We may well have a new Executive that is barely three months old yet already it has been proven once again why our system of government is simply not up to scratch. Whether it be over school closures, a list of essential and non-essential business or even whether we should follow London or Dublin for Covid-19 advice, it is abundantly clear that the Executive is already irreparably divided. Day after day, First Minister Arlene Foster and her colleague, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill stand on a platform together striving to enforce a pretence of a united front and a ship that sails steadily on her course. However, this ship is not creaking at the sides but letting in water fast. Foster and O’Neill allude to “differences of emphasis” as if it is normal for coalition partners to readily contradict one another. It is not conducive to “unity of purpose” but is merely fine breeding ground for mixed messaging. I pose a simple question: how can we rely on our Executive’s message if its joint leaders cannot agree on that very message to start with?
There are many episodes in this sorry series that bring about more than just mild anxiety but sheer concern. Take for example school closures; one-minute Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are united that schools should not shut immediately and then little more than 24 hours later, Sinn Fein’s Deputy Leader does a screeching U-turn, completely throwing the Executive’s policy up into the air.
The episode that has surely been the most closely watched premiered not on Netflix but rather on BBC’s The View. Mark Carruthers sat down to interview the Deputy First Minister at an important moment in the Covid-19 crisis as the country began the approach to the surge in Coronavirus cases and tragically deaths. I’m sure not even Carruthers got what he expected when O’Neill elected to lash out at Health Minister Robin Swann, accusing him of “slavishly following the Boris Johnson model” when it came to the Covid-19 crisis. When asked if Swann had her confidence to continue as Health Minister, O’Neill gave him less than a ringing endorsement saying, “I think he (Robin Swann) has been too slow to act.” It is hardly constructive or beneficial to wider efforts to combat this deadly virus if Executive colleagues are openly at each other’s throats. It only serves to distract from what the Executive’s core purpose should be: saving lives.
All of this is down a system of government that compels the two biggest parties to form an Executive otherwise there will be no government. In what sane worldview does it become logical to clump unyielding politicians into a room and expect them to work together? It is not the concept of power-sharing that is the problem; it is mandatory coalition. Coercion of any form is always a recipe for disaster, not least when it comes to government formation. The three-year hiatus at Stormont epitomises that very point.
The Good Friday Agreement, the architect of this broken system, was indeed correct to conceive of power-sharing as the sole means of harvesting successful fruit in Northern Irish politics. At the time, the backdrop to events was markedly different to today where Northern Ireland was just vacating a chasm of conflict that had lasted for three decades; it was essential to foster good relations and trust between the parties around the table to create any notion of a durable peace settlement. In other words, mandatory coalition was the only way of accomplishing that aim. Today, with an emerging centre ground in our politics and with a new generation of enthused, political active young people coming through the ranks, mandatory coalition is now ineffectual. This antiquated system should be confined to the dustbin of a bygone age.
For the sceptic among you who may counter, “Well, has voluntary coalition worked elsewhere?” The answer is yes. You need look no further than our neighbours in the Irish Republic where coalitions are nearly always the only viable solution after a general election. If you travel across the Irish Sea to the realm of Westminster, in the not too distant past (2010-2015), the UK got its first coalition administration in more than seven decades when David Cameron’s Conservatives formed a political marriage with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. Now irrespective of your views of that government’s record in office, no-one could fail to agree that it marked a step-change in British politics and heralded, even if temporarily, a new period of co-operation and compromise.
Imagine the progress that Northern Ireland could make as society and a country if our administrations were formed voluntarily akin to the Republic and even occasionally in Great Britain. I know to some the idea of politicians working together voluntarily and under no duress for the greater good of all seems like a crackpot idea but I do have some hope yet. As we have seen through the Good Friday Agreement, issues can only be resolved through co-operation, a collegiate approach and compromise. If we want collective responsibility and harmony to return to our government, we must opt for consensus rather than coercion.
Peter Wilson is a 16-year-old student studying A Levels in Politics, History and Sociology at Belfast Metropolitan College. He is a politics enthusiast with a particular interest in NI politics. He also likes to commentate and blog on politics.