The current pandemic has seen Northern Ireland’s political parties come together like never before. The five main parties have in recent weeks shown unity around the issues that have arisen because of this deadly virus. For many of us, that is what we will have wanted to see for a long time. It is perhaps sadly ironic that it has taken a lethal pandemic which threatens our way of life and literally our lives to genuinely bring our representatives together. It is more than any visible adversary or enemy could ever do. For once, the political parties are not divided over the granular, minute details of issues but are working constructively for the good of all. Of course, in another moment of mad irony, this unity and togetherness in itself highlights a fundamental problem that has plagued our political system since its creation.
In 1998, Northern Ireland opted for a political system which embedded power-sharing into Northern Ireland’s governance. This system is also known as 'consociationalism' which has been used in many states that have experienced seismic problems with internal divisions along ethnic, linguistic, or as in our case, religious lines. The overarching objective in this format of governance is to encourage as many of the parties who have a direct share in a region or a state to co-operate in seeking to find shared aims for that place and to understand one another’s perspectives and viewpoints on issues. Here, this system has had a reasonable degree of success and we can put the relative peace and stability that we have here in Northern Ireland today partly down to that.
Of course, while Northern Ireland’s partial success with this system has paid dividends in some respects and has resolved some problems, it has unintentionally created others. It is inevitable that when you encourage as many parties as possible to form a government together, you end theoretically creating administrations which are bureaucratic and cumbersome. In any coalition, trade-offs and compromises are required but having five parties with differing ideologies around the table can sometimes be a recipe for confusion and indecision. Furthermore, with Sinn Fein, the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP and Alliance all in the current Executive, that gives an effective majority in the Assembly of 75. This monopoly over the chamber’s unofficial and small Opposition of 7 MLAs is a bad pill for democracy. Although there may be official Opposition provisions in the Assembly’s Standing Orders, we haven’t seen it in action long enough to assess and evaluate its effectiveness. While an inclusive Executive is vital, it is no substitute for a probing Opposition that can hold the government of the day to account.
I have previously on this site argued for the introduction of voluntary coalition in order to encourage true co-operation amongst our political parties. On that basis, I also advocate for a stronger and more effective Opposition. In Northern Ireland, we so often complain about being different to other democracies; that isn’t a bad thing necessarily if you take into account the need for special measures in certain areas to accommodate our special and unique circumstances. However, that needs to be balanced against the need to move beyond living in an era of somewhat 'false' peace. It is imperative that we adopt the practices and conventions of fellow democracies in having 'winners' and 'losers' at elections to some extent. We should ultimately seek out a stable, competent Executive and a strong, effective Opposition.
Some may scoff at this suggestion but people should not underestimate the transformative changes this would bring about. Removing the monopoly the Executive currently holds in the Assembly would instead create a situation where the Executive and Opposition must truly and meaningfully collaborate and work together. Thus, real compromise is extracted and real democracy is developed and thrives.
Others will point to the practical difficulties of implementing such a system. Is there the appetite amongst the Assembly parties for such wholesale changes to the established practices and conventions? Is there the willpower to overcome any obstacles or difficulties that might be encountered along the way? Will the changes that seem so straightforward in theory even be as effective in practice? The answer is that with any untested, experimental or different approach, there may always be difficulties, opposition and concern. However, if the will is there and people are honest with themselves, then anything is possible. Can we really carry on without reforming a system that was designed for 1998 and not 2020 where there is an emerging desire for greater compromise and co-operation from all sides? We have achieved gargantuan change in Northern Ireland before and, in comparison to the tasks that were faced in years gone back, the challenge that I have laid down really doesn’t seem all that laborious.
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.