All the efforts made over the past few weeks to put the peace process back on the rails will be to no avail if the opportunity to sort out the problems of the designations and voting system in the Assembly is not used.
The recent crisis over electing a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister has highlighted the shortcomings of the current voting arrangements, and placed their reform atop the political agenda.
In the formal Review of Strand One of the Agreement (the Assembly), due to begin next Monday, Alliance will be putting a strong case for the introduction of a weighted majority, unhindered by communal designations.
It is widely recognised that there is something seriously wrong with the current system, when we could not elect David Trimble and Mark Durkan, although over 70% of Assembly members supported them. But the difficulty is more fundamental than that.
At the heart of the problems lies the requirement for Assembly members to designate themselves as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’. Although this was proposed as a way to ensure cross-community consent, it actually contributes to reinforcing sectarian divisions.
Right from the top down, we have a society were people are pigeon-holed into separate categories. Designations presume that every person can fit neatly into a category but ignores the existing pluralism in our society.
They imply that this society is forever to be two separate communities requiring continual and skillful conflict management rather than becoming united, while diverse community, with common goals and shared interests.
Under the present system, in so-called ‘cross-community’ votes, the votes of those representing cross-community parties do not count – only those of Unionists and Nationalists. This fundamental lack of equality runs contrary to the spirit of the Agreement, and European anti-discrimination standards.
I am not alone in wanting this society to move away from cultural identity politics towards a more familiar European system based upon social and economic issues. However, there is a real deterrent to voters backing parties which are moving away from the old sectional politics as the votes of their public representatives will be less equal than those of Unionists or Nationalists.
Until this month, it may have escaped notice that the votes of eight members out of 108 do not really count when it comes to key decisions. But what happens if the strength of cross-community parties increase, or perhaps, in the future, Labour makes substantial inroads within Northern Ireland? The system would come under substantial stress and quickly lose legitimacy.
This most recent crisis has not and will not be the only one, unless we change the designation system soon. In eighteen months time, it is likely, even probable, that another similar crisis will occur at the beginning of the next Assembly. That is why Alliance rejected a short-term fix and insisted on a Review of the arrangements.
Northern Ireland is at present a deeply divided society, and it is important that sufficient safeguards exist to ensure that no section of the community is able to dominate another, as was the case up until 1972.
But it is equally important that we do not become captives of history. The present arrangements were no doubt designed to prevent Nationalists becoming the victims of a monolithic Unionism. However context has changed more rapidly than anticipated. In practice, the system has allowed the anti-Agreement minority to effectively hold the entire process to ransom. This is not in the interests of anyone, including Nationalists.
Any alternative to the current system must have a number of characteristics.
· It must be democratic: the votes of all members of the Assembly must be counted and have equal value in any and every division.
· It must take into account the continuing deep divisions in Northern Ireland, and ensure that on key decisions, there is sufficient support from all sections of the community, but without being overly rigid.
· It must be easily understood by the people. Therefore, it must not be unnecessarily complex.
· Finally, it must be flexible to allow and to accommodate demographic change and political realignments.
A return to 50 per cent plus one majority rule is not an option. However, it is clear that only a system of weighted majority voting, free from designations, would meet the above criteria.
Key decisions would have to reach a threshold support, probably between 60 and 70 per cent, which would be high enough to guarantee significant cross-community consensus, while preventing a minority hindering all progress.
If the Agreement is to have any long-term value, it must surely provide the platform for progressively healing and overcoming the divisions.
The proposals which Alliance will put forward are emphatically not about either moving away from or renegotiating the Agreement. Rather, they are about learning some of the lessons of implementation over the past three years, and using the provisions for Review provided in the Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act to make positive change.