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.”

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