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Is Northern Ireland a political sinking ship?

Adam McCartan

If you have been looking at the news recently, no doubt you would have noticed that Northern Ireland has been in it once again. What for this time? You might sigh to yourself.

Well, once again it’s surrounding the Stormont Executive, dangerous political tactics from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - which frankly puts US filibustering to shame - and general political dysfunction which has become an unfortunate hallmark of Northern Irish Politics.

So where to begin? Let’s start our dissection of Northern Irish political troubles at the epicentre of it all - the confusing mess of party politics. Anyone not from Northern Ireland may decide to roll their eyes at this statement, scoffing that all party politics, no matter where, are a mess and, while yes, party politics by nature are divisive and can definitely be messy, Northern Irish parties take the cake in this regard.

Unlike in the rest of the UK, the Northern Irish Assembly elects its members through the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, a form of proportional representation. In this system, instead of a single vote for the preferred candidate as you might be familiar with, voters rank their preferred candidates in numerical and preferred order. This system, while highly democratic, means that the Stormont Assembly is - to put it mildly - less than stable. For emphasis, out of the last six years, Northern Ireland has had a functioning executive for TWO of them! Honestly it’s ridiculous and what’s more a slap in the face is that all those elective MLAs who can’t fulfil their elected duty continue to draw their pay for that role! Despite the need to work together as a result of our electoral system, parties in Northern Ireland, with some exceptions, generally operate through the lens of crude identity politics.

Such focus on identity politics leads us smoothly into our next point, the dangerous filibustering of the whole Stormont assembly by the DUP. In the introduction I mentioned filibustering, a political tactic usually associated with Congress in the US, and it seems anathema to UK politics - well not in N.I.

Here, the filibuster has become a dangerous tool of protest, and unlike in the US where it is used to stall the passage of legislation and appointments, it has been used by the DUP and Sinn Fein to torpedo the entire devolved assembly and government.

Most recently, the DUP has fired this political torpedo in protest against the UK and EU’s agreed border framework, essentially placing the customs border in the Irish Sea, where in May 2022, although 72% of MLAs present and voting supported the election of a Speaker, ‘cross-community support’ (the term used to describe what is essentially agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein over certain key issues) was not achieved due to DUP opposition. DUP MLAs constitute just 28% of the Assembly yet were able to veto the election of a Speaker and, therefore, torpedo the Assembly itself functioning. The same situation would also arise should Sinn Fein withhold support on these key votes.

Being a unionist party, the DUP has objected to the whole idea fearing that it makes them ‘less British’ and puts the future of Northern Ireland as part of the union in doubt. As a unionist myself (by choice rather than heritage), I feel that the DUP’s dangerous brinkmanship and filibustering does more harm to the unionist cause than good. In fact, it is a grave threat to the peace enjoyed in Northern Ireland since 1989! The shutting down of the devolved government in Stormont means that legislation and the running of N.I returns to a remote Westminster. A dangerous reality that could be exploited by dissident republicans to once again reignite the embers of violence that were quenched by the Good Friday Agreement.

So where does all this leave us? And what can be done to change the stagnant and recurring themes of Northern Irish politics?

The answer, I think, lies with the Alliance party.

Alliance does not define itself as either a unionist or nationalist party, but rather a cross-community party. While this seems like a normal idea, it has not yet caught on in N.I, where identity politics around one’s community still dominate how you vote. Becoming the third largest party in the devolved elections in N.I back in May 2022, Alliance represents a possible move to a less divisive and identity based political culture. They champion integrated education, NHS reform, and, most crucially, reform of how the devolved government in Northern Ireland functions.

Their suggested key reforms for the immediate term revolve around removing the political torpedo of the filibuster from the political arsenal by changing how the nomination of First and Deputy-First Ministers works, replacement of ‘cross-community support’ in favour of weighted majority voting and changing how the executive itself functions. These key reforms would permanently remove the DUP and Sinn Fein’s ability to veto the formation of the Executive and Assembly, and their ability to hold it to ransom whilst in session! Numerous examples exist in recent years to prove the necessity of these changes, the aforementioned two of six years of a functioning government for one.

The Alliance party, and its suggested reforms are key to removing the blight of ransom politics from Northern Ireland and, until that is achieved, the political dysfunction and constant fire-fighting will continue

Image: Electoral Reform Society

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