He made the comments in response to questions from the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee today about Northern Ireland’s rickety form of government, which has been dominated by logjams and impasses over much of the last decade.
Sir Jeffrey said the devolved government “has functioned quite well” over the last 18 months on the issue of Covid.
But he added: “I think that we do need to look at reform in the medium-to-long term of those institutions.
“Personally I’d like to see NI move towards a voluntary coalition style of government where we reach a level of political maturity that, after an election, parties get together and decide who wants to be in the government... and go forward on a voluntary coalition basis.”
He said trying to govern Northern Ireland under its current system is “akin to having a government of national unity in the UK involving the Lib Dems, Conservative Party, SNP and Labour Party; you can just begin to imagine how difficult it would be to devise a programme of government under those circumstances”.
Under the present rules, Northern Ireland’s government must be made up of least two parties, representing unionists and nationalists.
Then control of the various government departments is parcelled out to parties based on how many MLAs they have managed to get elected.
He also condemned “the tendency of the UK government to legislate in breach of the devolved settlement; I think that undermines confidence in devolution, and I really do think the UK government should do so only in the most exceptional circumstances”.
Sir Jeffrey also said “maybe we need to look at how we can build in stronger safeguards for the devolved administrations in protecting their legislative rights”, given that the London government has recently intervened in a number of what are supposed to be devolved matters (such as the Irish language and abortion, for instance).
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