Written evidence submitted by Dr Sean Haughey, relating to the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement inquiry (GFA0049)

 

NB: This submission replaces an earlier submission sent to the committee in December 2022. 

 

Dr Sean Haughey is Lecturer in Politics at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. He co-directed a research project from 2021-2022 on public attitudes to institutional reform in Northern Ireland. The project brought together a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population to explore, via a deliberative forum/citizens’ assembly, attitudes towards (i) the current model of devolution and, (ii) possible alternatives to the current model. He is author of a forthcoming book, The Northern Ireland Assembly: Reputations and Realities (Routledge 2023), which examines the performance of the Assembly in fulfilling core parliamentary functions, and is co-author of a report on public opinion and devolution in Northern Ireland.

 

This submission notes that the strand one institutions are capable of performing some of the functions expected of a devolved administration. It also notes, however, that they have fallen short of delivering stable devolved government, and that this instability has trapped devolution in a cycle of stunted growth. It notes that, strictly speaking, the institutional status quo does not work against the representation of those who identify as neither nationalist nor unionist, but points to other disadvantages. A number of institutional reforms are outlined, ranging from the (relatively) moderate to the more ambitious. Crucially, the submission argues that inclusive and extensive public consultation should be the first step in any institutional reform process. Previous institutional reforms, negotiated by party leaders behind closed doors, have had unintended consequences. Research indicates that whilst the public are disillusioned with ‘mandatory coalition’, they do not feel sufficiently informed about possible alternatives. If Northern Ireland is to transition towards a new model of devolved government, it is therefore crucial that opportunities for civic input are created as part of that process.

 

 

The extent to which the design of the strand one institutions has succeeded in enabling cross-community government in Northern Ireland

  1. The devolved institutions have strong cross-community credentials insofar as they promote inclusivity in the Assembly and in the Executive. MLAs are elected in large multi-member constituencies using Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV). The threshold to achieve election is relatively low (the Droop quota is 16.7%), which can create politically diverse Assembly constituencies. Consider North Antrim, for example, where the five seats are currently held by five different political parties representing all three blocs (unionist, nationalist and ‘Other’). In the Executive, a government cannot form without the participation of two blocs in the Executive Office: a party in one bloc nominates the First Minister (FM) and a party in another bloc nominates the deputy First Minister (dFM). The remaining portfolios are shared amongst political parties on a proportional basis using the d’Hondt formula. These procedures create an inclusive cross-community Executive in which (most)[1] portfolios are shared out on a fair and proportional basis.

The extent to which the design of the strand one institutions has succeeded in enabling effective government in Northern Ireland

  1. What constitutes ‘effective government’ is open to interpretation. One approach is to evaluate governments based on their output, i.e. their delivery of a public policy or legislative programme. Whilst the number of bills passed is only a rough proxy of legislative productivity, it is worth pointing out that when Northern Ireland’s institutions are able to function they do not underperform in this regard compared to their devolved counterparts. From 2011 to 2016, for example, the Assembly passed a total of 67 bills, whereas the National Assembly for Wales (as it was then known) passed 28 bills and the Scottish Parliament passed 79.[2] During the 2007-2011 period, the Assembly was the most legislatively productive devolved legislature in the UK. More recently, the Assembly passed 45 bills in the course of two years (2020-2022), whereas the Scottish Parliament passed 87 bills in the course of five years (2016-2022).

 

  1. The Assembly is also becoming a more confident, policy-active legislature. The number of Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) is increasing with each mandate, and the most recent Assembly (2020-2022) witnessed more PMBs passed since the institutions were established. The last mandate also witnessed some particularly good examples of cooperation between Executive departments and statutory committees in the scrutiny and amendment of government bills. Therefore, before the collapse of the institutions, there were signs that the Assembly was maturing into a serious law-making role.[3]

 

  1. Within the Executive, there is clearly a trade-off between inclusivity and effectiveness. Parties enter the Executive automatically, having met the d’Hondt threshold, rather than having negotiated their membership with other parties. Whilst this maximally inclusive approach spares Northern Ireland from lengthy post-election negotiations, it can make for disparate coalitions. Generally speaking, the greater the number of parties in coalition, the more difficult it is to govern in a cohesive fashion. Northern Ireland usually has large coalitions comprised of four to five parties, so the challenge in this regard is obvious. Ministerial solo-runs were symptomatic of a lack of joined-up government in the early years of devolution, but have become less of a problem since reforms were agreed at St Andrews (2006) requiring ministers to seek full Executive approval for cross-cutting or controversial decisions.

 

  1. Nonetheless, coalitions in Northern Ireland have remained fractious and unwieldy. The early months of the Covid-19 pandemic illustrate that large multi-party coalitions in Northern Ireland are capable of working cohesively and cooperatively. In June 2020, for example, two-thirds of the population agreed that the Executive was handling the pandemic well.[4] Yet, even against the backdrop of a public health emergency, this sense of cooperative and collective working could not be maintained in the medium term. As the end of 2020 approached, ministers disagreed openly about the necessity of public health restrictions, much to the dismay of the Northern Ireland public. On at least two occasions, attempts by the Health Minister to introduce public health restrictions were blocked by the DUP, whose ministers deployed a cross-community veto in the Executive. This episode was particularly damaging to the reputation of the devolved institutions.

 

  1. Public opinion research co-directed by this author in the autumn of 2021 revealed that only 7% of people in Northern Ireland agreed that ‘the Executive functions well as a government’, with 70% disagreeing. Similarly, only 7% agreed that ‘there is good cooperation between ministers in the Executive’, with 62% disagreeing.[5] A deliberative forum held in March 2022 explored public perceptions of the devolved institutions in greater depth. An absence of cooperation and cohesion within the Executive was one of the three most common complaints articulated by participants (the other two being Executive instability and a perceived dominance of ‘orange and green’ issues).[6] It would be fair to say, therefore, that citizens notice and disapprove of the lack of cohesion within large multi-party coalitions in Northern Ireland.

 

  1. Smaller coalitions are possible under the current system. The DUP and Sinn Féin, for example, formed a two-party coalition during the fifth Assembly (2016-2017). Until that coalition was engulfed by a scandal several years in the making, it did operate in a more cohesive and coordinated fashion compared to its larger, multi-party, predecessors. Indeed, ministers of that two-party coalition boasted of a unified Executive that was working with common purpose. The smaller parties are not obligated to participate in the Executive, thus large and unwieldy coalitions are not guaranteed by the current model of devolution. Large and unwieldy coalitions are, however, probable, because d’Hondt incentivises parties to join the Executive.

 

The extent to which the design of the strand one institutions has succeeded in enabling stable government in Northern Ireland

  1. The decade of devolution from 2007 to 2017, during which the institutions functioned without suspension, illustrates that relatively stable government is possible under the current model of devolution. Even this period, however, was not without serious crises. Sinn Féin boycotted the Executive for five months in 2008, for example, and in 2015 the DUP repeatedly resigned (and then reappointed) its ministers.

 

  1. In light of the fact that Northern Ireland has had functioning institutions for only two of the past six years, it would be difficult to make the case that the strand one institutions have delivered stable government. The system as it is currently constituted effectively provides one political party (Sinn Féin in 2017, for example, or the DUP in 2022) with a veto over government formation.

Whether the strand one institutions have enabled those who identify as neither unionist nor nationalist to be effectively represented

  1. In terms of descriptive representation in the Assembly, the current model of devolution does not work against the representation of the ‘Others’ (i.e. those who identify as neither nationalist nor unionist). PR-STV makes no distinction in this regard and, as it happens, the Alliance Party (the main representative of the Others) has benefitted from deviations in proportionality. In 2022, for example, the Alliance Party captured 13.5% of the popular vote but won 18.8% of Assembly seats.

 

  1. In terms of descriptive representation in the Executive, Others are fairly represented in that portfolios are allocated on a proportional basis using d’Hondt. Indeed, the bespoke (non-d’Hondt) procedure used for appointing the Justice Minister has meant that the Others have at times been over-represented in the Executive. During the fourth Assembly (2011-16), for example, the Other designation accounted for 8% of Assembly seats but accounted for 15% of ministers in the Executive. This situation arose because the Alliance Party nominee for the Justice portfolio was the only one to secure cross-community endorsement, and thus the party was able to secure this additional portfolio in the Executive. The UUP and SDLP had won more seats than Alliance in the Assembly but were allocated fewer portfolios in the Executive. 

 

  1. A situation could arise in which the Alliance Party is not entitled to nominate the dFM despite emerging as the second largest party in the Assembly. All else being equal, had Alliance taken five more seats from the DUP at the last election – leaving Alliance on 22 seats and the DUP on 20 – Alliance would not have been entitled to nominate the dFM. The DUP would have fewer seats than Alliance in this scenario, however it would still be in the larger bloc/designation and, as such, be entitled to nominate the dFM. Citizens in Northern Ireland, particularly those who identify as Other, would likely question the democratic credentials of the system if such a scenario were to arise. The largest party is always entitled to nominate the FM, however it is not necessarily the case that the second largest party will be entitled to nominate the dFM.  

 

  1. MLAs designated as Other are disadvantaged by cross-community consent procedures. It is undisputable that the votes of Other MLAs count for less than the votes of nationalist and unionist MLAs when ‘key’ matters are decided (e.g. the election of Speaker). In that regard, citizens who identify as neither nationalist nor unionist could justifiably argue that their preferences are not fairly represented in key decisions.

How the institutions established under the Agreement might be reformed to address the challenges facing Northern Ireland today

  1. At a minimum, action needs to be taken to ensure the survival of the Assembly and its committee system for as long as caretaker ministers are in power. New Decade, New Approach reforms allow the Assembly and ministers with portfolio to remain in office for several months after the collapse of the Executive Office. From the resignation of the DUP First Minister in February 2022 until the Assembly dissolved for the May 2022 election, caretaker ministers were in power and, crucially, were answerable to the Assembly. From May 2022 until October 2022, however, ministers were in power but were largely unaccountable. This is because the committee system dissolved when the sixth Assembly rose for the May election, and the failure to elect a Speaker to the seventh Assembly meant that a new committee system could not be established.  

 

  1. It is untenable to have ministers in power – even in a caretaker capacity – without organised accountability mechanisms to hold them in check. Whilst MLAs were still able to submit written parliamentary questions after the May election, the Executive’s performance in providing answers on time has been very poor. Without a functioning Assembly – with Question Time, regularly sitting committees, a debate chamber etc. – ministers are not adequately held to account.  

 

  1. To ensure the survival of the Assembly during periods of Executive instability, the procedure for electing the Speaker could be reformed, such that he or she could take office with the support of a simplified supermajority – for instance, 60 or 65% of MLAs. Securing such a threshold would be tantamount to demonstrating a form of cross-community support (since no single bloc/designation could muster anything close to 60 or 65% on its own). Had this reform been in place in May 2022, a Speaker would have been elected with cross-community support and a committee system would have been established. The nomination for Patsy McGlone MLA as Speaker was supported by 71% of MLAs and had the backing of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, People Before Profit, and an independent unionist MLA. Despite his strong (and cross-community) support base, McGlone was not elected because of the especially high threshold set for electing a Speaker. 

 

  1. Reforming the procedure for electing a Speaker would not, of course, solve the bigger problem of Executive instability. The party of the (would be) FM and the party of the (would be) dFM can effectively prevent the formation of a new administration for as long as it suits their political circumstances. This is not sustainable. For as long as it is within the gift of one party to prevent government formation, further periods of institutional paralysis are probable. As revealed in a deliberative forum on institutional reform in March 2022, citizens of all backgrounds (nationalist, unionist, Other) find it problematic that one political party can collapse (or prevent the formation of) the devolved institutions.[7]

 

  1. One possible solution would be to allocate the positions of FM and dFM using the d’Hondt formula.[8] Thus, if a party declined to nominate to either position, the opportunity to do so would pass to the next qualifying party. This would be an improvement on the status quo, however it would not fully protect against paralysis or obstructionism. There would be nothing to stop a party, for example, from nominating an FM or dFM only to resign and then reappoint said minister repeatedly (similar to what the DUP did with its portfolio ministers in 2015). Alternatively, a party’s nominee could take up their post as FM or dFM and then refuse to participate in Executive meetings (as Sinn Féin did in 2008).

 

  1. A more ambitious reform agenda, contemplative of a departure from ‘mandatory coalition’, can no longer be dismissed out of hand. It is important to note, however, that whilst public patience with the institutional status quo has worn thin, citizens do not feel sufficiently informed about possible alternatives. Some citizens are therefore wary about the prospect of significantly amending the Good Friday Agreement institutions. This was one of the key conclusions reached at the deliberative forum on institutional reform co-directed by this author.[9] 

 

  1. Asked about the strengths of the current model of devolution, deliberative forum participants cited two significant and interrelated benefits: that it has presided over a sustained period of relative peace in Northern Ireland, and that it is representative and inclusive of the region’s different political traditions. Beyond it sustaining relative peace and ensuring inclusivity, participants generally struggled to cite any further benefits of the current model of devolution.

 

  1. When the model of a pure, or simple, voluntary coalition was explained at the deliberative forum, participants expressed concerns about the potential for single-community government (e.g. an exclusively unionist or an exclusively nationalist Executive). Whilst current parliamentary arithmetic makes this an unlikely scenario, these concerns need to be taken seriously.  

 

  1. Participants were more open-minded about a form of voluntary coalition that entailed some kind of cross-community safeguard (a ‘qualified voluntary coalition’). When surveyed about their preferred model of government at the end of the forum, identical levels of support emerged for qualified voluntary coalition and mandatory coalition (thus there is still some attachment to the status quo despite its flaws). Pure, or simple, voluntary coalition – i.e. without any cross-community safeguard – was the least popular preference and several discussion groups were of the view that Northern Ireland was not yet ready for such a model of government.

 

  1. Requiring a vote of confidence by supermajority is one conceivable safeguard that might assuage concerns about a more voluntary form of coalition. Instead of automatic coalition formation via d’Hondt, parties would be able to negotiate a coalition arrangement amongst themselves after an election. To take office, a prospective coalition would need to secure the support of a supermajority – e.g. 60 or 65% of MLAs – in the Assembly. This would be tantamount to demonstrating a form of cross-community support for the coalition.

 

  1. Another alternative would be to use designation quotas in the Executive. The system could be designed so as to ensure that an equal number of nationalist, unionist, and Other ministers are present in the Executive (for example, three ministers per designation). It would be up to the parties themselves to negotiate membership of the coalition after an election. Any coalition arrangement which could command a majority in the Assembly could take office, provided there is ‘tripartite community representation’ in the Executive (nationalist, unionist, Other).[10] This would maintain a system of power-sharing but would also give parties some latitude to negotiate the composition of a coalition.

 

  1. A quota system in the Executive would have certain advantages over the status quo. Coalitions would likely be smaller (probably comprising three parties) and therefore would not be as unwieldy as the five-party coalitions we tend to get at present. The formation of a substantial parliamentary opposition would also be more likely, since some relatively large parties would not be guaranteed a place in the coalition (as they tend to be with d’Hondt) and would therefore sit in opposition. The emphasis on tripartite representation in the Executive would also place the Others on an equal footing with nationalists and unionists.

 

  1. A quota system would, however, have drawbacks. Lengthy post-election negotiations are a possibility. It would also maintain the unionist/nationalist/Other designation system – at least for political parties if not for individual MLAs – which some oppose as rigid and out-dated. Representation in the Executive would not necessarily be proportional to seats held in the Assembly, so we would lose the proportionality facilitated by the current model’s use of d’Hondt for portfolio allocation.

 

  1. In short, any alternative to the status quo is likely to come with its own set of limitations. This is not a good enough reason, however, to shut down the conversation about institutional reform.

 

What mechanisms could be used to initiate any changes to the institutions of the Agreement

  1. Inclusive and extensive public consultation should be the first step in any institutional reform process. The Good Friday Agreement contemplated institutional reform and includes a review mechanism which permits adjustments necessary in the interests of ‘efficiency and fairness.’ The case for institutional reform satisfies these criteria: the devolved institutions are not efficient (they have not functioned for four of the past six years) and their fairness is questionable (ask the Others).

 

  1. As has occurred with previous changes to the institutions (e.g. at St Andrews), reforms could be agreed by political parties, after which the necessary changes to the Northern Ireland Act (1998) could be legislated for at Westminster. This would be a necessary step for institutional reform, but it would not by itself be a sufficient step if the reforms are to have public buy-in.

 

  1. The institutions have been reformed on previous occasions by political parties. Some of these reforms (e.g. those agreed at St Andrews) have had unintended consequences. We have probably reached the limits of conducting institutional reform behind closed doors. Given that the mandatory coalition model was publicly endorsed via referendum in 1998, departing from this model without creating opportunities for civic input would risk undermining the democratic legitimacy of any new institutional arrangement.

 

  1. There is public appetite for an informed and inclusive conversation about institutional reform. It would be preferable for a re-formed Assembly to lead this conversation itself. A multi-pronged approach would reach the widest audience: citizens’ assemblies, town hall-like meetings (in the style of the ‘Assembly Roadshows’ from c.2009), a public information campaign, use of official social media platforms etc. Political parties would also have an important role to play in terms of engaging with their own supporters on this issue.

 

  1. 72.2% of citizens polled in 2022 were in favour of using citizens’ assemblies ‘to give citizens a say on how the Assembly and Executive could be improved to function better’. This included a majority of unionist respondents, a majority of nationalist respondents, and a majority of Other respondents.[11]

 

  1. In terms of how a final decision should be made in relation to institutional reform, it is notable that the public express strong support for mechanisms which involve civic input, but are noticeably less enthusiastic about leaving the decision to political elites alone:

 

If the governance structures of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are to be changed, how should this change come about? (%)

 

Agree

Disagree

Neither/ don’t know

A referendum

 

79.1

8.1

 

12.8

 

A constitutional convention of interested social, political, economic and educational organisations

 

71.1

6.9

22

 

MLAs decide

 

38.1

33.3

28.6

 

The British Government decides

 

32.7

 

38.9

 

28.4

 

The Irish Government decides

 

29.3

52.3

18.4

Note: sample of 1,000 respondents, surveyed 28th June – 10th July 2022. Margin of error of 3.1%.[12]

 

January 2023

 

 


[1] The Justice portfolio is not allocated using the d’Hondt formula. The Justice minister is elected by cross-community vote in the Assembly.

[2] Figures are for primary legislation and exclude bills introduced by the corporate bodies (e.g. the Assembly Commission) of the respective legislatures. See S. Haughey (2019) ‘Worth Restoring? Taking Stock of the Northern Ireland Assembly’, The Political Quarterly, 90(4), pp. 705-712. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-923X.12769

[3] S. Haughey (forthcoming) The Northern Ireland Assembly: Reputations and Realities (Routledge 2023).

[4] R. McAleer (2020) ‘Poll: Robin Swann is best performing minister but damning view of London's handling of Covid-crisis’, Irish News, 1 June. Available at: https://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2020/06/01/news/poll-robin-swann-is-best-performing-minister-but-damning-view-of-london-s-handling-of-covid-crisis-1958394/ (accessed 7 December 2022). 

[5] S. Haughey and T. Loughran (2021) Bringing the Public Back in: Public Opinion and Power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Report by the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool.

[6] S. Haughey and J. Pow (2022) Public Attitudes to Institutional Reform in Northern Ireland: Evidence from a Deliberative Forum. Available at: https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/3156200/1/Public%2CAttitudes%2Cto%2CInstitutional%2CReform%2Cin%2CNorthern%2CIreland_Final_Report.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).

[7] Haughey and Pow (2022) Public Attitudes to Institutional Reform.

[8] J. Garry, B. O’Leary and J. Pow (2022) ‘Much more than meh: The 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly Elections’, LSE British Politics and Policy, available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/2022-northern-ireland-assembly-elections/ (accessed 8 December 2022).

[9] Haughey and Pow (2022) Public Attitudes to Institutional Reform.

[10] See S. Haughey (2019) ‘Worth Restoring? Taking Stock of the Northern Ireland Assembly’, The Political Quarterly, 90(4), pp. 705-712. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-923X.12769.

[11] The Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, 4th Attitudinal Survey (July 2022). Available at: https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/media/livacuk/humanitiesampsocialsciences/documents/Institute,of,Irish,Studies,UoL,Irish,News,Poll,July,2022.pdf (accessed 7 December 2022).

[12] Ibid.