Written evidence submitted by Mr Michael Palmer, relating to the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA0003)
Who I am and Why I Am Submitting Evidence
- I, Michael Palmer, submit evidence to this committee as someone who graduated from a Northern Ireland university in Politics who still follows Northern Ireland politics very closely. I believe I have expert and experienced knowledge of Northern Ireland politics to try to help this committee in its investigation.
- I support the Belfast Agreement and want to see it reformed to achieve a more effective and stable government for Northern Ireland, so I am very interested in the committee’s investigation of: how the institutions established under the Agreement might be reformed to address the challenges facing Northern Ireland today; and what mechanisms could be used to initiate any changes to the institutions of the Agreement.
- I am unionist, gay, atheist and was born in the early 1990s. I have no experience of the Troubles. My family is originally from Belfast, though, my mother moved to Newtownards to get away from the Troubles that was happening in Belfast at the time. My grandmother survived the 1971 Red Lion pub bombing in Belfast by the IRA. My family is non-political. I have lived in Newtownards in Northern Ireland all my life.
Problems and Solutions to them
- Nomination of First Minister and Deputy First Minister: This was changed in the St Andrews Agreement 2006 in negotiations with Northern Ireland’s major parties between the UK and Irish governments to “The nominating officer of the largest political party of the largest political designation shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the First Minister” and “The nominating officer of the largest political party of the second largest political designation shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”
- This should be changed back to what was agreed in the Belfast Agreement and supported by referendum: “15. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister shall be jointly elected into office by the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis, according to 5(d)(i) above” as per the original text of the Belfast Agreement under the heading “Executive Authority”.
- As of the May 2022 election, there are 37 unionists, 35 nationalists and 18 Other by designation. It only makes sense democratically by designation that the First Minister should come from the largest designation and the Deputy First Minister should come from the second-largest designation.
- Joint First Ministers: As the First Minister and Deputy First Minister hold equal power, they should also be equal by name of their title. Understandably, there is a public perception that the First Minister is more powerful than the Deputy First Minister, even if only symbolically. This perception manifests significantly at Assembly elections, which affects voting intention when there is no difference in power between the two roles. There is also ambiguity in whether the second title should be spelt ‘deputy First Minister’ to emphasise the postholder is a First Minister or ‘Deputy First Minister’ which implies it is a separate position and of lower rank. Similar to having a Leader and Deputy Leader in a political party.
- Therefore, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should both be formally called ‘Joint First Minister’. Informally, if this change happens, they might be referred both as ‘First Minister’ for short which would still be correct as there are two First Ministers in practice and this would still reflect the power of their position.
- Mandatory Coalition: The current system of mandatory coalition does not produce effective government. Instead, there should ideally be voluntary coalition with necessary power-sharing safeguards to command cross-community participation, confidence and support in line with the Belfast Agreement. This means parties willing to form a power-sharing government that reflects the two main communities and potentially Other communities should be allowed to do so subject to agreeing and implementing a Programme for Government backed by a budget like in a typical Western democracy for the full governing term. This would promote stability and continuity in our institutions that would allow for both the public and private sectors to plan their services upon.
- I recognise the timing and political context of ending mandatory coalition would be controversial. If it were done now, it would be seen politically as a move to bypass the DUP’s current protest to the Northern Ireland Protocol. This would lower unionism’s confidence in the institutions and it could be seen as undemocratic as the DUP is the largest unionist party of the unionist designation. It would also raise the question as to why mandatory coalition was not ended whenever Sinn Fein similarly protested over the issue of an Irish Language Act for much longer than the DUP’s current protest.
- Therefore, any ending to mandatory coalition would need to be done at a political time where it would be seen as politically neutral to ensure good government for both communities and not to undermine participation, confidence and support in the government institutions.
- Thought would also need to be given to what a voluntary coalition would look like. As there are 90 MLAs, it would be assumed a majority government would need at least 46 MLAs to vote for government legislation in the Assembly. A minority government would likely struggle to a standstill, especially under the unique cross-community mechanisms of the Assembly that would be used to block its programme of legislation if there is not consent, perpetuating continual gridlock.
- A majority government would also have to have cross-community participation and support of the two main communities. It would be unacceptable for any government to be seen to be excluding either community under the principles of power-sharing as agreed in the Belfast Agreement, which is Northern Ireland’s foundation for government.
- Petition of Concern: New Decade, New Approach 2020 saw reforms to the petition of concern. It is often said the original purpose of the petition of concern is to protect one of the main communities from decisions the other may make. However, nowhere can I find – not even in the Belfast Agreement – what exact subject matter these decisions relate to. It seems to be open to general interpretation.
- I believe it would be helpful in order to prevent gridlock in the Assembly if the parties could agree on subject matters and topics where a petition of concern could be used to protect one community or the other. This might be difficult to do as even bread-and-butter issues can become orange-and-green issues in Northern Ireland.
- Consent Principle: The consent principle is at the heart of the Belfast Agreement. However, there is no clear consensus on what consent is, how it is defined and what it even means or relates to. This is a constant stumbling block in Northern Ireland politics which we are seeing being played out in the protocol issue.
- What is clear is that there are different versions of consent and it should be made clear in the governance of Northern Ireland what version of consent is being adhered to so that all parties are on the same page, if this is politically possible to agree.
- I hope these five problems and solutions to them are considered in the committee’s investigation of how the institutions established under the Agreement might be reformed to address the challenges facing Northern Ireland today; and what mechanisms could be used to initiate any changes to the institutions of the Agreement.
- As a Politics Graduate, I want to see a return to devolution that is stable and effective in delivering good government for Northern Ireland. Nationalists do not want direct rule and unionists do not want joint authority. Devolution is the only system of government we can agree on and I wish the committee the best of luck on agreeing recommendations that can see better government for Northern Ireland.