Friday, 18 February 2011


The UUP negotiated our present system and as late as 2007 remained fully supportive of it.  Its 2007 manifesto was the keenest in getting the present system up and running again:

"We are the only Party prepared to pledge to you, the voters, that we will take our seats in government and govern for the good of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom."

So while the UUP has come late to the need to reform the system the fact they have turned up at all should be welcomed.  The one new idea in Tom Elliott's address was about agreeing the Programme for Government (PfG) before D'hondt is run.  The idea has an attraction in terms of its basic principle.  However, there are tactical and practical considerations in any assessment.  

Tactically, do we focus on getting directly to the goal of Voluntary Coalition or tinker with the present system of Mandatory Coalition?  This proposal is tinkering with the present Mandatory Coalition system not changing it to Voluntary Coalition.

Practically there are a number of issues:
Time Limits - There are time limits on the formation of an Executive.  Therefore, it is a recipe for hothouse negotiations something Northern Ireland has experience of but something the intention had been to move away from.
Coalition Model - Tom's answer to this is the national government's coalition agreement.  If they can do it in five days why can't we? Spend a while reading the Coalition Agreement.  Tally up how many issues within it were sent to reviews, panels, commissions, decided later and a co-opt.  List the issues that it does not cover. Is it the model of full agreement and consensus it was presented as?
The PfG - The PfG is actually a document that requires the full participation of the Civil Service and is subject to public consultation, EQIAs etc.  The role of the NICS pre-formation of the Executive could only be limited.  Add in the time limits and how significant a document would the parties produce?

However, all of this misses the bigger picture.  The fundamental problem for people who believe in VC is the extreme hostility to any change from nationalist parties.  Simply challenging the weakness of the nationalist position won't work.  Hence why Nigel Dodds argued in his DUP conference speech:

"It is the DUP that sets the agenda on moving Stormont towards a voluntary coalition. On voluntary coalition I add this: there are fears of what such a system would mean. It is our job to identify them and address them. We must become the persuaders for change not just its advocates." 

Believers in VC having a debate amongst ourselves about tactics and details doesn't address that real barrier to change.

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