only benefit all of us.