Constitutional report provides hope for Northern Ireland…

A new report published by the Institute for Government and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy sheds light on the current democratic deficit and provides hope for a solution to Stormont’s collapse.

The paper is titled, ‘Constitutional change in Northern Ireland’, and is packed to the rafters with ideas and proposals from many of the UK’s foremost constitutional experts. However, in its conclusions, its lead author, Lisa Claire Whitten, cautions that the paper offers no ‘panacea’ for the Northern Ireland constitution but rather tries to understand the governing arrangements as they currently exist, and aims to,

‘draw attention to some of the shortcomings in its contemporary constitutional architecture, and on this basis to propose a series of relatively modest measures that could be used to address them.’

So, what are these ‘modest measures’ and how could they be implemented?

These are big questions so it is best to address the ‘modest measures’ first and then consider how they might be implemented. The first proposal would basically change the ‘cross-community’ voting to a system of weighted or parallel majority voting to address the growth of the third, or ‘neither’, designation, as opposed to the current bi-lateral nationalist and unionist designations.

The second proposal would be to reform the nomination process for first and deputy first ministers to reinstate something close to the original 1998 ‘agreed-derived system’. This could be part of the new weighted or parallel majority voting ‘across all three political communities’. The third proposal would be to transfer more powers to councils to address the democratic deficit that occurs when the NI Executive collapses or the NI Assembly is not sitting. With a few minor exceptions, our councils are more than capable of taking on additional responsibility.

The next proposal to preserve and expand Northern Ireland stakeholder engagement is worthy of further inspection. Although, it would be an injustice to this thoroughly researched paper to try and explain all its proposals in this one article. This final proposal involves the creation of new mechanisms to encourage business and civil society to participate in the decision-making process in Northern Ireland. This could also compliment the new Windsor Framework processes.

However, we first need to understand the current ‘dire-straits’ of political participation across these islands. It should be noted that a new OECD survey shows that only 23% of people in the UK believe their voice matters in our political system.

Ireland fairs slightly better at 45%, which is higher than the OECD average, but both percentages are relatively low and indicate a general lack of political empowerment. The graph below also indicates that there is a greater gap between people’s confidence in their ability to participate in politics and whether they think the political system allows them in the UK, when compared to Ireland.

The ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system and the dominance of two main UK parties may be a contributing factor in this divergence. However, in Northern Ireland, a lack of participation in politics is reflected in the low voter turnout in both council and assembly elections. In May’s council elections the overall voter turnout was only just above 50%.

This sense of disengagement is not unique to Northern Ireland but we have the unique opportunity to do something about it through the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and St Andrews agreement. The GFA makes allowance for a consultative Civic Forum to comprise of business, trade union and voluntary sectors, and the St Andrews agreement included a consultative forum with representatives of civil society.

In principle, a new civic forum could be created specifically to consider the type of institutional reforms described in this new report. The body would comprise of a carefully selected cross-section of citizens and come together to make policy recommendations. Imagine, in the future, if Northern Ireland exceeded both GB and Ireland in civic engagement and participation.

But the major difficulty in constituting a new Civic Forum or Civic Assembly is that there is no sitting executive or first and deputy first ministers and, secondly, there is a risk that the north’s two largest parties, DUP and Sinn Féin, might not support a new forum due to the electoral advantages gained through the more recent St Andrews agreement.

Nevertheless, during the ‘New Decade New Approach’ negotiations major roadblocks were overcome so ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ Afterall, it is unbelievable that any political party would want to take us down a scorched-earth policy over the Windsor Framework.

Ultimately the final line of the new report provides a clue as to how these reforms to Stormont could be implemented. This sentence highlights the importance of ensuring that the ‘UK’s most exceptional constitutional case is given due consideration and accommodation in any efforts to review or reform the fundamental arrangements of the state.’

This could be interpreted as a request to both our Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, and his Irish counterpart, Micheál Martin, to, firstly, knowledge that Northern Ireland is an exceptional case, then to get involved, and if agreement can’t be reached with the Northern Irish political parties through negotiation, then let the people have a say through a newly created civic forum.

‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’.

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