Jim Allister wants to end the system of mandatory coalitions in the Executive. That, of course, is hardly news. His ambition matches that of the DUP, of course – Peter Robinson said on 8 September that:
"I would hope by 2015 we would be in a position to move to a more normal form of government in terms of a freely formed coalition but even before then we can make important improvements to the existing arrangements."
How does Allister intend to proceed?
"The answer lies in securing a sufficient bridgehead of Traditional Unionist MLAs in the next Assembly who are pledged not to operate mandatory coalition. That will force change.
Sufficient unionists rejecting mandatory coalition makes it unworkable and hastens the acceptance of voluntary coalition as the only alternative."
And what then?:
"Faced with the end of mandatory coalition, voluntary coalition will be accepted - even by those who now claim otherwise, because without it they will have no Stormont and that would never suit politicians and parties wholly dependent on it for their financial and political lifeline. Remember there is no party more dependent on Stormont than Sinn Fein."
The difference between the DUP and the TUV on this issue is that both parties disagrees with mandatory coalition, but one works it, hoping to discard it later, and the other party would try to have it discarded immediately by threatening to collapse the institutions.
The DUP's approach is slightly more subtle – Robinson tried to sweet-talk the SDLP and the UUP by saying that:
" … in circumstances where the UUP and SDLP make a good faith effort to work constructively on matters in the Executive DUP Ministers would insist that all decisions will only be taken by consensus and we will not use our votes to override their opposition.
Indeed to make this participation really meaningful, I will ensure that SDLP and Ulster Unionist Ministers have a greater role in relation to Executive business. I cannot speak for the deputy First Minister but I am prepared, if they wish, to meet with UUP and SDLP Ministers in advance of each Executive meeting and to make arrangements so that their Special Advisors are fully consulted and involved in the process."
Allister's approach, of course, is blunt – he hopes to get enough TUV MLAs elected in 2011 to block (presumably with the assistance of some DUP MLAs) the very establishment of the new Executive. Bizarrely, he believes that Sinn Féin will then accept permanent exclusion from 'voluntary coalition' Executive. Sinn Féin were not slow to disabuse Robinson of his delusions in that respect:
"Peter's proposals appear to be some attempt to create the conditions where other parties can gang up on Sinn Fein, that will not be allowed to happen.
The propositions expressed by the DUP leader are fantasy politics."
It is likely that, after 2011, a clear majority of unionist MLAs will belong to parties committed to ending mandatory coalition. But will even this be sufficient to end it?
The system of election ministers via the d'Hondt procedure is set out in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, and thus cannot be changed without the agreement, and positive volition, of the London government.
And there's the rub. What possible London government – and it is likely to be a Cameron Conservative government – will end mandatory coalition at the behest of unionists only? There is, so far, no appetite whatsoever amongst nationalists for their own exclusion – and indeed why would there be? When the unionists are making it so clear that they are motivated primarily by the desire to exclude the largest nationalist party, neither nationalists nor a responsible government in London will give them any encouragement.
The problem for unionists is that the only way that they will be allowed to discard mandatory coalition is when they can demonstrate that their motives are honourable – when the change is genuinely motivated by a desire to improve efficiency and democratic choice – not when it is motivated only by the old-fashioned unionist reflex of trying to exclude nationalists. As long as the current rigid political divisions persist in Northern Ireland, though, and as long as unionists continue to irrationally obstruct any expression of nationalist power or cultural identity, no responsible central government will grant them their wish. Only by ceasing to want to exclude nationalism will unionists ever be trusted to operate voluntary coalitions – but if they no longer want to exclude nationalists then their dislike of mandatory coalitions will evaporate too. They are two sides of the same coin.
As with so many other unionist wishes, of course, the mirage of a 'hung parliament' after next year's election no doubt plays a part in their thinking. The power that the DUP might exercise if (and only if) it holds the balance of power necessary to enable Cameron to form a Tory government would be considerable. But a Tory government dependent on DUP votes and the grubby one-sided deals that this would involve would be a fatally weak one. The explicit blackmail that the DUP would exert on the Tories would ensure deep and lasting loathing for unionists amongst the London ruling class – hardly an optimal outcome for unionism.
So it seems that mandatory coalition is here to stay, and it is necessary for unionists to get used to it, and to come to terms with the realities of power-sharing. Over ten years have now passed with unionism twisting and turning in attempts to avoid the inevitable – a shared government in Stormont, in which nationalists and republicans have real power. Only when unionists finally realise that it is here to stay, and stop simply trying to frustrate and block nationalism at any turn, will the institutions be able to 'deliver good government for Northern Ireland' which is, apparently, what both Allister and Robinson claim to want. As Allister said:
"Northern Ireland needs and deserves good government. Obtaining and delivering such should be the ambition of every caring politician." Prove yourself to be a caring politician then, Allister – share power with all, for the benefit of all.