Since 1998 there has been extensive debate over the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. The pros and cons of mandatory coalition, the petition of concern and co-options have been widely discussed and examined, however there is one important aspect of these institutions that has not faced significant criticism to date, namely the designations system and the use of cross-community voting.
After an Assembly election, MLAs must designate themselves as ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist,’ if they select anything other than these two then they will be counted as ‘other.’ For example, Alliance MLAs designate as ‘United Community,’ while the three MLAs for the Green Party and People Before Profit elected in 2017 designated as ‘European,’ ‘feminist’ and ‘socialist,’ but all are counted as simply ‘other.’ This is not just a formality, it has significant implications for the running of the Assembly, due to cross-community votes. Cross-community votes can either be through Parallel Consent (50% of all MLAs plus 50% of unionists and 50% of nationalists) or Weighted Majority (60% of all MLAs plus 40% of unionists and 40% of nationalists). Cross-community votes are used to elect the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, as well as the Justice Minister, but they can be applied to any vote if thirty MLAs sign a petition of concern.
This sort of communal veto is a key part of the system of power-sharing known as consociationalism, which the Northern Ireland Assembly operates in. The intention is understandable, to ensure that one community does not force its views on the other, which was obviously the case in the unionist-dominated Northern Ireland Parliament from 1921 to 1972. However, the problem with these designations is that they reinforce the existing ethno-national divisions within Northern Ireland, instead of trying to overcome them. They disproportionately impact on those parties who want to represent everyone rather than just one side of the community by making their votes count for less, such as Alliance, the Greens, People Before Profit and previously the Women’s Coalition, undermining a key aspect of representative democracy as the votes of each individual MLA are not equal to one another. It prevents any realignment of politics towards the typical left-right socio-economic divisions in most democracies, which should have been the intention of our political system since 1998. It also ignores the diversity of groups within Northern Ireland by assuming that only unionists and nationalists are the only groups worthy of special representation. For example there has only ever been one MLA from an ethnic minority background, and only two MLAs from the LGBT+ community, which is disappointing when compared to Westminster or the Oireachtas.
Another problem with community designations and cross-community voting is that they effectively provide a veto to only one unionist and one nationalist party, rather than the unionist and nationalist designations as a whole. For example, the DUP currently holds 27 of the 40 unionist seats in the Assembly (excluding Jim Wells who no longer takes the DUP whip), which is 67.5%, and Sinn Féin holds 26 of the 39 nationalist seats (excluding Alex Maskey as the Speaker), or 66.7%. Therefore, either the DUP or Sinn Féin can veto any legislation by themselves under a cross-community vote even if every other party votes against them, even though they each hold less than a third of Assembly seats. A good example of when this became a problem was in 2001, when the First Minister and deputy First Minister had to be elected by a cross-community vote (this was changed by the DUP and Sinn Féin through the St. Andrew’s Agreement). 70% of MLAs supported David Trimble and Mark Durkan, but 30 unionists voted against them compared to 29 in favour. Because of this, Alliance MLAs had to save the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions by briefly designating at unionists, again highlighting the unfairness of this system towards ‘other’ parties.
It is likely that the use of designations and cross-community voting will become increasingly unstable in the future. In the current Assembly, there are 40 unionist MLAs, 39 nationalist MLAs and 11 others. Since 2017 we have seen an unprecedented surge in support for cross-community parties, especially Alliance but also the Greens and People Before Profit. Here is a perspective of how things have changed over the last three years:
The percentage vote for unionist and nationalist parties has remained roughly the same as before, with unionists on just over 40% and nationalists just under 40%. In terms of specific parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin did particularly well in the 2017 general election, but the three elections in 2019 saw a significant decline for the four main unionist and nationalist parties, while Alliance had their two best elections to date, with Naomi Long becoming their first MEP and Stephen Farry becoming their second elected MP.
While it is impossible to predict how the next Assembly election (scheduled for May 2022) will go, it is fair to predict that there will be significantly more cross-community MLAs from Alliance and other parties. One prediction based on the 2019 general election is that in the next Assembly there could be 20 MLAs who designate as ‘other,’ as well as 37 unionists and 33 nationalists. Therefore, while it is easy to ignore the problems of cross-community voting when there is only a few ‘other’ MLAs, if nearly 25% of MLAs are designating as neither unionist or nationalist then their use will become increasingly untenable.
So, what is the solution? Community designations should be abolished, and cross-community votes should be replaced with weighted majority vote system, either a 60% majority or a two-thirds majority for key decisions. This would ensure that MLAs who designate as ‘other’ would have an equal say to unionists and nationalists in all votes and would help in the development towards a more normal form of politics that exists in most democracies. It would also remove one-party vetoes that currently exist for the DUP and Sinn Féin, for example if a two-thirds weighted majority applied to the current Assembly, then something which is supported by all of the parties apart from the DUP could pass, as that would be 70% of MLAs, similarly something supported by every party other than Sinn Féin could pass as that would be 71.1% of MLAs.
There has never been any serious attempt at reforming the system of designations and cross-community voting, despite Alliance and other cross-community parties raising the need for change on various occasions over the last twenty years. If reform is not achieved in this Assembly term then it will become increasingly prevalent in the future as more people vote for parties which represent everyone in the community.
Jack Armstrong is a 24-year-old Alliance Party activist and PhD student at Queen's University Belfast, researching elections in Northern Ireland. He previously studied law at Queen's and Trinity College Dublin.