As Northern Ireland slides towards the end of yet another year without a functioning devolved government, there is an increasingly widespread view that its political institutions urgently need reform. Polling earlier this year indicated that, while 69 per cent of voters in the North agree the Belfast Agreement remains the best basis for governing, 55 per cent believe the agreement needs at least some improvement.
Sadly, that appetite for renewal is not shared by the DUP which has already summarily rejected thoughtful recommendations published on Monday by the Northern Ireland Affairs committee of the House of Commons. Sinn Féin has also declined to support the committee’s proposals.*
In its report, the committee finds that safeguards put in place in 1998 to ensure cross-community support have actually contributed to the chronic instability of the institutions. Each of the two largest parties effectively exercises a veto over the election of the speaker of the Assembly and the formation of an executive. The committee is also critical of changes introduced under the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, which diminished the relationship between the first and deputy first minister. It recommends a new formula whereby all these posts could be filled with the votes of two-thirds of MLAs, maintaining the cross-community requirement while dispensing with the need for support from both the largest parties. It also proposes replacing the current positions of first and deputy first minister with two joint first ministers.
The proposals are a sensible recognition of the changing political and demographic landscape in the North. They recognise that dysfunction is now baked into the current arrangements. Even if the DUP does return to Stormont in the next few months, it would be naive to expect the dysfunction to end.
Reform is impossible without the support of the main political parties, but the incentive for the DUP and Sinn Féin to resist change is obvious. DUP representatives on the committee voted against the report, while Sinn Féin has emphasised the need for the outcome of last year’s Assembly elections to be respected and for the Executive to be established without delay. Alliance has criticised the response from the two larger parties, saying change would only come with the active involvement of the governments in London and Dublin. That is correct, and both governments should heed the report’s criticism of the failure to develop the deeper North-South and East-West relationships which Strands Two and Three of the Belfast Agreement envisaged. A quarter of a century after the original historic agreement was signed, it is long past time for the current generation of political leaders to follow the example of their predecessors and come together to deliver a government in Northern Ireland that works in the best interests of all its citizens.
* This article was amended on Monday, December 11th, 2023. An earlier version stated that Sinn Féin had “summarily rejected” the committee’s recommendations. The party’s position is that it would be “very much up for those disucssions” within the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive Review Committee.