Labour in Northern Ireland has responded to the consultation document on improving the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which closed this week. The consultation document was an exercise in buck-passing on some admittedly difficult issues. I’d like to highlight a couple here (the full response is available on the LPNI web page).
First, I’d not considered the equalities implications of double jobbing (official term: ‘multiple mandates’) before. I've been against it because it blocks a career path from local council to Assembly/ Westminster/ Europe – i.e. from part-time to full-time politician, and thus prevents younger people from getting political experience. And I do think it’s important for full-time politicians to have had some experience at council level. However, when working on this response I realised it’s about more than that. If a political party has more seats at its disposal, including on appointed bodies if they also are not occupied by elected politicians, then our political representatives might start to look more like society as a whole. Or at least there would be less of an excuse if they didn't. As the paper says:
Removing ‘double jobbing’ from our political culture will open up elected positions to a wider range of people including those who are currently under-represented in political structures, such as women, disabled people, younger people, minority ethnic groups and the LGBT community.
Second, of course, is the difficult issue of an opposition. The paper states that the UK Government would like ‘at some stage to see a move to a more normal system that allows for inclusive government but also opposition...’ (para. 4.2). However no way of doing this is proposed and it is stated that any changes must be agreed by the parties currently in power, who of course have no interest in it. But the question of how an opposition should be structured is difficult, which is why Labour has proposed to the NIO that a review of decision-making structures should be carried out which, in essence, should ask how Northern Ireland should be governed in future. We said:
The creation of a power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a tremendous achievement which has shown that the two main communities can govern together. It was a necessary and important step at the time and transformed Northern Ireland. Some would argue it is too soon to consider alternatives. But it is also the case that the current system not only creates disincentives for the formation of an opposition (the giving up of Ministerial positions; no additional funding to carry out the role) but also institutionalises the ‘two communities’ model of government through community designation, thus diminishing the power of any party choosing to designate as ‘Other’. Change to this system – whether now or in the future – is essential if we are to move away from tribal politics and make political decisions based on meeting the economic and social needs of the whole population. Labour, as a cross-community party, wants this change to happen and in theory supports the development of an opposition at the Assembly.
However, the heart of the problem is as follows. If a structure for government and opposition remains based on power-sharing between the two main communities, then the non-aligned parties continue to be relatively powerless and the incentive for them to grow is removed. Northern Ireland then remains stuck in territorial politics. On the other hand, if all restrictions on the formation of government and opposition are removed, and coalitions are formed entirely at the behest of the political parties, there is a possibility of single community government. This would seriously endanger community legitimation of the Executive and Assembly and hence their ability to govern.
We believe these issues need far more consideration, requiring the commissioning of research and expert advice in order to develop realistic options. The Northern Ireland Office cannot expect an issue of this magnitude to be solved through an open question on a consultation paper. We propose a fundamental review of decision-making structures following the model of the Opsahl Commission, which in 1993 produced influential and far-reaching proposals in response to a wide range of evidence.
Any proposal for changes to the way we are governed requires public support. Surely an open and democratic process, conducted independently from the current self-interested political parties, is the way to achieve this.