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Northern Ireland Act 1998: Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alan Mak.)

Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance): I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate. I thank the Minister of State for responding on what is a busy day.

This debate is about the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. The irony will not be lost on people that neither institution is currently functioning. Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. Its principles, components and interlocking relationships remain as sound as ever, but we do need to discuss and debate reform. This is a relevant matter for this House, as the issues of concern relate to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and its subsequent modifications. Even at the time of the Good Friday agreement, some of us were concerned that some of the structures and mechanisms of the agreement were too unwieldly, and that it locked in a false assumption of two communities.

The agreement put in place a rather hard consociational model of power sharing when other approaches were possible. Over the past quarter of a century, the reality of continued breakdowns in Government, including in the present day, plus demographic change and electoral realignment make the need and urgency for change even more compelling. Since the institutions were first formed in 1999, they have been either suspended or non-functioning for 43% of the time. Surely, that reflects an underlying problem. Reform should happen because it is the right thing to do, but there is also a clear self-interest in progressing reform for the Government and the other guarantors of the Good Friday agreement.

I do not want to dwell on the protocol; that this is not what this debate is about. However, it is important to acknowledge that Brexit posed particular challenges to Northern Ireland—a society that works only on the basis of sharing within the context of interdependent relationships and a close partnership between the UK and Irish Governments. Before 2016, there was a certain fragility to the institutions, but in the context of Brexit, sustaining governance becomes even more problematic. The Government are currently pursuing their protocol Bill. I am on record as saying that it is unnecessary, unwanted and counterproductive, but it may not be successful in its objective of securing the return of the Democratic Unionist party to power sharing. Even if that were to happen, it might be built on such insecure foundations that governance proves impossible to maintain, and we know that Northern Ireland has seen a succession of crises.

If, come the late autumn or early next year, the Government are still at an impasse and facing prolonged deadlock, they face a range of unpalatable options. Recurring elections without a change in dynamics would see little change in the order of the parties, but perhaps even greater polarisation. Continued deadlock with care and maintenance from civil servants, and perhaps with this Government setting an annual budget, is not sustainable. Direct rule is one-sided and undemocratic, and it would not be regarded as balanced or legitimate. Many would argue that any direct rule would require an Irish dimension. However, that would be particularly challenging in the current context of difficult Anglo-Irish relations, and it would also be very difficult to get the balance correct without creating offence to one or other of the competing sides in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, in that context, reform of the institutions to allow those parties with mandates that are willing and able to govern should be considered. A range of reforms should be considered. Some are longer term, but others are measures for which there is a clear necessity in the current context.

The most egregious aspect of the current structures is the designation system and the associated so-called cross-community voting system. That designation system has three major flaws. First, it locks into the public square that Northern Ireland is and will perpetually be a society based around two competing communities in which political, national and religious identity perfectly coalesce: where Unionist equals British equals Protestant, and nationalist equals Irish equals Catholic. That ignores the reality of open, mixed and multiple identities, those who have come to live in Northern Ireland and those who have moved away from traditional formulations of identity or formed relationships and even families across the traditional divide.

Secondly, the mechanism sends out negative messages about the continuation of division and impinges on efforts to build a shared and integrated future. Thirdly, there is a lack of equality of votes. My Alliance party colleagues in the Assembly, who sign as “united community” and are treated as “Other”, do not see their votes counted as equal whenever cross-community voting mechanisms are either required by law or invoked by a petition of concern.

The two thresholds are either 50% of unionists, 50% of nationalists and 50% overall; or 60% of unionists, 60% of nationalists and 40% overall. That could perhaps have been dismissed as an anomaly back in 1998, when only eight out of 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly were non-aligned. Today, however, 18 out of 90 MLAs are neither Unionist nor nationalist. That lack of equality of votes is not something that would be tolerated in any other legislature. It certainly would not be accepted in this Chamber.

The current voting system also creates a low bar to vetoes. Most recently, on Friday 13 May, although 72% of MLAs present and voting supported the election of a Speaker, it was blocked. In comparison, in 1998 the support for the Good Friday agreement was 71% of voters, which was taken as a clear demonstration that sufficient consensus had been reached for progress, including among Unionists, nationalists and those who were neither.

The key reform should be to introduce a system of weighted-majority voting for all key decisions in the Assembly, with simple majority used for the bulk of votes. The threshold for that should be set at around two thirds of the Assembly, at a level that would ensure cross-representation of different traditions in support. A weighted majority could also be used to sustain a voluntary coalition, which would provide a more efficient, effective and flexible alternative to the current mandatory coalition. While a mandatory coalition has been broadly representative—I say broadly, as the D’Hondt formula is weighted towards the largest parties—it has not led to stable or effective government.

While much has been achieved under devolution, too many opportunities have been missed and many reforms blocked because of deadlock. Every Government needs to operate on the basis of trust, respect and partnership. There must also be a shared understanding of the common good, a commitment to cohesion and adherence to collective responsibility. Moreover, the current system depends on the active participation of both of the two largest parties. At different times in the recent past, both the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin have withdrawn from the Executive, leading to its collapse. Indeed, in the early years of the Executive, there was also instability, with the Ulster Unionist Party walking out.

There is also the issue of vetoes inside the Executive. Much has been said in recent years about the misuse and abuse of the petition of concern in the Assembly. That was eventually addressed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. However, the vetoes in the Executive that trigger a cross-community vote, which again exclude Ministers from non-aligned parties, are just as corrosive. Instead, after any Assembly election, it should be for the parties to come together and to negotiate an Administration and a programme that could be sustained under a weighted-majority vote.

I recognise that that would be the most far-reaching reform. It would require significant consultation and confidence-building measures. In particular, I am conscious of the perception that it could be misrepresented as a desire to exclude particular parties from government on a semi-permanent basis. That should not be the intention. Rather we should see parties moving in and out of government, as is the norm in other democracies.

Other reforms should be considered, including renaming the titles of First Minister and deputy First Minister as Joint First Ministers to reflect the reality that both posts are co-equal in all respects, including powers, responsibilities and status. The perception of winning and claiming the First Minister title has distorted and twisted Assembly election campaigns, at the expense of genuine debate about issues, and it has fed polarisation. This is probably not a reform to do mid-term, but it is something that should be changed ahead of the next planned Assembly election.

The inclusion of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister posts in the d’Hondt calculation, in the same way that the Justice Minister post is allocated by a separate procedure but counts towards that party’s allocation under d’Hondt, should also be considered. The removal of designations, the introduction of weighted-majority voting, and a different approach to Executive reform are all longer-term reforms. However, they are important and the Government should now be exploring them in earnest and initiating the process of change.

Short of those, there some more immediate and transitional reforms that should be considered now, especially in the light of the current breakdown and crisis. Northern Ireland does not currently have an Executive and the Assembly is not able to meet. There is a considerable build-up of Barnett consequentials that cannot be allocated to address the cost of living crisis. Northern Ireland does not have an annual budget in place. Indeed, the rare opportunities that come from a multi-year budget are being squandered. It is absurd that when four of the main parties want to proceed with devolved government they are not able to do so.

Any immediate set of reforms should include the following. First, in order to facilitate Executive formation, the process of nominating the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must be amended. In a situation whereby the largest party eligible to nominate the First Minister or Deputy First Minister is unwilling to do so, the entitlement should be passed to the next-largest party, thereby creating the ability for those willing to nominate to do so. The St Andrews agreement significantly altered the basis on which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are nominated. The Irish and British Governments supported this change in order to restore devolution back then. While on the one hand this demonstrates that the agreement can be amended, it is also an important example of changes that were made to alleviate the concerns of one political party that have had unintended long-term consequences.

We must therefore use this opportunity to improve the arrangements for nominating the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to reflect the realities of contemporary society in Northern Ireland and to prioritise the stability and sustainability of our political institutions. I believe that it is possible to remove nomination as a constant potential blockage in establishing the Executive. In a situation whereby the largest party eligible to nominate is unwilling to do so, the 1998 Act could be amended to permit the entitlement to be passed to the next largest party, thereby creating the ability for those willing to nominate to do so. Should a party refuse its entitlement, it would be able to do so without exercising an effective veto on the entire Executive.

Secondly, in order to facilitate effective government, including initial steps such as electing a Speaker and, in due course, endorsement of an Executive programme for government and budget, weighted-majority voting free from designations needs to be introduced as a matter of urgency. This should be on a figure of around a two-thirds majority of the whole Assembly.

Finally, to facilitate a functional Executive, cross-community votes within the Executive should operate as an equivalent to the petition of concern and be used only on key issues.

Some may say that these changes depart from the Good Friday agreement and should not be considered. However, it is crucial to acknowledge changes that have been made since 1998, including those at St Andrews in 2006 and, more recently, those in New Decade, New Approach in 2020. Some have been positive and some have been negative, but changes have been made none the less. Moreover, the details of the Good Friday agreement were never meant to be forever fixed in time. The agreement includes the basis for its own review and evolution. Next year will see the 25th anniversary of the agreement, and over those 25 years Northern Ireland has changed massively. Furthermore, opinion polls show considerable popular support for reform. The most recent “Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey” shows 60% support, reflected across all demographics, for a change in the voting system along the lines that I have outlined.

I acknowledge that Northern Ireland does need to have a form of government that recognises the realities of a diverse yet shared society. Power-sharing, equality and mutual respect are central to that, alongside the other interlocking relationships across these islands. Yet we must be open-minded and respond to not only the desirability but necessity of reform to address changing circumstances while remaining true to the Good Friday agreement.

It is a pleasure to respond to this Adjournment debate. Towards the end of a turbulent day, it seems fitting that we gather in the Chamber tonight to talk about big issues and serious challenges facing part of our United Kingdom. When the Prime Minister asked me to serve as Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office last September, I became only the second Minister in the 50-year history of the Northern Ireland Office who is from Northern Ireland. As someone who is a Catholic, a supporter of the Union and from Belfast, I feel passionately about Northern Ireland and her wonderful people.

I express tonight my enduring gratitude to the Prime Minister for that opportunity to serve. As has often been said in the past, the best way to keep a secret is to say something on the Floor of the House of Commons, so from this Dispatch Box tonight, I use this opportunity to express my ongoing and full support to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as he helps us move to a position where we restore the power-sharing institutions that the people of Northern Ireland need so much.

The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were established under strand 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and are underpinned by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is vital that all the institutions set up by the agreement are operating fully and effectively, given their interdependence and interlocking nature, to realise the full vision of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It has been 151 days since the First Minister resigned, and since then there has been no one to lead the Northern Ireland Executive. It has been 61 days since the people of Northern Ireland voted in an Assembly election, and since then the parties have failed to come together to even elect a Speaker, let alone form a Government. It has been 36 days since the Assembly last met, and since then there has been no serious attempt to show the necessary leadership to address the real issues facing households in Northern Ireland—issues that they care about as much as those who live in my constituency of Bournemouth West.

At the commencement of his speech, the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) made brief reference to the protocol in the context of restoring the institutions of devolved government, and I use the opportunity at the Dispatch Box today to make it clear that the position of Her Majesty’s Government is that there is no reason why there should not be restored devolved government in Northern Ireland, and power-sharing back up and running. Our message has been consistently clear to the Democratic Unionist party: the protocol is for the Government of the United Kingdom to resolve, either through primary legislation, or our preferred route of a negotiated conclusion to this with the European Union, which would require movement on the mandate that Vice-President Šefčovič has been given by the European Commission. We do not see those as interlocking measures. We will deal with the protocol, as we have been clear to the people of Northern Ireland, but we believe that they deserve a functioning devolved Government straightaway.

Meanwhile, Members of the Assembly in Northern Ireland continue to draw a salary, even while unable to conduct Assembly business, and the frustration about that is widely shared across communities in Northern Ireland. The passage of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill into law grants the parties a maximum of 24 weeks to form an Executive, and allows existing departmental Ministers to retain their posts during that period, meaning that they may still be in place up until 28 October this year. That provides a degree of stability in Northern Ireland, mitigating the worst effects of the current impasse, but it remains the Government’s view that the leaders of Northern Ireland need to come together and agree a way forward to deliver a stable and accountable devolved Government to the people of Northern Ireland. My sense in my visits across all the six counties in recent months is that that view is widely shared across the whole of Northern Ireland.

While we recognise the existing current impasse, it is worth looking at the amazing progress that Northern Ireland has made over the past 24 years since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Those successes are a credit to a generation of foresighted and courageous individuals who had the vision to put reconciliation before division. It was my privilege to be present recently at Queen’s University Belfast to witness the unveiling of a portrait of David Trimble, alongside his wonderful wife Daphne, to acknowledge his immense role in that contentious but courageous agreement. We also fondly remembered the late John Hume and the late Seamus Mallon, both of whom were former Members of this House.

Above all, peace and success in Northern Ireland are a credit to the people of Northern Ireland, whose endurance, kindness and warmth continue to fuel progress. If the politicians and political leaders in Northern Ireland looked to the example of the people, we could make genuine progress in restoring the institutions of devolved government.

In January 2020, the New Decade, New Approach deal provided the foundations for the Northern Ireland parties to come together and form a new Government after a three-year hiatus. That deal is a living monument, against which we regularly check the commitments and progress in achieving them, to what can be realised if people put differences aside, make compromises and forge a path ahead in the interests of everyone, rather than the interests of one group alone.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of specific suggestions in his well-crafted and thoughtful speech about the reform of the institutions and of the mechanisms for sharing power between the parties and between designations. I say to him that we have to tread incredibly carefully in this space. The agreement that was reached 24 years ago was carefully balanced to get the level of cross-community support that it had in the subsequent referendum.

Some of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions were debated at the margins here and in the other place during the passage of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill last year. In response to some of the probing amendments that were tabled, I remember saying to him and others that we, and certainly I, had significant sympathy with the intent behind them—for example, an obvious one is that the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are legally indistinguishable; it is a co-office. The reason that the Government did not decide to legislate or innovate in that space at that time was that, in our view, any recalibration or update of the agreements, and of the institutions and mechanisms that flow from them, is best achieved through cross-party agreement and, obviously, the involvement of the Governments in Ireland and the United Kingdom as the co-guarantors of those agreements.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted many of the ideas contained in the detailed policy paper that his party leader Naomi Long recently sent to Ministers. I studied it carefully on a flight to Belfast last week and read it again this afternoon. We are committed to restoring the institutions of devolved government as they stand today—as they sprang from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—but as we saw in St Andrews, that agreement can change and be updated.

The hon. Gentleman spoke with knowledge and understanding of the changing political, societal and demographic positions within Northern Ireland. I think it is right that we start using the post-restoration of power sharing and the significant 25th anniversary coming up next year—in partnership with Queen’s University, Ulster University, societal groups, think-tanks and others—to think about how those institutions could be updated and those agreements recalibrated, in parts where we could achieve cross-community consent, to achieve improvements to the delivery of devolved government in Northern Ireland and accountability from locally elected politicians in Northern Ireland directly to the communities they serve.

The final point I would make is that I have been overwhelmingly struck—I say this as a Minister who is accountable for Northern Ireland matters at this Dispatch Box, but also as someone who is very deeply accountable to family members across kitchen tables in Northern Ireland—by how the people of Northern Ireland deserve the best possible opportunities. When I visit schools, businesses, charity groups or the teeming third sector across Northern Ireland, their concerns are very much the same concerns that we would find in any other constituency across the United Kingdom and indeed, I suspect, across these islands in their totality. They deserve that we keep a watching brief on the institutions born of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the rulebook that governs them to make sure that at all times they are doing the central thing they were set up to do, which is to serve the people of Northern Ireland to the very best of our ability.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.