Members of Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly (MLAs) return from their Summer holidays tomorrow. The Assembly still has a relatively new makeup following last May’s elections. However, on paper, the Executive makeup is apparently very different from before – or is it?
There have been a few minor changes in party strengths since the 2011-6 Assembly but the overall party position is little changed. It is the makeup of the Executive which is substantially changed.
In the previous Assembly the Executive was made up of a 5 Party Cosy Coalition under the rules which make mandatory coalition compulsory. Collective responsibility is not required. Democratic Unionists (DUP), Sinn Fein (SF), Ulster Unionists(UUP), Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) all supplied ministers to the Executive. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Green Party and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), all with a single MLA each, and an Independent MLA formed the nearest thing to an opposition – 4 out of 108 MLA’s.
During the 2011-6 period a few upsets, mostly involving the UUP, caused a bit of variation. Two UUP MLA’s jumped ship to form their own party (NI21) about half way through the 5 year term. The latter party split spectacularly two days before the 2014 Council and European Parliament elections with its 2 MLAs remaining as Independents. Late on in the life of the Assembly the UUP withdrew its Minister from the Executive but this had little effect on the Cosy Coalition which continued in a state of cross-community stasis arguing among each other over welfare reform and the state of paramilitary ceasefires. The inability of the Assembly to pass any controversial legislation remained unchanged.
So what has changed since the election? Well we still have a mandatory coalition (supposed to produce power sharing between Unionists and Nationalist/Republicans). Now, though, the Executive is made up DUP(38 seats), SF(28 seats) and a single Independent. The latter was appointed to get over the fact that neither DUP or SF were prepared to trust their Executive partners with the Justice Portfolio. So, in theory, 67 MLAs back the Government.
Meanwhile, with some provision for an ineffective opposition having been agreed between the parties last Christmas, UUP(16 seats) and SDLP(12 seats) went into opposition. Their parties have a total of 28 MLAs between them.
Finally an assortment of 8 APNI, 2 Greens, 2 People before Profit (PBP new to the Assembly), and one TUV make up a group not joining either the Executive or Opposition. That is all well and good with a veneer of normal politics possibly appearing.
However, let’s look at the other way of dividing up the Assembly Members. All Assembly Members are required to register a “Designation” when they are elected. They can change this later if they want. The Designation is important because it affects the outcome of some types of votes in the Assembly and, in theory, control of the Mandatory Coalition. MLAs can register as “Unionist,” “Nationalist” or “Other.” The First Minister is drawn, in the first instance, from the largest Party of the Largest Designation. The Deputy First Minister (in reality more of a Joint First Minister) is chosen from the Largest Party of the Second Largest Designation.
The more sinister importance of the Designation is when 30 or more members of the Assembly put down what is known as a “Petition of Concern” in advance of a particular motion. When this happens the relevant motion can only be passed if voted for by majorities of both the Unionist and Nationalist Designations. This particular regulation was originally intended to protect minorities but, in one of the more spectacular ironies of Northern Ireland politics, was last used towards the end of the 2011-6 Assembly to quash legislation for the introduction of same sex marriage which had actually achieved a majority had the vote had been straightforward.
In the new Assembly the Designations cut right across the Executive/Opposition divide. At present there are 56 MLAs registered as “Unionist,” 40 MLAs registered as “Nationalist” and 12 registered as “Other.”
The 56 “Unionists” consist of 38 DUP and 1 Independent from the Executive Parties, 16 UUP from the Official Opposition Parties and 1 TUV from outside both those groupings.
The 40 “Nationalists” consist of 28 SF from the Executive Parties and 12 SDLP from the Official Opposition.
The 12 “Others” consist of 8 APNI, 2 Greens and 2 PBP all from outside the Executive and Opposition groupings.
Please try to keep up – I’ll ask questions later.
In short, the Designations, which influence the weighted voting of Petition of Concern motions, no longer have any relevance to the Executive/Opposition set up. What are they for? Why do the larger parties not want to put their abolition up for negotiation?
The essentially sectarian nature of the Designations and Petitions of Concern dates back to 1998 when what was known as the “Peace Process” was in full swing and the main argument used against their abolition is still that that process would be damaged. However, the undoubted real reason for the larger parties, particularly DUP and SF, wanting to preserve the undemocratic system is that they are becoming increasingly comfortable and entrenched. While those two parties usually remain at loggerheads on most issues, they will now do anything to avoid losing what they suppose to be power in our Devolved Government. That is why nothing important ever gets done by Stormont.
What the rest of us have woken up to is that The Peace Process is OVER. The Executive and Opposition now cut right across the Sectarian divide. We are no longer operating our democracy while staring down the barrels of Republican and Loyalist Paramilitary guns. There is no more need for Designations, Petitions of Concern nor Mandatory Coalitions.
The Cosy Coalition and most of the Cosy Opposition at Stormont don’t want to listen to the alarm clock. It is up to us in the real world outside the gates of Stormont to ensure that the 2021-6 Assembly consists of radical reformers who will tear the whole unworkable structure down and build proper democratically accountable devolved government in its place. This can be achieved by the ordinary hard working citizens of Northern Ireland. My party, UKIP, stands ready to support them.