The situation in which Alliance found itself this past weekend stank. But for those of us who want real stability and peace in Northern Ireland, some of us are reluctantly prepared to hold our noses for a week.
Once again, a not unexpected crisis, facilitated by a highly flawed voting system, emerged in the Assembly. Despite over 70 per cent of Assembly members voting for a First and Deputy First Minister team, David Trimble and Mark Durkan could not be elected.
There only way out of the impasse is for individual Alliance Assembly members (MLAs) being prepared to risk compromising their political identity, by temporarily redesignating as unionists in order to further the common good.
Provided that the Assembly supports an amendment to standing orders allowing members to redesignate and designate back again after a seven days, a number of Alliance MLAs will temporarily redesignate as unionists in order to save the institutions.
While, Alliance has strong reservations about the flaws and imperfections in both the document and its implementation, we remain strong supporters of the Agreement.
Our actions in the Assembly should not be regarded as saving David Trimble, but rather preserving a political process that, despite these limitations, remains the best and only credible path to peace, stability and the healing of divisions in Northern Ireland.
However, these actions will be of limited benefit if we do not seek to learn why and how Northern Ireland ended up in this mess, and seek to overcome these problems. This is why Alliance was so firm in pressing for a Review into the workings of Strand One of the Agreement, and we warmly welcome the commitment of the Government to carry that out in the very near future.
The difficulties facing Alliance members, and indeed the wider project of cross-community politics, through an even temporary redesignation should not be underestimated.
Over the past 31 years, Alliance has established a clear identity as a cross-community and anti-sectarian party. Alliance is not and has no desire to become either a Unionist or Nationalist party. Indeed, we see ourselves as providing a distinct alternative. While people are perfectly entitled to have different constitutional aspirations, politics that continue to be based around tribal identity is a recipe for continued division, instability, and lost opportunities.
In the context of Northern Ireland, Alliance is a modern liberal party and a direct challenge to the status quo of Unionist and Nationalist parties. Too many people seem to have a limited vision of the Agreement in which Northern Ireland is perpetually divided into separate groups living in uncomfortable co-existence, in which divisions and tensions have to be constantly managed, and a return to large-scale violence is never really off the political agenda. It would suit such conservative interests for Alliance to melt into either or both mainstream Unionism and Nationalism.
There are four specific problems with the system of communal designation and the related voting system in the Assembly.
First, they institutionalise sectarian or tribal divisions. In this regard, they reinforce the notion that Northern Ireland is permanently divided into two separate communities, and undermine the prospect of creating a more united and diverse community, sharing common values and aspirations. The failure of the larger pro-Agreement parties to collectively defend the process should come as no surprise.
Second, the system discriminates against those Assembly members who do not choose to designate as either unionist or nationalist, and the voters that put them there. On key, cross-community votes in the Assembly, all MLAs have one vote, but some votes count for more than others. This contradicts well-established democratic principles, and evolving European human rights laws and anti-discrimination standards.
Third arising from this, there is inevitably a deterrent against voters backing cross-community parties. This is a concern with very practical implications. Through eroding the space of non-sectarian politics, the system condemns Northern Ireland to continued tribal politics. This is not a trivial concern, but one with very important practical implications. Unless the Agreement can contribute to a wider process that overcomes the divisions in our society, those self-same divisions will eventually undermine the Agreement. Perversely, through these so-called ‘safeguard’ voting arrangements, the Agreement potentially contributes to its own destruction.
Finally, the system is highly inflexible and so creates unnecessary hostages to fortune. By insisting that elections to the top posts receive at least 50 per cent support from those designating as both unionist and nationalist, the potential is there for a small number of MLAs to frustrate the greater will of society to see progress. Over the past three years, the ability of the Ulster Unionists to engage with the Assembly has been hamstrung by the close balance of pro- and anti-Agreement unionists and the threat of defections within the UUP.
The need for checks and balances in the devolved administration of Northern Ireland are clear, particularly bearing in mind the legacy of Unionist dominated rule under the Stormont Parliament. The current rules were no doubt designed to prevent Nationalism becoming the victims of a monolithic Unionism. However, 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.
It is now time to consider alternatives. Any positive changes should not be regarded as weakening of the Agreement, but rather learning the lessons of implementation. Introducing non-discriminatory voting procedures will allow the will of the people to be truly expressed and allow the Agreement to contribute to the development of a more pluralist, stable society.
A return to 50 per cent plus one majority rule is not an option. However, it is clear that a system of weighted majority voting, under which key decisions would have to reach a threshold of support between 60 and 70 per cent would provide both the safeguards for minorities and protection for each side of the community, while not creating inflexible hostages to fortunes. Furthermore, the removal of the need for Assembly members to engage in communal designation would open up the political process to genuine pluralism which can only be to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.