Today Alliance Party Leader and Justice Minister, David Ford unveiled his seven point plan to ‘Reboot Stormont’. Although, it may be more accurate to say that he dusted off some, not exactly new proposals, dressed them up in a shiny new press release and named them such that Stormont sounds like an old dysfunctional computer.
The first point addresses changing from a mandatory coalition to a voluntary one, and then having that voluntary coalition subject to a vote of approval in the Assembly. The aim of this would be to force all of the parties to role up their sleeves after the 2016 Assembly election and enter negotiations with each other in the hope that some sort of deal between the parties could be hammered out to allow for a voluntary coalition, in order for some sort of, what we may call ‘normal governance’. The Alliance Party is hoping that by introducing a voluntary coalition, the parties will then have to form a Programme for Government, which in theory should pave the way for the Assembly to turn into a functioning legislature, rather than simply a slightly advanced talking shop.
I’m not sure how much hope can, or should, be staked on the parties working together to form a voluntary coalition in 2016, especially if the most recent round of post-Haass negotiations are to judge by. Who knows – by 2016 if relations continue on the current downward trajectory, trust between the parties will be dangerously low and we could be in a situation where our institutions collapse before we see the Assembly election.
It’s common knowledge that politics in Northern Ireland doesn’t operate on the traditional ‘left/right’ spectrum and seems to instead operate on the ‘crisis spectrum’ in which we lurch from crisis to crisis. In a nutshell the Alliance Party hope that if the parties in 2016 are able to hammer out some form of deal that would return a voluntary coalition to Stormont, their idea is that the resulting coalition would be given legitimacy and hence added stability because of the Assembly having to give any voluntary coalition the thumbs up.
Another point that David Ford makes is that in order to reboot Stormont we need an opposition that is free to hold the government of the day to account. It’s very clear that the Alliance Party feel that they are the most qualified to speak on matters regarding an opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly due to their time and experience gained when they were in opposition from around 2007-2010.
The Alliance Party clearly support a fully funded opposition and say that they will give support to John McCallister’s Opposition Bill when it is introduced as well as all attempts to create an opposition.
So far, so good… But hold up – who’s actually going to form the much talked about opposition in Stormont? What isn’t so clear is whether or not the Alliance Party are thinking about forming an opposition themselves. It doesn’t seem likely in the near future and members of the Alliance Party would probably tell you that they cannot afford to put the stability of our political institutions in jeopardy by leaving the Department of Justice Ministry. This then begs the question as to just how much the AP wish to develop a formally funded opposition. Yes, they may well support it in their rhetoric, but just how much are they willing to rock the boat to see the institutions at Stormont shaken up – or ‘rebooted’, as David Ford would say…
I do have a confession to make, when I read point four of Ford’s seven point plan I was left scratching my head… “Greater co-operation between Ministers requiring them to work together under law”. What the bloody hell does that actually mean in practice?
Apparently, what this translates to is that the Alliance Party would seek to make co-operation between Ministers a statutory responsibility, requiring ministers to work with each other to prevent, or reduce the likelihood of Ministers taking each other to court on a whim or going on solo runs.
It’s quite obvious that the AP just crave to see some sort of normal governance on The Hill with collective responsibility and joined up governance, but with David Ford’s statement not exactly getting passions running high for a constructive summer debate on how we reform Stormont, especially from other parties, I just wonder how much David Ford’s Executive colleagues are taking him and his seven point plan seriously?
Obviously Ford has become frustrated with politics in Northern Ireland otherwise he wouldn’t be suggesting that Stormont needs a reboot. Maybe the time has come for the Alliance Party to take some ballsy decisions about whether or not they will continue to stay in the Executive, because ultimately, if Ford and his colleagues want to see reform, unless they start to talk the talk of potentially leaving the Executive unless Ford gets some of his reboot agenda, the Alliance Party will continue to have less influence than Willie Frazer and Jamie Bryson at the decision-making table.