Sam McBride: NI’s mandatory coalition is breaking, but that now might not be bad news for Sinn Féin

Four years ago this week, the party which for more than a decade has represented the lone voice of anti-Agreement unionism met for its annual conference in Cookstown.

Tuesday, 1st December 2020, 9:40 am
Mandatory coalition is breaking – but it will not be replaced by the sort of majority rule familiar to Edward Carson a century ago. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty

In the closest that a political party comes to dejection in public, attendance was noticeably down, applause was modest and in private party members accepted that they were at a low ebb.

With typical defiance, leader Jim Allister attempted to rally his party after a year in which it had polled less than 24,000 votes across Northern Ireland, had lost its most high profile councillor and had seen Arlene Foster take over as an exceptionally popular leader of the DUP, which had swept all before it in that year’s Assembly election. For all the QC’s talent and zeal, there was a sense of his political project having failed in its central aims.

Yet within a fortnight the apparently secure Stormont institutions began to slip towards self-destruction as the RHI scandal emerged beginning a process which exposed devolution’s innards so that they cannot be unseen.

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Now, four years on, Mr Allister’s single transferable speech – which denounces the Stormont system of mandatory coalition as undemocratic and unworkable – is being replicated by some of those who have little in common with his brand of hardline unionism and is resonating with a section of the public yearning for anything which might produce good government.

Two weeks ago, after the Executive’s shambolic handling of the pandemic saw its reputation reach a new nadir, Alliance leader Naomi Long sent an email to party members in which she bemoaned the Executive’s “continued dysfunction”.

Emphasising that last year saw Alliance emerge as Northern Ireland’s third party, the justice minister said: “Let’s be clear: the only way to overcome the failures of leadership we have witnessed at the Executive in recent days is by ending mandatory coalition and breaking the governance structures that have held Northern Ireland back for far too long.”

Voluntary coalition has long been Alliance policy – but even many people who follow politics closely would not realise that, so rarely has the issue been raised, with the party pragmatically accepting that such sweeping reform of the Belfast Agreement has not been imminently realistic. Searching through Alliance press releases, the last time I could find reference to ending mandatory coalition was eight years ago.

But now the party leader is seeing at first hand in the Executive the chaos being delivered under the current arrangements where even the threat of mass death and economic collapse are insufficient to force together the DUP and Sinn Féin into even a temporarily harmonious coalition.

On paper, it is the policy of the DUP, UUP, and Alliance to scrap mandatory coalition – a slightly misleading term in that it is not mandatory to be in the coalition, but is mandatory to offer every party with significant Assembly representation a place in the coalition.

There is also significant consensus on what they would like to replace it: A voluntary coalition which would have to command significant support across the Assembly, taking in some unionists and some nationalists rather than merely a simple majority of MLAs.

But the SDLP and Sinn Fein, fearing anything remotely akin to the resurrection of majority rule, have opposed changes to that part of the Agreement. In 2016 the SDLP joined Sinn Fein in tabling a Petition of Concern to veto the then independent MLA John McCallister’s attempt to end the current requirement to designate as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’ and replace the petition of concern system with qualified majority votes to protect minorities.

Sinn Féin has been most trenchantly opposed to moving to voluntary coalition, viewing efforts to do so as a Trojan horse to exclude it from the Executive. The party also points to the fact that an Executive including all the major parties was at the heart of the Agreement.

Yet none of the architects of the Agreement (and Sinn Féin did not initially even endorse the accord on Good Friday 1998, only doing so later and after David Trimble, John Hume and the other parties had done so) envisaged it as a permanent and unalterable settlement.

Indeed, the Agreement itself contained the mechanism for its alteration, referring in two separate sections to the need for “a review of these arrangements...with a view to agreeing any adjustments necessary in the interests of efficiency and fairness” and stating that “each institution may, at any time, review any problems that may arise in its operation and, where no other institution is affected, take remedial will be for each institution to determine its own procedures for review”.

Two years ago SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called for such a review, arguing that the process ”wouldn’t be about pulling the Agreement apart, it would instead be about getting back to it” by reversing some of the DUP-SF changes at St Andrews. And in 2017, the Green Party endorsed an end to mandatory coalition, arguing that “our institutions must adapt to survive”.

Yet when Stormont returned in January no radical reforms took place. Instead, the same defective machine was cranked into gear and those responsible seemed to expect a different result because it had been repainted.

Sinn Féin remains vociferously opposed to change, arguing that the failures of the Executive have all been the fault of the DUP. Yet there are three areas in which Sinn Féin could benefit from voluntary coalition. Firstly, it would be more likely to be an effective government for which Sinn Féin, if it was in the Executive, could take credit rather than the present embarrassment.

Secondly, if Sinn Féin is moving towards a border poll campaign within the next decade, then being in opposition is arguably a more comfortable place to be. Arguing that Northern Ireland is unworkable is less coherent from a party which for almost two decades has been at the heart of the new Northern Ireland establishment.

Thirdly, if Sinn Féin decides that it suits its purposes to stay in the Executive, then there is now every reason to believe that a voluntary coalition could see Sinn Féin at the head of government – and the DUP forced into opposition.

In recent years the DUP has become increasingly toxic to other parties and has regularly seen the centrist parties join with Sinn Féin on everything from Brexit to gay rights. The idea that a voluntary coalition would automatically mean Sinn Féin’s exclusion from government is outdated.

Whether the DUP or Sinn Féin led a voluntary coalition – or whether, as deeply pragmatic parties who work far more closely than either publicly acknowledges, they chose to share power with each other – it would incentivise them towards accommodation, without which they would know that they may be replaced by the Opposition.

That would mirror what happens in Belfast City Hall where Alliance holds the balance of power and the DUP or Sinn Fein need to persuade Alliance of the merit of their arguments if they are to get controversial measures passed.

It would also end the untenable current situation whereby Alliance’s votes count for nothing in crucial Stormont votes. In order to ensure power-sharing continued, qualified majority voting would be required, meaning that something like 65% of MLAs would have to support key legislation such as the budget, ensuring that unionists and nationalists had a brake on each other.

It would therefore not be anything like a return to majority rule – and even if it was, that form of rule no longer favours unionism, which is a minority at Stormont.

Strikingly, what is driving people away from mandatory coalition is not the opposition of hardline unionists, but its failure to deliver good government. By persisting in its defence of a system so demonstrably broken, Sinn Féin risks undermining its own ambitions – on both sides of the border.

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Sam McBride: NI’s mandatory coalition is breaking, but that now might not be bad...

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Alistair Bushe