Opposition at the Northern Ireland Assembly: A Prelude to Political Realignment?

Everyone at CARC would like to, first and foremost, congratulate Stevo Pendarovski, of the Social Democratic Union Party, for winning the first presidential election in the newly named North Macedonia.

CARC congratulates President elect Pendarovski on his appointment as President and we are taking the opportunity to re-publish the report of an event we ran in Belfast where he gave the keynote address on formal and informal power-sharing and lessons from the Western Balkans.

The report makes interesting reading in hindsight, as our event took place on 24 June, the day after the UK referendum on EU membership. So much has changed since –while at the same time nothing much has moved forwards since. The concluding observation that ‘those who voted ‘Remain’ in the UK referendum and lost, will need to find commonness with those who voted ‘Leave’’ still seems a long way off.

CARC looks forward to watching President Pendarovski as his new administration takes shape, we wish him well in his leadership role in North Macedonia –and we hope to welcome him back to CARC on a future occasion.

Full story available here: https://www.politico.eu/article/ruling-partys-pendarovski-wins-north-macedonia-presidency/

Welcome and Introductions

The roundtable began with the acknowledgement that a series of major global political events had recently come to pass.

First, a peace agreement had finally been agreed in Colombia after years of conflict there that may require a consociational arrangement and a consequential endorsing referendum.

Second, the UK had, only hours before, by referendum voted to leave the European Union, a result which could have profound implications for the power-sharing Executive and current preparations for a Programme for Government in Northern Ireland.

Opening the event, Professor Feargal Cochrane (CARC, University of Kent)explained that it is important to compare consociational set-ups employed across the globe so as to try to understand under what conditions they work best and how they may be sustained.

Professor Cochrane and Dr Neophytos Loizides (CARC, University of Kent)welcomed participants to the roundtable and encouraged the sharing of perspectives on the consociational arrangements in Northern Ireland, and potential for political realignment that the new mechanism of a formal Opposition at the Northern Ireland Assembly might bring. This may include implications not just for legislation and procedures, but also for the relationship between politicians and civic society.

Introductions of participants followed, with guests including academics and political commentators,  political party and NGO policy directors and leaders of community organisations across Northern Ireland.

Keynote Speaker was Professor Stevo Pendarovski, former national security advisor to two Presidents of Macedonia – and during the time of the negotiations of the consociational Ohrid Framework Agreement. Mr Pendarovski, also a runner-up in the 2014 Macedonian presidential race, wished to share with delegates thoughts from the Western Balkans perspective.

Also present, as expert advisers and participants, were Thibaud Bodsonof the Leuven Institute for Human Rights and Critical Studies, to provide comparisons with the Brussels Capital Region (BCR); and former NI Assembly MLA John McCallisterwho had sponsored the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive (Reform) Act 2016 which facilitated the mechanism of formal Opposition in the Assembly.

Sharing and Opposing Power in Northern Ireland: Formal and Informal Implications an Assembly Opposition may have on Politics and Governance

(Led by Professor Feargal Cochrane and Dr Neophytos Loizides, CARC, University of Kent; with contribution from former MLA John McCallister)

The Need for an Opposition

John McCallister (Ulster Unionist Party, then NI21 and latterly Independent MLA, 2007-2015)began by stating that he had long been a believer in having an official Opposition at the Northern Ireland Assembly and welcomes the challenge it now presents for politicians. The 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and the subsequent 2006 St Andrews Agreement did not facilitate such a mechanism. The question is, he asked: how do we relate this change to progressing policy, and make government more functional?

Sharing his experience of sponsoring the legislative Bill that would facilitate an Opposition, he said during the process it became obvious to him that the Northern Ireland Executive was in a “perpetual peace process negotiations mind-set”. He recalled how in 2013 the then First Minister Peter Robinson MLA had called his own government “dysfunctional”and six Executive ministers “didn’t bat an eyelid at it”.

Mr McCallister also reflected on a meeting he attended with Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MLA, who reported that they preferred to work together without someone watching over their shoulders. McCallister suggested that the task for the Opposition is to scrutinise the work of government. Opposition parties now must look carefully at how they may build some form of consensus; to be effective as an alternative voice the Opposition will need to establish its own policy agenda which will require cooperation.

Potential Implications of, and Hopes for, Opposition

The ideal electoral situation to arise from having an Opposition, McCallister hoped, would be that it would cross the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland politics; it would encourage representatives and canvassers of the Ulster Unionist Party, say, to knock on doors and ask their voters to transfer their votes (preferences under the Single Transferable Vote system) to the SDLP, the Alliance Party, and so on, and vice versa.

For McCallister, another positive potential impact of having an Opposition will be that decisions made by NI Executive ministers will have greater consequences. He recalled that Ministers have long been able to ignore advice given to them by MLAs, with parties in the Executive even voting against the government’s budget; this, he thought, is not good governance, and accepted no consequence for failure. Now with Opposition, there is “no one to hide behind… Instead you now have a government that has to answer to Opposition”.

McCallister hopes that the UUP and SDLP keep their respective identities and policy ethos, but work together without pushing the other on sensitive issues on which they cannot agree. Here, he gave the example of the SDLP requesting the release from prison of the Price sisters (convicted of bombing the Old Bailey during the Troubles), and the UUP wanting support on issues relating to activities of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) – both impossible or at least unwelcome for the ‘other’ side.

Finishing, Mr McCallister remembered that as a Member of the Legislative Assembly he wanted to take the concept of Opposition to the stage of creating it as a formal mechanism, so that, during the debate, all MLAs would be accountable for their vote on the issue and would have to explain why they voted for or against the option of having an Opposition. Had it not been proposed as a legislative bill, he said, it may not have been properly discussed, nor even suggested at Stormont.

Discussion: Was Opposition Inevitable?

Alban Maginness (Social Democratic and Labour Party MLA, 1998-2016) shared with delegates that he was not particularly comfortable with the concept of Opposition, believing it could potentially destabilise the consociational Assembly. He said he never accepted the concept that there is an“enforced coalition”; the whole point of the Executive was to bring as many people together at a high-level decision-making forum as possible to tackle the historical challenges, through a new narrative.

However, Mr Maginness considered Opposition to be inevitable, especially because of the strengthening hands of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, and electoral marginalisation of the UUP and SDLP. He said the Opposition Act gave the idea traction.

He declared a “health warning”: creating an Opposition will not necessarily create better governance or politics. Opposition is hard work, and he is not certain that the UUP and SDLP currently have the resources or the energy to make Opposition work. Still, the Act allows for the possibility of a re-energised politics.

Dawn Purvis (Progressive Unionist Party, and latterly Independent, MLA, 2007-2011) believed the formation of an Opposition was the next logical step in Northern Ireland politics, as politicians move away from the safeguards that were necessary with the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement but which made Stormont inflexible.

Politicians, she said, even since restoration of devolution from Westminster, after a five-year suspension in 2007 still work in an atmosphere of fear, but Opposition will bring a sense of maturity to politics that will allow a move from tribal politics to more orthodox ideological political differences.

Before, she stated, politics at the Assembly was largely a process of forced trading with power: “you have this and this and we will take this and this”. There are those MLAs who do their role and there are those who are just coasting along, she said; but with Opposition there is no hiding place for the coasters, Minister nor Opposition.

Discussion: Defining and Sharing Opposition

Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan(Ulster University) added that care is required when using the term opposition with a small ‘O’ (informal opposition) and Opposition with a capital ‘O’ (formal Opposition under the Act). Questions persist: will the Northern Ireland Assembly see shadow ministers formed, and will the UUP and SDLP divide it between them? She noted that certain chairs of Assembly Committees, like the Public Accounts Committee, will no longer be held by a member of a governing party. What the chairs of the Committees do will be an indicator of what may be expected in terms of scrutiny further down the line with the new Opposition.

Quintin Oliver (Stratagem)noted that he was previously against Opposition for many of the reasons as shared by Alban Maginness. However, he thought that the sometime opposition role that Independent MLAs Dawn Purvis and John McCallister had played on the backbenches showed that opposition could be delivered. He picked up on the claim made that Northern Ireland has endured political stalemate for 18 years; he said now the government has 66 votes out of 108 at Stormont. While the Opposition may not have the numbers to outvote the government it will help boost the quality of discussion and scrutiny. It will be interesting to see whether, and if so, how Opposition figures mobilise the interest and interests of wider civic society.

Thibaud Bodson (Leuven Institute for Human Rights and Critical Studies)told delegates “we must understand the pros and cons of an Opposition”. It is important, he said, for Opposition to come up with an alternative policy; if an Opposition is more focused on criticising the government at every opportunity, rather than also working with them when necessary, then we may see a deterioration of the quality of political debate.

Allan Leonard (Northern Ireland Foundation)highlighted that Northern Ireland does not currently have what can be termed a collective Opposition; instead we have a shared Opposition with the largest party at its head. He stated that a collective Opposition would be best, but for now at least, the way forward could be with a“partnership”between the parties. Whilst forming a kind of Opposition is progress there is still a lot of work to do.

Prospect for Delivery: How can the new approach to consociational government best approach the old problems, especially surrounding legacy issues and sectarian division?

(Led by Professor Feargal Cochrane, University of Kent)

Implications for Lobbying

Professor Cochraneopened this discussion by asking delegates whether having an opposition in Northern Ireland makes lobbying the government a different proposition. Here, contributions focused on the need for a collective Opposition or an explicitly shared unionist / nationalist Opposition, and also the need for civic society to apply pressure to and work alongside political parties in government and Opposition.

On the first topic of a shared Opposition, with the recent European Union referendum campaign it was noted that Northern Ireland’s smaller parties have already started to channel this desire to cooperate. The Alliance Party, SDLP and UUP had officially supported the campaign for the UK to remain a member of the EU, albeit only in a binary referendum poll.

Opposition: An Incentive for Moderation?

For DrLoizides,usually political parties have an incentive to moderate their views in Opposition because of the potential need to form a coalition after an election. In Northern Ireland the case has been different: there has been no incentive to provide such an alternative, as parties have still managed to keep their position in government through the d’Hondt cabinet formation system. Admittedly, the latter system provides incentives for parties to moderate their views as part of its inclusivity and joint decision-making/socialization in the cabinet. As argued in Cochrane and Loizides, D’Hondt’s automaticity in the appointment of the cabinet avoids the lengthy negotiations associated with complex power-sharing settlements. But unlike other consensus democracies where actors need to attract coalition partners, inclusivity in Northern Ireland has been unconditional. As a result, political parties have not developed long-term strategies to maintain political alliances. In Northern Ireland Loizides continued: it is a question of whether other parties will make the necessary condition to provide effective functional Opposition linked to cross-cutting themes and coalition politics, and this may also be a question of timing.

The Role for Civic Society

Seamus McAleavey (CEO, NICVA)noted the important role that civic society can play in bringing about realignment in politics, adding that the political system will only improve if there is pressure from civic society. Still, it is important that the Opposition does not come to be seen as an “enemy”if NGOs and other organisations choose just to lobby parties of government. A relationship with both government and opposition parties is necessary.

Dawn Purvisraised the potential implications for funding streams of such organisations. She stated that Opposition parties must not just score political points but be aware of, and engage in, critical relationships that will benefit these organisations and political parties mutually.

Delegates generally agreed that engagement levels between politicians and civic society is not at as high as it used to be, or ought to be. One delegate claimed that the original Civic Forum requirement enshrined in the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in Northern Ireland was “stillborn, then buried”, but with the recent Fresh Start Agreement there may be a greater opportunity for civic engagement.

Practicalities of Opposition

John McCallister told delegates that the government parties do not like criticism. He said civic leaders can potentially deploy or set up All Party Groups at the Assembly, which are made up of backbench MLAs and can be used as a type of opposition mechanism. Here, he used the example of Sinn Féin MLA Daithi McKay putting forward a Bill that was not on the DUP-Sinn Féin list of policy priorities.

Mr McAllister continued: from a practical point of view a UUP-SDLP Opposition should not jump into anything they cannot sustain, or would further divide them. We ideally want to get to the point where people develop policies making Opposition work, not just whining form the corner they occupy. Opposition parties should work together on their strengths and stick by the idea that “today’s Opposition could be tomorrow’s government”.

Concluding Remarks

Bringing the conversation to a close, Professor Cochranenoted that already the emerging theme of the event seemed to be that the dynamics are changing in Northern Ireland politics, but in what direction things are going no-one is quite sure. The recent result of the European Union referendum, which decided that the UK withdraws from the EU by a slim margin, will certainly add to the new dynamic.

Keynote speech, by Professor Stevo Pendarovski: “Formal and informal power-sharing arrangements: Lessons from the Western Balkans”

(With questions and answers chaired by Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan)

Former Yugoslavia, Republic of Macedonia and Ohrid Framework Agreement

Historically, the former Yugoslavia was a one-party state and was made up of six constituent republics. Before the country disintegrated there was a rotating presidency. Today, governing arrangements in two of those jurisdictions, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia acknowledge the main ethnic groups that exist there.

The make-up of Macedonia’s population is 65 per cent ethnic Macedonians, and 25 per cent ethnic Albanians.

After the fall of communism in the 1990s, informal governing arrangements continued in Macedonia; there were no specific constitutional or legal prescriptions for power-sharing arrangements.

In 2001, the Ohrid Framework Agreement was brokered by the international community on the lakeside resort of Ohrid. This brought forward over 100 laws which had to be adopted and adhered to just one year after the Agreement was enacted.

Many ethnic Macedonians saw the Ohrid Framework Agreement as a step towards the dissolution of the country whereas ethnic Albanians saw it as confirming they were legally and constitutionally equal with Macedonians.

Cross-Community Voting and Opposition

Whereas with the Good Friday Agreement there is an obligation for cross-community support in the Assembly for the nominees for First Minister and deputy First Minister, in Macedonia such cross-community support is not required to appoint heads of government. Cross-community support, however, is often required in the parliament.

Some important aspects are excluded from this kind of cross-community voting in the Macedonian parliament; for example, passing the budget does not require  both ethnic communities to vote in favour.

Macedonia does not have an institutionalised opposition or shadow government. The opposition to the government is known, but these parties are not afforded special provisions such as enhanced speaking rights in the parliament, as can now be afforded to the Opposition at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In Macedonian elections parties will usually pursue their own ethnic agenda, but once in the Parliament they are usually not so keen on pursuing such issues.

Omissions from the Ohrid Agreement

What are the two biggest omissions from the Ohrid Agreement Framework? The power-sharing structures that exist at the national level are not replicated at the local level. There are local achievements, but these depend on the will of actors as opposed to formal structures.

The second big omission from the Ohrid Framework Agreement is that it does not reflect the country’s broader multi-ethnic reality. Smaller ethnic communities in Macedonia (e.g. Roma) are simply not specifically mentioned in the Framework. Ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians are essentially the main focus of politics.

Question: Minority Ethnic Groups in Parliament

On the representation of ethnic groups in the Macedonian Parliament, Professor Pendarovski opined that the current arrangements are not effective, adding Macedonia is a young country with a young democracy still with a ‘winner takes all’ mind-set. There are currently 27 ethnic Albanian MPs and an additional 18 from other ethnic groups; these groups by themselves they cannot adapt the law, and only ethnic Albanians can make up the opposition. He added that they have the right to articulate criticism and to utilise the media but nothing more than that.

Question: Veto Powers in Parliament

In the Macedonian Parliament ethnic groups can employ a veto in prescribed areas, and in conversations this was compared with the Petition of Concern mechanism which has been utilised by parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This mechanism has no limitation on subject matter which, it was argued, means it is prone to abuse. It has been used to block moves at approving same-sex marriage as well as welfare reform. Asked how often do ethnic communities use a veto in the Macedonian Parliament, Professor Pendarovski thought not often; ethnic groups often call for more veto powers, but they are more focused on threatening to use the veto rather than actually employing it.

Northern Ireland and Elsewhere: Comparative dimensions in Power-sharing

(Led by Dr. Neophytos Loizides, University of Kent; with Thibaud Bodson, Leuven Institute for Human Rights and Critical Studies on the Brussels Capital region (BCR) Comparison)

The session began with an overview of consociationalism and acknowledgement that power-sharing set-ups are rare and thus difficult to find data in which to compare and contrast arrangements. The fear associated with consociationalism is that politicians or representatives may not get to the stage of effective decision-making; the Belgian example shows how difficult it can be, even to form a government.

Thibaud Bodsonshared with delegates the various differences between the Northern Ireland and Brussels Capital Region (BCR) case studies of consociationalism. Brussels, he said, is a city and region that has an Executive and Parliamentary level of governance. Throughout the whole of Belgium, Brussels is the only bilingual French and Dutch speaking region.

  • The Parliamentary level: is constituted of 89 seats divided into French and Dutch speaking groups; Dutch speakers receive a fixed number of 17 seats in the Parliament. French speakers receive the remaining 72. Both figures are fixed by law. Political parties have to designate themselves into one or the other and the people vote in these groups.
  • The Executive level: in Brussels the government consists of five ministers including the leaders. Two belong to the French-speaking group and two belong to the Dutch-speaking group; the leader is to take a neutral position. Thus, 50 per cent of the Executive is for the Dutch-speaking group. The leader of the largest party undertakes negotiations with others to form a coalition. There must be a double majority within Parliament and each linguistic group. If they cannot propose a first minister then the Parliament will use a majority to do so.

Proportional Representation

For Thibaud, the minority mechanisms in place, such as the overrepresentation of the Dutch, is justified: if there was no protection then the cultural Dutch group would slowly erode out of the Parliament losing popularity. Dutch people would then move back to Flanders. The Brussels veto is called the ‘alarm bell’ procedure.

A question posed to Thibaud related to proportionality:Is the generous over-representation of groups linked to a bigger space to provide it politically? It seems that in Northern Ireland such a system would be difficult to facilitate. According to Thibaud, the French majority in the region is accepted because this over-representation mirrors the protections granted to the French speaking group at the national level, where the group is a minority.

Group Designation

A delegate raised the issue that in both examples, BCR and Northern Ireland there are two ‘communities’, but in Northern Ireland recently there has been the emergence of the designation of ‘other’. The system, then, may have to adapt. To this Thibaud responded that in BCR there is currently no alternative to the Dutch/French designations.

On the point of designation and the formalised divide, it was generally agreed that the BCR example merely seeks to formally divide groups rather than to unify the two.

Here, a delegate claimed that the Northern Ireland model seems a more liberal model than the BCR case. As seen at the last Northern Ireland Assembly election in May, the model is arguably more flexible and able to reflect the demands of the electorate; the Northern Ireland model does not restrict smaller parties from gaining power.

Professor Cochranemade the point that in 1998 the UUP and SDLP were the dominant parties, but have since respectively been replaced by the DUP and Sinn Féin, parties which look set to dominate for some time.

The issue of negative political campaigning and voting was raised, such as rhetoric encouraging voters to vote for one party to keep another out of power or from the position of First Minister. According to John McCallisterit is fair to say that similar exercises are not unique to Northern Ireland but visible at Westminster and in Dublin, also.

On the BCR example, Thibaud mentioned that since the Parliament was first formed the constitution has been changed numerous times; there is some openness to change.

Northern Ireland, the EU referendum and implications on cross-border and international relations

(Led by Quintin Oliver, Stratagem International)

On Referendums, Northern Ireland and the EU

Quintin Oliveropened the session by summarising the result of the European Union referendum, in which the UK voted to leave the EU. Referendums as a tool are being used more frequently throughout the continent. Just as with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, in this latest vote the status quowas not attractive, rendering the uncertainties more attractive, or at least less risky.

With Northern Ireland’s two largest and governing parties advocating two different outcomes (Sinn Féin campaigned for ‘Remain’ whereas the DUP backed a ‘Leave’ vote) a deep existential cleavage was placed between the two which could severely affect the workings of the new Executive elected in May. In addition, we may even now see the rest of EU member states begin to revisit their relationship with the European Union.

A significant topic of debate may relate to funding: what happens to EU funding; who or what will replace it.

Quintin Oliver also stated that the role of the Irish government will be interesting, in terms of what moves they seek to take to protect their interests and secure trade and other cross-border activities. Here, he added the British-Irish Council is one of the “sleeping giants”from the Good Friday Agreement that has never really been deployed as a vehicle for discussions. This has the potential to be a forum for new discussions in relation to the movement of people, energy and so on.

‘Brexit’ Implications for Northern Ireland’s Programme for Government

During discussions the point was made that the Northern Ireland Executive’s Programme for Government has not been fully agreed yet and is open to consultation. There is no explicit mention of the need for EU membership, but it may still prove challenging to implement all objectives without it.

Discussions focused upon whether Northern Ireland may receive some kind of special status. It was generally agreed that the other 27 EU member states will not want to punish Northern Ireland, especially considering the fact that its electorate – as opposed to voters in England and Wales – voted to stay within the EU. But politics may trump economics?

Professor Cochraneadded that Northern Ireland is now in a unique position, for better or worse. The region is the only part of the UK which shares a border with the EU, and it is uncertain what government parties will make of it.

One delegate said that, although he did not agree with the result it does produce somewhat or a fresh start for the Executive, an opportunity: “everything is up for grabs now”.

Delegates questioned how the Opposition at the Northern Ireland Assembly might respond to the EU referendum result together. A coherent approach from all of Northern Ireland is important, it was agreed. It was mentioned that the last thing that Whitehall will want ahead of initiating negotiations to leave the EU is a Northern Ireland falling apart.

Views from across Europe

To the conversation, Thibaud Bodsonadded that there is a need to see what the reaction of other EU members may be to the referendum result.

Professor Stevo Pendarovskiadded that across Europe the UK has always been viewed as having “one leg in and one leg out”of the EU; it was only a matter of time before a vote like this came about. With the Western Balkans the result may be a heavy blow for pro-EU activists and may provide a boost to separatist movements.

Concluding Remarks

Finishing up the session, and the conference, Quintin Oliver said that the UK Parliament does technically have the power to overrule a referendum result, though this has very rarely ever happened. He stated that there is often a phenomenon of ‘voter’s remorse’; one cannot overstate it, but it is there. Following the EU vote, those who voted ‘Remain’ in the UK referendum and lost, will need to find commonness with those who voted ‘Leave’. The EU referendum is not nearly as bitter as that of the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which was a matter of life or death.


July 2016