Tuesday 29 September 2009

Ending mandatory coalition

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.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Even if mandatory coalition was somehow scrapped, and the SDLP colluded with unionists in keeping SF out of power, how long would it last realistically?

The SDLP would likely be routed in any election that followed. The unionists would then be back to square one; if the SDLP's vote collapses SF could well be the largest party in Stormont and unionists would have no choice but to share power again.

Robinson and Allister should realise nationalists aren't going to vote to in ways that maximise unionist power and minimise their own.

Watcher said...

"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."

You're wrong about this. The Conservatives could live with majority rule in Ulster providing The DUP kept them in power. It's not as if The Conservatives have any sympathy with Irish Nationalism. Real politic old boy...

Watcher said...

Anonymous said:

"Even if mandatory coalition was somehow scrapped, and the SDLP colluded with unionists in keeping SF out of power, how long would it last realistically?

The SDLP would likely be routed in any election that followed. The unionists would then be back to square one; if the SDLP's vote collapses SF could well be the largest party in Stormont and unionists would have no choice but to share power again."

Robinson and Allister should realise nationalists aren't going to vote to in ways that maximise unionist power and minimise their own."

Hmmmm. I wonder. Perhaps Nationalists would prefer to vote for candidates, who if elected would hold real power, rather than for those who wouldn't?

In any case, providing Unionists + SDLP have a majority in the assembly, Unionists could allow The SDLP a disproportionate number of executive seats...

picador said...

"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."

You're wrong about this. The Conservatives could live with majority rule in Ulster providing The DUP kept them in power. It's not as if The Conservatives have any sympathy with Irish Nationalism. Real politic old boy...

Sound like one of those wishful thinkers!

picador said...

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.

This is where abstentionism hurts nationalism. Callaghan's 1976-9 government and Major's 1992-97 government were propped up by unionists (to the detriment of nationalism). It is not that uncommon a phenomenon but nevertheless a dangerous one.

I wonder would SF ever be prepared to cancel out this potential threat by taking their seats at Westminster on condition that they would forego the ridiculous and humiliating Oath of Allegiance. It is the Oath after all that is at the root of abstentionism?

Watcher said...

Not at all. I'm not commenting on the likelihood of a hung parliament, merely on how these things tend to work in the real world. It's not as if The Conservatives and The DUP have any serious ideological differences. In the scenario sketched out, I think it's highly likely a deal would be done.

Personally, I'm not bothered either way. If the assembly collapsed tomorrow, it would provide me with no dilemma. It certainly is far too large for the population it represents and could be halved in size tomorrow and no one would notice.

Watcher said...

picador said:

"I wonder would SF ever be prepared to cancel out this potential threat by taking their seats at Westminster on condition that they would forego the ridiculous and humiliating Oath of Allegiance. It is the Oath after all that is at the root of abstentionism?"

I'm sure they're actively considering it! Even with the oath...

Anonymous said...

Any Chance we could have a blog of all Andy / watcher /annonymous / malestripper/ mcCann comments together please?
PS. as an ex student of psychology I find the choice of names hilarious, Freud would have had a field day!
Thanks

Anonymous said...

Watcher said...

"Hmmmm. I wonder. Perhaps Nationalists would prefer to vote for candidates, who if elected would hold real power, rather than for those who wouldn't?"

Yes. They elect MPs they know won't sit in Westminster all the time out of principle. If the SDLP do a deal to exclude Sinn Fein the nationalist voters will abandon them and swing behind SF out of principle too.

In any case, providing Unionists + SDLP have a majority in the assembly, Unionists could allow The SDLP a disproportionate number of executive seats..."

Ach that would be wile good of them. And it's something Unionists have a history of doing, voluntarily giving extra power to nationalists.

Watcher said...

Anonymous said:

"Yes. They elect MPs they know won't sit in Westminster all the time out of principle. If the SDLP do a deal to exclude Sinn Fein the nationalist voters will abandon them and swing behind SF out of principle too."

Neither SF or The SDLP have any influence at Westminster - in the assembly they do...

paul said...

lock up your daughters it's watcher mc cann the internet stalker, with 200 names

paul said...

unfortunately your not liable to bump into watcher mc cann in the street, hes never off the computer fighting for ulster(minus donegal, cavan,monaghan, west and south of the six counties and soon to be most of belfast) hahahaha

paul said...

pagasp

Anonymous said...

Watcher said...

"Neither SF or The SDLP have any influence at Westminster - in the assembly they do..."

Point deftly missed. I like how you seem to think you have a better understanding of the motivations of nationalist voters than the nationalists on this blog do.

Not for the first time you're deluding yourself I'm afraid.

Watcher said...

Not at all. I'm sure the average Northern Nationalist is more likely to vote for SF with no power than The SDLP with power.

Speaks volumes about them...

Faha said...

I agree with Jim Allister's proposal to end mandatory coalition,but not for identical reasons. Mandatory coalition enshrines a permanent unionist veto, which they have used very effectively over the 11 years since the GFA was approved. If any nationalist does not believe this then look at the lack of devolution of policing and justice, no Irish language act, no changes in the educational system, etc., as well the fact that the Assembly has not been in existence for the majority of the previous 11 years due to unionist opposition. Peter Robinson proposed a 65% weighted majority because he wants the best of both worlds- eliminating the Sinn Fein veto while retaining the unionist veto. It is unlikely there will be a unionist majority after the next Assembly election. For example, if there were 53 in the unionist bloc, 47 in the nationalist bloc and 8 Alliance -Green members then what coalition would be formed ? Without mandatory coalition the Alliance-Green bloc would hold the balance of power. There would be no unionist nor a nationalist veto.
It is likely that the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be rotated among the parties, with more compatible ( or at least less disruptive ) pairings such as Alliance-UUP, Alliance-SDLP, Sinn Fein-Green, Alliance-DUP. No party could threaten to collapse the Assembly since a walkout by any party would mean that that party's votes would no longer count in any Assembly votes. You need look no further than the Belfast City Council, where the Alliance Party has held the balance of power since 1997. there have been Sinn Fein as well as unionist mayors elected solely due to the backing of the Alliance Party. Under the current arrangement of mandatory coalition, in the future I believe that it will not be an effective strategy for Sinn Fein or the TUV or DUP to collapse the Assembly. The British government ( probably Conservative ) could simply pass legislation ending mandatory coalition and tell the elected members of the Assembly to form their own voluntary government.

Anonymous said...

Horseman, how about you try out Haloscan for commentating? It works with blogger.

http://www.haloscan.com/

Andy McCann is screwing up this website.

It is not about moderation, it is about not having some jackass like Andy McCann come and screw up every post.

Let Andy McCann post under one name, not the 4 or 5 different names he does now.

Anonymous said...

"I agree with Jim Allister's proposal to end mandatory coalition,but not for identical reasons. Mandatory coalition enshrines a permanent unionist veto, which they have used very effectively over the 11 years since the GFA was approved."

That's why it should NOT be ended. There are two nations on this island but sharing the same space. There SHOULD be BOTH a "permanent unionist veto" and a "permanent nationalist veto" just like the Walloons and the Flemish both have permanent vetoes on passing the laws of Belgium and just as the Annan Plan proposed for the Turks and Greeks of Cyprus.

The whole point, for me, is that unionists do not have any right to govern Northern Ireland without the consent of nationalists but equally, oppositely and fairly, nationalists do not have any right to govern Northern Ireland without the consent of unionists and never will, united Ireland or no.

We have the dinosaurs of the TUV who still seem to think that unionists are the majority in the assembly, OK with the PUP they are, but next election they won't be, and Alliance are going to hold the balance of power for the next 20 years. We then have the other set of dinosaurs, equal, opposite and completely and utterly morally equivalent to the TUV who think that we are in some transitional period to an all Ireland unitary state with bilingual signs up the Shankill and unionists acquising and finding their lost Irishness, and that that would not be a grave injustice. That an all Ireland can exist without Belgium of Cyprus style consociationalism, and must do so forever for it to exista at all. Unionists have had many of their hopes and dreams crushed, now nationalists must also go through that process of having many (not all) of their hopes and dreams crushed in order to produce fairness and equality, where all rights of unionists and nationalists are equal including those relating to nationality and self determination. Thankfully we'll have about 40 years to do that.