We believe that Northern Ireland deserves a functioning, stable Assembly. Local decision-making, which shapes and delivers services in a way which takes account of local circumstances whilst being accountable at the local level, is vital in order to build confidence in our political system. Moreover, it provides a framework to manage and reconcile our political and societal divisions.
It is unacceptable that we are now approaching three years without a functioning Assembly. Our public services are in crisis with long overdue reforms further delayed, and our economy is increasingly stagnating. We continue to hit roadblock after roadblock where legislative change and Ministerial sign-off is required, and the public have had enough.
As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the two governments should:
- Publish a paper on their best assessment of consensus, based on the most recent talks process, and challenge parties to engage.
- Appoint an independent mediator to convene urgent, multi-party talks in order to create political space for agreement and repair political relationships. These talks should be time-limited with a clear focus on accepting, amending or rejecting the governments’ paper. In parallel, the following measures could help clear the deadlock:
- The Secretary of State should consider taking contentious issues – such as the Irish Language and Petition of Concern reform – off the table by legislating in Westminster if necessary. Petition of Concern reform should be taken forward in this way as it must be in place for a restored Assembly, rather than risk it being kicked into the long grass.
- A new Civic Forum should be formed, comprised of a combination of local politicians (33%) and a group of citizens (66%) drawn at random from the electoral register, which would hold a series of debates and evidence-based discussions focused on the restoration of the institutions.
- We also note that the period for forming an Executive under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 will expire on 13th January 2020 and believe that this must lead to fresh elections within a reasonable timeframe, unless an Executive has been formed.
- If those elections fail to deliver a new Executive within the two-week period, we believe that alternative arrangements for governing Northern Ireland, consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, should be introduced to end the drift and decline in public services and decision-making.
Governance and Transparency
For too long, investment in public services and the economy has been held back as a result of an almost complete failure of leadership over crucial issues and the breakdown of functioning relationships between the two leading political parties within the Executive. It is clear that things must be done differently at Stormont.
The public deserve better – we should no longer accept the status quo. The current stagnation is stifling social cohesion, damaging communities and the prospects of our young people. Politics must work for the entire community. Stormont needs a reboot.
The major weaknesses of the current system have been exposed by the current political deadlock. A system whereby the two largest parties are able to veto the creation of a cross-community government further reinforces the need for reform to permit a voluntary coalition to proceed. In our current deadlock, this could allow devolved government to continue and avoid the imposition of ‘Direct Rule’.
Alliance has suggested a number of ways to secure a better functioning and more stable political system for Northern Ireland. These include:
- Ending the process of community designation in the Assembly and replacing it with a requirement for weighted majorities on defined key votes or in situations where a reformed Petition of Concern has been invoked.
- Urgent and meaningful reform of the Petition of Concern system. It should be used in narrow circumstances in line with its original purpose as envisaged in the Northern Ireland Act.
- Creating a coalition decided through voluntary negotiation between parties and subject to a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Collective responsibility must apply.
- Facilitating an effective opposition made up of parties who do not wish to enter the Executive. This opposition would be accorded additional rights to help them fulfil this role.
- Re-naming of the First Minister and deputy First Minister as “Joint First Ministers”. This would end what has become a potentially polarising contest over which party has a claim to First Minister and which party is “relegated” to deputy First Minister. The Executive Office should remain a joint office, in name and practice.
- Requiring greater co-operation between Ministers, including working together to agreed aims under law.
- Requiring all Executive policies to be ‘shared future-proofed’ to ensure that all major decisions support a united society rather than continuing or enhancing division.
- Modifying the exclusion mechanisms to more clearly define the highest standards of integrity with respect to the rule of law for parties holding office, and to prevent any party being able to veto sanctions against themselves.
- Revitalising the North-South and East-West bodies under strands two and three of the Good Friday Agreement in order to strengthen relationships across the UK and Ireland particularly but not exclusively in the context of Brexit.
These changes would allow us not only to have a cross-community government, but also one in which stalemate between parties does not either collapse the political institutions or prevent progress on economic or social issues.
A Changing Constitution
As the experience of the last Parliament has illustrated, the UK constitution needs to be strengthened. We cannot continue to rely on conventions to safeguard democracy and provide checks on executive power.
We believe there is an opportunity to move to a more sustainable and durable constitutional settlement which supports devolution. We would:
- Support a UK-wide constitutional convention to develop a fully codified constitution. This should explicitly deal with the democratic deficit in England following devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as taking in wider issues, such as reform of the House of Lords.
- Retain a funding formula for Northern Ireland that properly reflects the structural problems in our economy and society, and adequately reflects local circumstances and needs.
Our Democratic Principles at Westminster
Whilst our focus as Northern Ireland MPs will be primarily on Northern Ireland, there are many issues that have indirect impacts on devolved matters. For example, there are often complexities in deciding which areas are affected by a bill, there can also be a financial impact on Northern Ireland from funding decisions concerning England, and there are also general principles debated in Westminster and precedents set which affect how Northern Ireland develops its own policy and legislative approaches to certain issues. Alliance MPs will be consistent in their approach to all these issues: just as Alliance stands for openness, honesty and fairness in Stormont, we will continue to do so in Westminster.
We want to make democracy fairer and more transparent. We will continue to support:
- Making donations to political parties in Northern Ireland more transparent. Changes brought by Naomi Long in November 2013 ensured that all political donations were recorded from January 2014 onwards. However, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland chose only to publish those from July 2017 onwards, so we still have a period of secrecy, which needs to be addressed.
- A fairer electoral system for elections to the House of Commons. Our preferred system is multi-member Single Transferrable Vote, the system we use for all other elections in Northern Ireland.
- Amending the 2014 Lobbying Act to ease restrictions on campaigning activities by affected organisations and to implement a comprehensive lobbying register.
- Votes at 16 for all elections and referendums.
- Votes for EU citizens in all elections and referendums.
- A directly electioned House of Lords. Elected representatives could be elected by proportional representation from the 12 regions of the UK, including Northern Ireland and would serve one or at most two longer terms to avoid party politicisation of the roll.