The prospects of voluntary coalition

Video: Peter Robinson on improving devolution

Voluntary coalition seems to be a shibboleth connected with Jim Allister and TUV but in reality all three Unionist parties would prefer voluntary coalition with some form of qualified majority voting put in place to enable a more normal form of Assembly inline with Wales & Scotland which would include a formal opposition, compared to the mandatory coalition we currently operate where nearly all the parties are in government and will remain in government almost indefinitely.

Last week the News Letter ran a series of live webchats with David Vance (TUV), Reg Empey MLA (UUP-Tory) and Rev Willie McCrea MP (DUP).

Reg Empey was asked:
Will the Conservatives & Unionists be seeking changes to the Northern Ireland institutions such as a move to a voluntary coalition with a qualified majority voting system?

Reg: “I think all unionists would look to change in the Stormont system in the long term. I know that the Conservatives would respond positively if the parties wanted to go in this direction. What is not yet clear is what model we could follow. Over a year ago Mark Durkan suggest using a Bill of Rights combined with a voluntary coalition. I think we could all look at that and explore possibilities.

Rev McCrea was asked:
Why does your party operate mandatory coalition with Sinn fein when voluntary coalition at Stormont would be much better?

McCrea`s reply: The DUP desires a voluntary coalition. In the 2004 DUP European Manifesto presented to the people by Jim Allister we stated that we would accept a mandatory coalition only as a first step. Our position hasn’t changed and we continue to work towards our ultimate goal.
I can assure you that if it was possible to have a Government which did not include Sinn Fein tomorrow then the DUP would grasp that with both hands. However, the answer does not lie in tearing devolution down and replacing it with unaccountable Direct Rule – which Jim himself referred to as Dublin Rule.

Vance has this to say on being asked:
If Stormont collapses and Labour is still in government how would you stop them implementing their law banning grammar schools?

Vance: “Academic and vocational educational excellence is vital and a minority Labour govt would not do as you suggest. Ruane is destroying our system everyday and yet the DUP keep her in power, isn’t that shameful?

The Labour government was in the process of introducing a law to ban grammars. Devolution stopped it becoming law so how would TUV stop a Labour government from implementing it?

Vance: “Education is a devolved matter. We have a ruinous Ruane wrecking it, but the DUP keep her in power. I wonder why?

To me he seemed to avoid the issue just as Jim Allister did in the News Letter pages when I queried him.

Although Jim Allister did answer me (although he totally avoids answering the question) on a News Letter webchat prior to the European elections in 2009:

Me: How would you make the British Government enact legislation to allow voluntary coalition and why is mandatory coalition not a viable temporary solution in your opinion, considering that is has stopped pro-Republican legislation completely to-date?

Jim Allister: “By refusing to operate mc and insisting that if devolution is to prevail then it must be on the democratic basis which respect the fundamental right to vote a party out of govt and permits an Opposition. There is nothing temporary about mc, because it can’t and won’t be changed without SF’s assent.

However I do agree with Jim when he states “What we need is a system where you can have opposition, people who are both in and out of government.

“A voluntary coalition where those that are in government are bound by policies that they all support.”

Other parties have also come out in support of a move to voluntary coalition.
Trevor Lunn of Alliance on TUV in News Letter webchat:
I had hoped we were leaving their type of politics in the dustbin of history but sadly they are still with us. they are a backward looking intolerant minority and i hope the electorate will give them their cards

Should mandatory coalition be replaced by a better form of government?

Lunn: “Ideally a straight forward parliamentery system as in westminster is preferable but that is not going to happen here . Voluntary coalition is probably the next ambition for Northern Ireland but we are not due to review the present system until 2015.

Alliance leader David Ford also thinks that `Voluntary coalition a better way’ according to an article in the News Letter.

“A VOLUNTARY Stormont coalition would produce better government than the Executive has thus far delivered, David Ford says, but he does not believe that simple majority rule would be sustainable.

Clearly we do have to move to a more normal structure in the long-term, such as a voluntary arrangement as advocated by the DUP”

“Alliance has long held the view that we must get rid of sectarian designations, move towards a weighted majority to carry key votes in the Assembly and form the Executive through voluntary coalition.

The Nationalist SDLP has also toyed with the idea of eventual voluntary coalition.
Mark Durkan told an audience at New College, Oxford: “I remember, at the time, saying that the system of designation was necessary because of what we were coming from but should not be necessary where we were going.

“I argued that such measures with their arguably sectarian or sectional undertones should be bio-degradable, dissolving in the future as the environment changed.

“Most, if not all of us, had such future adjustments in mind when we wrote the review mechanisms into the Agreement.

“As we move towards a fully sealed and settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice.

This was of course pounced upon by the DUP:

The DUP’s Upper Bann MP David Simpson has welcomed the SDLP’s acceptance that Mandatory Coalition is not the best form of government for Northern Ireland and has also stated that it underscores the failure of the Belfast Agreement. Mr. Simpson said,

“I welcome news that Mark Durkan and the SDLP have eventually caught a glimpse of page 29 of the DUP’s 2007 Election Manifesto and have recognised that our policy is not only wise but practical. While for years the SDLP ignored our arguments and clung to the binned Belfast Agreement it is welcome that they have saw the light. At long last they accept that Mandatory Coalition and designation voting is not the best form of government for Northern Ireland.

While the SDLP and the other negotiators of the failed Belfast Agreement have in the past staunchly defended Mandatory Coalition it is encouraging that Mr. Durkan has broken ranks and joined the DUP argument of needing to move away from the Mandatory Coalition model as soon as possible. Indeed, even Reg Empey, one of the lead negotiators of the Belfast Agreement, is seeking talks on the matter.

The Democratic Unionist Party has long argued that while we achieved fundamental changes to the Belfast Agreement, delivering a fair deal, we have still not reached a final settlement. Indeed, when Peter Robinson was elected as First Minister in his inaugural speech he underscored the need to move to normal democratic structures.

“We must work to transform the institutions to ensure that we move smoothly to democratic normality in the years ahead.”
– Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MP MLA 5th June 2008

The Democratic Unionist Party rejects the current Mandatory Coalition structure but we stated that we were prepared to work it for a limited period. As a result of our negotiations at St Andrews, the legislation was changed to require a report to be made to the Secretary of State by the Assembly within a set period on how it was going to be changed. This report would be the work of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee – a Committee established as a result of DUP pressure.

We want to move to normal democratic structures as soon as possible. We believe a Voluntary Coalition Executive without designation voting would bring us close to a final settlement in Northern Ireland. I look forward to the SDLP and the UUP joining my Party and voting for the removal of Mandatory Coalition whenever the Assembly & Executive Review Committee discusses this matter shortly.

It is certainly ironic but welcome to hear Mark Durkan and Reg Empey, two architects of the failed Belfast Agreement, join the DUP’s argument for a final settlement in the Province. ”

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson has continually referenced that mandatory coalition was not the final destination.

When the DUP opted for devolution last year Jim Allister had already endorsed the DUP devolution strategy. Anyone who has any doubt about this can look at Jim’s European Election Manifesto complete with its two-page spread supporting “Devolution Now”. For those who don’t want to take time reading the text there is a photograph of Jim and colleagues holding the “Devolution Now” policy document in Washington while selling the DUP’s devolution strategy to US politicians and officials…….

The party did not like the mandatory coalition structure but were prepared to work it for a limited period and the legislation was changed to require a report to be made to the Secretary of State by the Assembly within a set period on how it was going to be changed…….

Set beside these factors were some certainties. If we did not proceed with devolution the Labour government were lined up to take a number of deliberately damaging decisions on Water charging, Rates, Education, the Irish Language and a major reorganisation of Local Government which would have left more than half the country under republican control.

In addition the government was threatening that it would move to Plan “B” – a proposal that they said would involve a stronger partnership between London and Dublin in controlling the future of Northern Ireland.

While we did not expect that Plan “B” would be instantaneous Joint Authority we all knew that since the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985 the government of Northern Ireland under Direct Rule had changed, and changed utterly. Day by day Dublin was increasing its influence and control.

Jim Allister had in 1985, in common with all DUP representatives, identified that Direct Rule was now effectively Dublin Rule. His speeches in the Assembly during this period demonstrate how he viewed Direct Rule under this new arrangement, as not only amounting to greater Dublin involvement but of now being the apparatus of Joint Authority. If Direct Rule had become the vehicle of Joint Authority in 1985 I need not overstate the worsening of the situation by 1998 when additional measures were put in place to strengthen Dublin’s role and authority under the Belfast Agreement…..

The only alternative Jim Allister can offer is disguised Dublin Rule through a London/Dublin Joint Partnership which, in real terms, is what he advocates under the guise of Direct Rule. It means London, acting in league with Dublin and constantly seeking to placate republicans. It leaves London and Dublin taking decisions which affect our futures. This is not a prospect which is good for unionism or for Northern Ireland. Jim Allister once insisted that Direct Rule was in reality Dublin Rule. Now he advocates it.

Politics is about choosing from “a menu of the attainable”. Everyone with a modicum of intelligence and a smidgen of honesty knows what the menu options were which faced the DUP when they inherited the leadership of unionism.

· The first option was to continue the style of devolution where republicans held government office without having to change.

· The second was Dublin Rule through the only form of Direct Rule on offer.

· The third was to negotiate a new form of devolution which forced republicans to dump their weapons, end their terrorism, abandon their criminality, support the police, respect the Courts, abide by the Rule of Law and introduce accountability to the decision making process.

Reg Empey owned the first option. Jim Allister favours the second option. The DUP believe the third option is the safest and best option for unionism and we will use it as a base from which full and normal democratic standards can be delivered.

….We offer a better way. We offer unionism strength and confidence. We have the courage and skill to challenge the republican agenda. We offer direction and engagement in improving the lives and livelihoods of our people. We offer the chance for unionists to make the future better rather than watching while others make it worse.

We offer hope rather than fear.”

Peter Robinson attended a conference entitled “How can devolved government deliver for citizens” and delivered a speech to the launch of the Evolve Public Policy Forum at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Mr Robinson’s speech included proposals by the Democratic Unionist Party to improve devolution in Northern Ireland. The event was also addressed by former Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell.

Peter Robinson stated at the conference that there was ` no need to wait until 2015 to change voting rules and end community designation…….`we should not await an “arbitrary” date.`

“The St Andrews Agreement provides for a review of arrangements by 2015 but we should address problems when they exist and not await an arbitrary date,”

“It is not always going to be possible to reach an accommodation and as a result of our voting system a failure to agree means deadlock – this has been the case on a number of issues,”

“As a consequence of this, new voting arrangements for the Assembly and the Executive will be required,”

“As a moral and practical matter, community designation is fundamentally flawed.

“It is deeply undemocratic, it entrenches community division and hinders the development of normal politics in Northern Ireland and in practice means that the votes of all Assembly members are not equal.”

Mr Robinson acknowledged this was an initial safeguard but said there were other ways to provide community confidence.
He said the DUP was proposing the introduction of weighted majority voting.

“Where a cross-community vote is required by legislation or triggered by a petition of concern, a proposal would require the support of 65% of Assembly members present and voting to pass,” he said.

Mr Robinson said this would mean “that no single political party would have the capacity to block proposals which otherwise could command widespread support”.

A News Letter article quotes Robinson as saying:

“This would increase the relevance of all Assembly members and would encourage cooperation and compromise between the parties,” he added.
Later this month the DUP will publish detailed proposals for developing devolution.

“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,”

Alex Kane the former UUP director of communications and News Letter columnist wrote several pieces calling on Allister to explain the TUV’s viable alternative despite being a sceptic himself.

Let’s be clear about this, there is no way that a British Government will agree to the legislation which would be required to allow the UUP/TUV/DUP/SDLP/Alliance to set up a voluntary coalition which would exclude and isolate the largest nationalist party.

There is no way that Sinn Fein would stay in an Assembly which could find a way of excluding them.

There is no way that the SDLP or Alliance would agree to a deal which embraced Jim Allister and rejected Martin McGuinness…..

All of which brings me back to Jim Allister and the TUV If he does make a significant breakthrough in 2011, it will add a new and potentially interesting dynamic to the process. Often a new dynamic is the best way of effecting change. Now, given the hard-nosed political realities that surround the Assembly and Executive, I think that he would be making a profound tactical error if he built his entire strategy on trying to exclude or emasculate Sinn Fein. Only the electorate can do that.

What he needs to do, therefore, is address the issue of the Assembly’s inherent inadequacies and set out a clear strategy for resolving them. Better that, than setting himself to an anti-Sinn Fein battle that he cannot possibly win.

The blunt fact, Jim, is this: if you get to the Assembly with a TUV grouping then you will have to negotiate with Sinn Fein. So you may as well tackle them on issues where you can make progress. I can understand why you left the DUP and why you created your own party: but you now have a duty to prove that you do have that viable and available alternative. Good luck!

A look at the DUP manifesto`s on their website reveals one contradiction. On the whole their manifestos prefer voluntary coalition but offer mandatory coalition as a temporary solution with the one slip being the Westminster 2005 manifesto which contradicted itself by stating MC as a possibility and then stating:

Inclusive, mandatory coalition government which includes Sinn Fein under d’Hondt or any other system is out of the question. If executive devolution cannot be set up on a satisfactory democratic basis, then the only option is to make Direct Rule more accountable and acceptable. We will work with the Government to provide the maximum accountability in these circumstances and attempt to integrate Northern Ireland more firmly within the United Kingdom……..“We believe a voluntary coalition supported by democratic parties across the community offers the best way forward.”

The DUP released a document entitled “Devolution Now” which Jim Allister endorsed:

Devolution Now took account of the political realities in Northern Ireland declaring that only those who were committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means should exercise any Cabinet-style Ministerial responsibility.The proposals suggested that powers would be devolved to the Assembly and not the government departments as under the Belfast Agreement.The Assembly would be empowered to determine how such power was to be exercised.The document outlined some possible models which could result from such a development.

The administration could either be in the form of an Executive or an arrangement where the Assembly acted as a Corporate Body responsible for decision making in an agreed manner.The Executive could be either a Voluntary Coalition with collective cabinet responsibility or a Mandatory Coalition (involving parties committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means) with arrangements for accountability and effective decision making.

If an Executive could not be formed or if an executive collapsed, powers would be transferred from the Executive/Ministers to the Assembly.The decision making process advocated in the Corporate Assembly Model was not inconsistent with the modus operanda in local government. The DUP declared it would not operate the Mandatory Coalition with Sinn Fein before it met the Blair Necessities but would operate the Voluntary Coalition with parties including the SDLP immediately.The document added,“If the SDLP is unwilling to operate a Voluntary Coalition in the absence of SF then we would be willing to operate the Corporate Assembly Model until either the SDLP agree to operate a Voluntary Coalition or SF/IRA deliver on the Blair Necessities. (Acts of completion, set by the PM requiring the winding up of terrorism.)

And the European Manifesto to which Jim Allister was previously elected said:

“A mandatory coalition to include Sinn Fein is only possible when they are demonstrably committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.”

It added:

”We believe that only when the Blair Necessities have been met can Sinn Fein be entitled to a place in Government. The political process must not be put on hold to await the IRA.”

To finish Sammy Wilson has stated:
“The DUP has made it clear that it does not view a mandatory coalition as ideal but we have put measures in place to review this mechanism. We have reached a fair deal but not our final destination.”

In analysing all that, it is clear there is a consensus among the parties (with the exception being Sinn Fein)on moving to a different system. The problem is how to achieve it. Any move would require British government support and presumably legislation enacted at Westminster and quite possibly Irish government support in order to amend the Good Friday Agreement which is an international agreement. There is no chance of that happening under Labour without the nod from Sinn Fein and TUV`s stated aim of collapsing Stormont and returning to direct rule in the absence of voluntary coalition would have seen a raft of pro-Republican legislation enacted via Westminster by Labour leaving Unionists voiceless. It was devolution that actually stopped several of those pro-republican changes from being enacted at Westminster.

TUV`s third option from their manifesto is stronger local authorities with a corporate body over them, (which presumably includes Sinn Fein)rather similar to the `Super Councils` that would see Northern Ireland split in half between Green and Orange councils.

For me, the TUV policies do not stack up as being realistic. It is idealism and to me detrimental to Unionism. To use an analogy, it is like wanting to buy a mansion but not being able to afford it. The DUP & UUP have decided to buy more modest house and gradually do it up, whereas TUV have decided to sleep in a tent until they can afford the mansion. Most people I believe will take the same opinion as the UUP & DUP and so deciding who to vote for comes down to who you think will have the most influence to enable legislation at Westminster. Will it be the Ulster Unionists due to their linkup with the Tory party or will it be the DUP. At first glance it would probably seem like the UUP are in a very strong position if the tories get into government in tomorrow`s 2010 general election but the DUP could quite likely turn out to be kingmakers in a hung parliament with the tories relying on DUP votes or indeed Labour for that matter since the DUP have not tied themselves down.

The decision is yours as Peter Robinson tells us at the end of the Northern Ireland leaders debate last night.

The other factor to take into account of course is Sinn Fein`s complete turn around.
You can google both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness saying they would never enter a devolved Stormont and calling on those support the police and supplying them with information to be `dealt with`. Yet here they are in Stormont calling on people to work with the police to catch dissident Republican terrorists.

I passed this mural by the 32CSM in Coalisland last week.

This article was originally posted at my Blog.
by Kilsally (Twitter , Facebook)

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