As the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister arrive in Belfast today to get behind what we believe is an “outline” agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin, I am reminded of the Arthur Conan Doyle quote from the Sherlock Holmes story, a Study in Scarlet – “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is what can you make people believe you have done.”
The subject of the Nolan Show this morning points to the very reason we are in this position in the first place – the need for the DUP and Sinn Féin to seriously consider whether they can sell the inevitable mutual compromise to their bases.
It is worth revisiting a slightly nerdy point I made on Northern Slant a number of months ago about the incentives, or lack thereof, to compromise created by our structures of government in Northern Ireland. Given the DUP and Sinn Féin both have a mutual veto on the other forming an Executive, because of the legal obligations under the Northern Ireland Act, both parties could issue red lines with impunity. There is no prospect that either could be left out of an Executive, and therefore there is no real incentive to compromise.
Of course, that becomes problematic, as far as saving face goes, when you then actually have to compromise.
Whilst it is certainly looking like our current political impasse is set to end over the coming days, there is a lot of politics still to go, and so it’s worth looking ahead to what happens next.
So, let’s fast forward. The deal is done. It’s decision time for the SDLP, Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party.
All three parties have expressed public frustration, rightly in my view, at how the negotiations have been conducted to this point. However, those parties will now have to decide whether they want to be part of a new DUP-SF led Executive.
It’s worth briefly re-visiting the options available to them here. The Good Friday Agreement, and the legislation that underpins it, entitles any party with sufficient electoral support to ministerial office. The complexion of the Executive, i.e. the number of ministerial positions held by each party, mirrors party strength in the Assembly itself. A formula, known as the D’Hondt formula, is used to allocate ministerial positions and the order in which parties can pick their preferred departments – however, in practice, there is some negotiation among the parties about which departments they would prefer before this takes place.
Although the smaller parties are entitled to ministerial office, they do not have to take up this entitlement. They can opt to sit in “opposition” in the Assembly and seek to hold the Executive to account from the outside. The concept of opposition in Northern Ireland has evolved. Previously, there were no provisions for an opposition within our structures i.e. no money for policy development (short money), no allocated Assembly time for opposition business, no provision for a Shadow Executive. However, former MLA, John McCallister’s Private Members Bill created some provision for parties to sit in opposition meaningfully, but it still falls short of other Western parliamentary democracies.
The sentiment behind the all-inclusive Executive is rooted in the ethos of power-sharing, and it’s a model widely used in post-conflict societies i.e. governing together, for everyone. The downsides of this approach are two-fold.
In a philosophical sense, a proper functioning opposition is healthy in a parliamentary democracy – a government can be held to account for its record, other parties can set out their alternative policy programme, and the public decides. However, in the absence of a second chamber, our system fundamentally blurs these lines. On the one hand, the SDLP, UUP and Alliance need to try and hold the DUP and SF to account to try and improve their own electoral fortunes, but on the other hand be part of that Executive.
Experience tells us that, generally speaking, the electorate in Northern Ireland does not really understand the nuance of this system and, as such, this is a real existential problem for the smaller parties.
In a more practical sense, having five parties in coalition is not particularly conducive to good policy-making. There are five positions that need to be reconciled on big-ticket government policies such as the Programme for Government and the Budget. The fact that parties are entitled to ministerial office, and the imperative for smaller parties to continue to have a challenging voice, means that there is no real collective responsibility.
The political judgement the smaller parties will need to make is whether they have sufficient space to make a meaningful electoral comeback inside the Executive. Will they be able to sufficiently champion the positive impact made by their one or two Ministers, whilst holding the bigger two parties to account, whilst differentiating themselves on a more fundamental level from their competitors? For parties like the SDLP and the UUP, who arguably have some political soul searching to do, this is an especially acute judgement.
Furthermore, there are valuable resources that come with being part of the Executive, and the experience of the SDLP, Alliance and UUP of opposition is that it requires exhaustive and resource-intensive levels of effort to be effective. Perhaps being in would give them some much needed breathing space to rebuild.
There is little doubt, however, that the DUP and Sinn Féin will want the smaller parties to join them in government, not least because it will ease the pressure on the DUP-SF relationship and provide some political cover for the many difficult issues that lie ahead (that old chestnut, Brexit, comes to mind). This gives the smaller parties some short-term influence, perhaps to negotiate a more high-profile government department in return for playing ball.
Setting the political judgements for the parties aside, as a member of the public it is difficult not to see the benefits of a fully inclusive Executive for stability and public confidence, particularly in light of the bruising process we’re just emerging from and the scale of the challenges posed by Brexit. As someone who passionately believes in having a meaningful opposition at Stormont, and the need to gradually move to a more normal system of government that still maintains that critical power-sharing ethos, I cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that a “Team Northern Ireland” approach is perhaps the best way forward in the short-to-medium term.
It’s quickly approaching crunch time for the SDLP, Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance – they have to make an incredibly complex decision on their future strategy, on the basis of a crisis not of their making, and for which they have very little control.
Maybe full party agreement is the best thing for Northern Ireland right now, but it could be at the expense of our politics more widely.