Opening Monday’s edition of Talkback on BBC Radio Ulster, presenter William Crawley hit the nail on the head. “I don’t think there’s anybody out there who thinks Stormont doesn’t need to be fixed in some way, though many people disagree about how to fix it.”
In Northern Ireland there is much that needs fixing. Last week, for example, schools were closed and bus and train services were suspended due to strikes by teachers and those working in public transport.
At Stormont the stalemate continues; as the DUP boycott that has left Northern Ireland without a functioning Executive or Assembly drags wearily towards the two-year mark, it is clear the current way of doing – or rather, not doing – things, is not working.
On Monday the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster published its suggested fix: a series of reforms aimed at restoring and stabilising the Stormont institutions. This was outlined in a 100-page report which was itself the result of a year-long inquiry into the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement.
This is a significant intervention by a cross-party group of MPs – Conservative, Labour, Alliance and SDLP – and its proposals, which are aimed at aiding the return of the Assembly and Executive, would represent a big change in the way business is done at Stormont.
They include urging the UK government to change the rules to allow the Assembly speaker to be elected by a two-thirds “supermajority” of MLAs – thus removing the single party veto that has enabled the DUP to block the appointment of a speaker and, therefore, any Assembly business.
The positions of first and Deputy First Minister – currently equal in all but name – should be rebranded as “Joint First Ministers”, with the position open to any two MLAs of any two parties and similarly elected by a two-thirds supermajority.
The committee argues such supermajority voting would equate to previous provisions around cross-community consent, and would better reflect the societal and demographic changes in Northern Ireland which have seen Alliance – which does not designate itself as unionist or nationalist – become the third largest party in the Assembly.
The assumption has been that “Northern Ireland has a bipolarity about it, you’re either nationalist or unionist, those are the traditions and that’s it”, says Robert Buckland, the committee chair and a Conservative MP; instead, there is a “growing multipolarity of politics” with “many people now who don’t accept either designation and don’t identify with either community”.
He says the political institutions set up by the Belfast Agreement have been changed before and can be changed again. “It’s 2023. This was a process, not an event.”
Yet the reality is that such changes would, inevitably, require support from the North’s five main parties and the two governments – and indeed, a change in the law, which is unlikely to be achieved amid the current deadlock.
The DUP disagreed sharply with the report, to the extent that a minority report by its MPs on the committee was published alongside it. Sinn Féin’s response was to re-emphasise the need for the outcome of the 2022 Assembly election “to be respected and the Executive established without delay”, adding that any discussions on reform – which it was “very much up for” – should take place within that context.
“I think it’s very unlikely it gets buy-in from the DUP and Sinn Féin,” says David McCann, election analyst and deputy editor of the political website Slugger O’Toole. “There’s just not enough in it for the two of them.”
It is also important to remember that these are simply proposals. Never mind Sinn Féin and the DUP, there is no compulsion on the UK government to take any action in response to the report and no indication that it will.
In a short statement it said it was “fully focused on getting the Executive back up and running as soon as possible”.
“While we continue to listen to the conversation around how we can ensure we have effective and enduring political institutions, any changes to the make-up of the Assembly would require widespread support across Northern Ireland,” it stated.
While understanding that London “might not want to be drawn” on the short-term proposals aimed at restoring the Assembly and Executive, Buckland emphasises the report’s “fundamental recommendation”, that of a full, independent review into the Stormont institutions, which he believes “could be embarked upon now”.
On the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, and with ongoing limbo at Stormont, it was “vital that the committee spoke out ... calmly and clearly to come up with some constructive suggestions as to how we restore democracy and democratic government to Northern Ireland”, he says.
Stormont needs fixing. While the disagreements about how to do it will continue, at least it is being discussed.
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