Talk of removing Stormont's 'ugly scaffolding' is premature


Mark Durkan invited controversy when he spoke of moving beyond the Belfast Agreement principle of 'parallel consent', writes Frank Millar, London Editor

IS SDLP leader Mark Durkan playing fast-and-loose with key provisions of the Belfast Agreement? Or, to put it another way: is the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland so stable and secure that politicians can now begin to contemplate the circumstances in which the "parallel consent" principle negotiated by the SDLP's Séamus Mallon (with Durkan) 10 years ago might be dispensed with?

In conversation last Friday night, the SDLP leader expressed some surprise at the "spin" put on his address to the British-Irish Association meeting in Oxford. The suspicion will persist, of course, that that was how Durkan's speech was "spun" by some of his aides in the first place.

Whatever about that, the fact is that Durkan must have known he was inviting controversy when speaking of the need "to remove some of the ugly scaffolding" from around the new edifice at Stormont. Whatever he intended, what he said was: "A formula for 'sufficient consensus' [ie the support of a majority in both the nationalist and unionist communities] was a necessary confidence measure in the agreed rules for the talks.

"Therefore, it was not exceptional that such cross-community decision-making protections were also built into the institutions which resulted from those negotiations. As with d'Hondt [the mechanism for allocating ministerial posts in proportion to party strengths in the Assembly], the referendum and the need to persuade and reassure was a strong consideration."

But, Durkan continued: "I remember, at the time, saying that the system of designation [of parties, as either 'unionist' or 'nationalist'] was necessary because of what we were coming from, but should not be necessary where we were going. I argued that such measures, with their arguably sectarian or sectional undertones, should be bio-degradable, dissolving in the future as the environment changed. Most, if not all of us, had such future adjustments in mind when we wrote the review mechanisms into the agreement.

"As we move towards a fully sealed and settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice."

In fairness, Durkan did not suggest the new edifice was yet sufficiently "sealed and settled". Some reports have suggested he certainly does not foresee such developments in the life of the current Assembly. Nevertheless, the SDLP leader revived a debate as old as the agreement itself - and his words were music to the ears of DUP politicians in particular, who have always detested the compulsory coalition demanded by the agreement and who still nurture hopes of eventually moving to some form of "voluntary" coalition arrangement.

Frustration with the current model is understandable, not least in the context of the current standoff between the DUP and Sinn Féin (though it should be observed that London and Dublin had to hold SDLP and Ulster Unionist hands for long enough after the 1998 accord).

Nobody pretends to like the unionist/nationalist "designation" requirement, its "arguably sectarian or sectional undertones" plainly reflecting the worst of Northern Ireland's divided past.

The non-sectarian Alliance Party hates it, not least because it effectively excludes it. Indeed, its unattractiveness was never more plainly demonstrated than when some Alliance members reluctantly agreed to re-designate themselves as "unionist" for the purpose of re-electing David Trimble First Minister after he had lost his actual unionist majority. Not even the strictest adherent to the original model on any side would resist if some workable alternative to designation could be found.

As for the wider question of a gradual evolution toward a more normal, government and opposition-style of politics, other pro-agreement figures - like Lord Trimble and Conservative spokesman Owen Paterson - would relish the prospect and think it pretty much inevitable (though, Paterson would emphasise, very much over time).

Respected commentators like Robin Wilson have also long argued that, while the institutions created by the agreement may have been ideal for the business of conflict resolution, they were never actually designed to provide for good government.

Yet there is unease, not least in the ranks of the SDLP, at the suggestion that protections negotiated 10 years ago might now be traded for a Bill of Rights, augmented by the comfortable assumption that the continuing attention of London, Dublin and the media would simply not permit a return to exclusion or discrimination in any form. Mallon, moreover, would contend that to think in such terms is simply not to know the subject.

The emergent new thinking in SDLP circles appears to suggest that "parallel consent" was originally deemed necessary to protect nationalists from possible abuse by unionists, but that alternative protections might suffice in the changed politics of today. Mallon's take on 1998, however, is that the SDLP's insistence on parallel consent by majorities in both communities was about establishing the principle of equality.

Would any nationalist or republican politician really concede that their people no longer need that equality guarantee? Have DUP and other unionist politicians likewise thought through the logic of their enthusiasm for alternative "voluntary" coalition government? Maybe they comfort themselves that Northern Ireland could never be governed without the consent of the majority unionist party. Yet it should be remembered that David Trimble's agreement to parallel consent represented a massive concession by unionists who previously considered themselves entitled to rule as a simple majority. It is also worth recalling that it was a leading Sinn Féin figure who first proposed changing the rules, for the purpose of enabling a simple "pro-agreement majority" to overcome the problem presented then by Jeffrey Donaldson and other "rejectionist" unionists.

Exclusion can cut both ways. And while the time may come for an alternative to the present all-inclusive model, it surely remains a long way off.

• Frank Millar is London Editor of The Irish Times