UUP leader calls for end to mandatory coalitions at Stormont

Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott has called for an end to the statutory obligation for coalition government in Northern Ireland, and for there to be an official opposition.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott has called for an end to the statutory obligation for coalition government in Northern Ireland, and for there to be an official opposition. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, membership of the Northern Ireland Executive is based not on negotiations following elections to the Assembly, but is guaranteed to those parties who achieve the required number of seats and proportion of votes under the complex d’Hondt system.


The idea is that mandatory coalitions lock the parties together, addressing the sectarian divide that has long afflicted Northern Ireland. However, the UUP now believes reforms are needed to enable the formation of both a Government and Opposition as happens elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Speaking to business leader on Wednesday, the UUP leader said:

“…as I seek to cut our over-governance in numbers and inputs, and address our under-governance in outputs and outcomes, it is time to set our sights on a review of the devolved government that paves the way for the next elections, in 2015, to be about electing a Government and an Opposition.

“So, the Ulster Unionists are NOT preparing our members for Opposition in 2011. We are paving the way for better government at Stormont.

“They say the trouble with the original Stormont Government is that you could call as many elections as you wanted, but you would never see a change of government, because of one-party dominance. The problem with this iteration of the Stormont Government is that you can call as many elections as you want, but you will never see a change of government, because of the mandatory coalition.

“We have four years to prepare the ground for a change from a mandatory all-party coalition to a system of Government and Opposition – the system that works around the world.”

The responses from Northern Ireland’s other political parties have divided down sectarian lines.

For the Democratic Unionist Party, enterprise minister Arlene Foster said:

“We welcome the UUP’s conversion and decision to adopt our policy, even though they’re 13 years late.”

For the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice, meanwhile, leader Jim Allister called for an immediate end to the system of mandatory coalitions now, rather than waiting until 2015.

Republicans have sought to portray unionists and each other as the bad guys when it comes to the effective, or otherwise, operation of government in Northern Ireland. For the SDLP, Margaret Ritchie argued that it was the DUP and Sinn Fein to blame for governance failures, saying that they:

“…only work together in their own interest and are failing the people.”

And for Sinn Fein, regional development minister Conor Murphy accused the UUP of already being “semi-detached” members of the Stormont Executive, unprepared to do the heavy lifting involved in governing.

With elections to the Assembly now only a matter of weeks away, Mr Elliott’s comments will been seen as firing the starting gun for an ongoing debate over the fundamental question of how Northern Ireland should be governed and run.

In a useful analysis of the situation, an Editorial in the Belfast Telegraph ran:

“Everyone recognises that Northern Ireland’s mandatory coalition system of government was established for very valid reasons – that there would be no return to the old system of one party, or one tradition, dominating of government.

“It was necessary to build confidence in a devolved administration and to ensure that all shades of opinion had a say in the way the province was governed.

“Yet mandatory coalition is increasingly undermining confidence in local politics. Yes, all the main parties have at least one hand on the levers of power, but there is no collective consensus on any of the policies.

“Every minister is effectively a law unto himself or herself and cannot be removed from office except by his own party. It is a system of government like no other in the democratic west.”

8 Responses to “UUP leader calls for end to mandatory coalitions at Stormont”

  1. jbw

    RT @leftfootfwd: UUP leader calls for end to mandatory coalitions at Stormont: //bit.ly/fbqcEm reports @EdJacobs1985

  2. Ed Jacobs

    RT @leftfootfwd: UUP leader calls for end to mandatory coalitions at Stormont //bit.ly/eDmvOy

  3. edjacobs1985

    RT @leftfootfwd: UUP leader calls for end to mandatory coalitions at Stormont //bit.ly/eDmvOy

  4. Robin Wilson

    This is an interesting opening up of a debate which could, in the long run, lead to a realignment of Northern Ireland politics along left-right lines. Platform for Change (of which I am chair) commented (in a letter to the Belfast Telegraph:

    It is a fundamental principle of democracy that a parliament or assembly can properly hold the executive to account. A cornerstone of this is the idea that an effective opposition exists, to challenge bad government.
    One of the unintended effects of the Belfast agreement was that there is no such opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This was a quirk of negotiations during just one night before Good Friday 1998.
    The Ulster Unionist Party had proposed an assembly with committee chairs allocated by the d’Hondt rule—so no sharing of power with Catholic politicians in government. The SDLP insisted on executive power-sharing and a Catholic veto. The compromise was an executive of ministers distributed by d’Hondt, each presiding over an independent department.
    It was the horse designed by a committee which became a camel. All major parties were thrown together in government, but with no collective responsibility or sense of mutuality across the sectarian divide, and no one was left to provide a significant opposition in the assembly. This is even more true today with the acceptance by Alliance of the devolved justice ministry.
    The timely comments by the current Ulster Unionist leader on the need for an opposition show that this debate is reopening. Platform for Change, which has been established to promote a political realignment away from sectarian polarisation and a renewal of the civic engagement evident at the time of the agreement, would urge other parties to follow suit.
    One of the limitations of the power-sharing debate in Northern Ireland has been the assumption that power-sharing means there can not be significant changes of government through elections, with the same parties always being returned to power. Yet this defies the even more fundamental democratic principle of the voters’ right to ‘turf the scoundrels out’—and not see the same ‘scoundrels’ come back next time.
    The best guarantee of that right is the other side of the opposition coin: power-sharing should not be voluntary but the mandate should be that an egalitarian, cross-sectarian coalition is formed after an assembly election by agreement—not by the lottery of d’Hondt. And the focus should be an agreed Programme for Government. This is key to ensuring we have a programme that is relevant and a government that works.

  5. Mr. Sensible

    This is interesting.

    I think people like Mr Elliot have a point, but we should also remember the situation as was before the Good Friday agreement was drawn up.

    I don’t think any of us want a return to those days.

  6. Liathain

    Robin, first off can I say fair play on your continuing work with Platform for Change an excellent group doing important work.

    The UUP’s calls for an opposition are one that most parties have floated in one form or another in the past (ugly scaffolding, super majority calls etc). One problem is that while more or less all parties support the concept of an opposition, no party wants to be in opposition (which in itself is perfectly understandable, you get ignored, you have little power and in the reality of modern parliaments you’ve a better chance of being listened to if you’re outside with a soapbox and a megaphone).

    All the signs point to some serious reforms of the Assembly happening during the next few years. The reduction in the number of the MP’s in the House of Commons will presumably mean we in NI go down to 15 constituencies. Seeing as the Assembly constituencies are mapped on Westminster’s this provides an opportunity to scale down the number of MLA’s (90 seems to be the natural number). Reducing the number of MLA’s would mean we’d have to look again at the numbers and remits of Departments/Committees (as the MLA’s are already pushed for time) the minimum number of MLA’s required for a quorum, petition of concern etc.

    Despite the assorted chuckling there are serious problems in NI that the Executive have so far failed to address. However these broader reforms to the Assembly must be approached cautiously. The structures and mechanisms certainly leave a lot to be desired but there’s two issues in play here – d’Hondt and designation.

    While it’s true that d’Hondt can keep the parties guessing as to what Ministerial positions will be left when it comes to their turn, it’s no more difficult to predict then who gets what after negotiating a coalition (as they will in Dublin next week).

    If normal simple or weighted majority negotiations opened today who really knows what combination of our five executive parties would come to the fore – would the larger parties exclude the middle ground parties and continue their merry dance or would one of the big beasts be forced out?
    Forcing one of the larger parties out poses problems in itself. While designation is ideologically unattractive the real difficulties arise in its mechanisms, specifically the Petition of Concern.

    On current numbers the petition of concern has effectively given any party hovering around 30 seats a veto (provided they’re not designated as other).
    So this veto power would mean if either party went into opposition, they could just strangle the assembly! So the logical thing is to look again at the petition mechanism – do we need it? Well its primary role is to prevent a bludgeoning of the minority by the majority so yes, we should keep a version of it – it’s that or watch two large parties ram legislation through without the consent of the smaller middle ground parties.

    It’s generally accepted that STV as a voting system tends to favour a larger number of smaller parties but all the indications appear to show that a society such as ours leads to a two and a half party system (one Unionist, one Nationalist and a half other).

    It may be that keeping a spectrum of parties in viable contention for ministerial office (by the consociational nature of the Assembly – d’Hondt etc) is a better option for ensuring a variety of representation and the exchange of ideas, then developing two opposing sectarian monoliths.

    We’ve come a long way in the last decade but maybe we have a road to travel before we move away from consociationalism?

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