Senior civil servants feared the new powersharing executive created under the Belfast Agreement could swiftly “degenerate into continual attrition between and within unionist and nationalist blocs”.
In a briefing paper prepared for a “brainstorming session” in January 1999 on what should be included in the Stormont programme for government, senior official Paul Sweeney compared the challenge facing the new ministers to the science fiction series Star Trek. Mr Sweeney wrote that “like the ‘Starship Enterprise’, the Executive is tasked to go where man has not gone before – to formulate and implement an agreed comprehensive manifesto for the future of Northern Ireland”.
In advance of the brainstorming session, Stormont officials circulated to party advisers a copy of the programme for government agreed by Fine Gael, Labour and the Democratic Left when they formed a coalition in 1994 as an example of an “impressive and reforming programme for government” drawn up by parties with a “diverse historical background” and “conflicting social policies”.
In the briefing note, Mr Sweeney urged the parties in the new executive to build upon the “culture of community input into the social and economic planning process” established under direct rule. However, he noted the politicians forming the new “involuntary coalition with internal political tensions” would be entering uncharted waters.
“Assembly members have up to now been in ‘permanent opposition’ mode. They have not had to confront the hard decisions associated with priority-setting and resource allocation.”
Mr Sweeney suggested “the primary motivation of Assembly members will be to seek to advantage their particular constituencies rather than advancing the interests of the regions as a whole”.
Expressing the view that the new ministers and their officials would be on “a steep learning curve”, the memo also noted concerns about a “culture of dependency” in the Northern Ireland community which would inevitably lead to “unrealistic expectations about the degree to which the Assembly can solve the region’s economic and social challenges”.
The brainstorming session came at the start of a year during which the new Stormont executive failed to get off the ground amid arguments over the delays in paramilitary weapons decommissioning.
An early problem came to light over cross-community voting. In October 1999, Alliance MLAs asked Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson to change the rules in the assembly so centre-ground votes could be counted in key decisions.
At the time, David Trimble was coming under increasing pressure from members of his own party who were unhappy about forming a powersharing executive with Sinn Féin before IRA decommissioning. This made the “numbers game” in the assembly problematic when it came to electing first and deputy first ministers, because that required a majority of both nationalists and unionists.
According to the minutes of the meeting, the Alliance leader Seán Neeson said Mr Trimble had inquired about his party changing its designation of identity to “unionist” to bolster his support. But Mr Neeson described this as impossible given the Alliance had been formed in 1970 as “an alternative to unionism and nationalism and had consistently fought for its votes on this platform.”
The Alliance MLA Seamus Close, who was also attending the meeting, asked “why should a party which had attempted to hold the centre ground for so long now be asked to change its position. Why shouldn’t Sinn Féin be asked to change their designation from nationalist to unionist?” Mr Mandelson “interjected to suggest this was an implausible rather than impossible proposal”.
Mr Close suggested the rules should be changed so that key votes requiring “parallel consent” should be “measured as the majority of nationalists and others voting and the majority of unionists and others voting”.
This proposal would have given Alliance a key swing vote in important decisions, but the officials attending the meeting were quick to argue that “what Alliance was proposing appeared to be outside the spirit and letter of the Agreement and could be vulnerable to judicial challenge”.
Mr Neeson added that one reason why Mr Trimble was so keen on securing Alliance backing was that “he was less than enamoured of the thought of the NI Women’s Coalition providing his support – and in particular succeeding in an election on the basis of Monica McWilliams changing her designation”.
In November 2001 the rules remained unchanged and three Alliance MLAs and one Women’s Coalition member temporarily designated themselves as unionists to secure Mr Trimble’s re-election as first minister. Ms McWilliams temporarily changed her designation to nationalist.
Although the procedures for appointing the first and deputy first ministers were changed as part of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, they remain controversial and have contributed to current stalemates at Stormont.
The Alliance Party is continuing to call for reforms in the Stormont decision-making procedures, arguing that the “parallel consent” requirement for key decisions should be replaced by weighted majorities, in which the votes of centre ground politicians as well as unionists and nationalists would be counted.
After a stop-start beginning, the assembly was suspended for five years until 2007 when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became first minister and deputy first minister. There have been several suspensions since, however, and concerns persist today over the ability of Stormont’s mandatory coalition to agree priorities and make decisions.