Stability of the Institutions and Referral to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 19th October 2021.

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Debate resumed on amendments to motion:

That this Assembly affirms the importance of the stability of these institutions in order to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland; refers to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee under Standing Order 59(3)(b) consideration of the matter of replacing the current cross-community voting system, which is based on community designations, with a weighted majority system free from designations, to be used in place of cross-community voting in the circumstances specified in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 or when a reformed petition of concern is invoked; and agrees that the Committee should report on the outcome of this consideration to the Assembly before the end of this mandate. — [Ms Armstrong.]

Which amendments were:

No 1: Leave out all after "Northern Ireland;" and insert: "recognises the growing numbers of people in our community who do not primarily identify as unionist or nationalist; acknowledges that the votes of those they elect are not currently treated equally within these institutions; further acknowledges that the system of designations perpetuates division, inequality, and instability; welcomes work initiated by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to consider the matter of replacing the current cross-community voting system, which is based on community designations, with a weighted majority system free from designations, to be used in place of cross-community voting in the circumstances specified in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 or when a reformed petition of concern is invoked; calls on the Committee to report on the outcome of this consideration to the Assembly before the end of this mandate; and further calls on the UK Government to legislate to make provision for such alternative arrangements at the earliest opportunity." — [Ms Armstrong.]

No 2: Leave out all after "Northern Ireland;" and insert: "notes the strong case for reviewing and supplementing designation-related voting, elections and appointments in the Northern Ireland Assembly with additional measures commensurate with wide community support; refers to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee under Standing Order 59(3)(b) consideration of additional voting procedures that maintain the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement while establishing options for weighted majority voting beyond designations; further refers for consideration the restoration of joint election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in line with the Good Friday Agreement; and agrees that the Committee should report on the outcome of this consideration to the Assembly before the end of this mandate." — [Mr McGrath.]

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Before I make my substantive remarks, I will let the House know that Sinn Féin will abstain on the two amendments and on the substantive motion.

Our party is up for dialogue about the institutions, about how things work and about some of the points that Kellie Armstrong raised on how her mandate is recognised. All that has to take place in an atmosphere where there is equality of opportunity for all in the Chamber and where previous long-standing agreements are honoured by all in the Chamber.

Looking at the political atmosphere in which we are currently working, our party has serious concerns about the trajectory and attitude of the two main unionist parties in particular — the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party — and about their views on sharing power with their nationalist and republican neighbours. That is the context in which any discussion or negotiation will take place. We do not want to give anyone the impression that we will allow our electorate to be discriminated against.

I heard Kellie's comments about the mandate of the Alliance Party, the Greens, People Before Profit and others, and how that is counted. I am deeply proud to be a nationalist and republican. I see it as a political philosophy that is forward thinking and inclusive, and that is about the future while conscious of the past. We want to see, in the Chamber and Executive, a working power-sharing institution that represents all the citizens of this part of the island.

As I have said in the Chamber before, I am proud to say that I share power with my Protestant, unionist, loyalist — and whatever other descriptions are out there — neighbours. When I was in the Executive, there were two Alliance Ministers. I am proud to say that I was in an Executive that had representation from all the major parties at that time. When we reach a stage where somebody on the Benches opposite can stand and say, "I am proud to say that I share power with Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party or whoever else gets a mandate to be in the Executive", society will have taken a huge step forward. A huge step forward.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. It is interesting that he talks about how he is proud to be a republican and that that is the way forward. The previous Member from his party to speak said that republicans have a progressive agenda. Do you understand how people on this side of the House, and the people whom we represent, feel when your progressive agenda includes your party promoting and glorifying terrorists and terrorism?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member will have an extra minute.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Power-sharing includes our having different understandings of the past. My experience of the British Army, the RUC, the UDR, and all that other paraphernalia that went around this state, is different from yours, but I accept that you have a right to honour that. You have a right to remember the past from your perspective. I thought that you were going to stand up and completely shock me by saying that your party is proud to share power with republicans, the SDLP and Alliance, but you did not.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Sorry, Kellie. Do you want to intervene?

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Yes. I would just like to say that this is exactly why this is happening. I respect all your political opinions. Why am I still a second-class citizen in cross-community voting in the House? Why can we not have equality?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Kellie, we must get to a position where we have equality. However, the Good Friday Agreement, at that point in time, was about bringing to an end a conflict between the two main traditions on the island, nationalism and unionism. You can shake your head all you want, but that is what the conflict was. Have things evolved? Are we in an Ireland of transition? Yes, without a doubt. We are in an Ireland of transition where there are many different views. That makes this a much richer place, and it makes the Assembly richer and more diverse. That has to be recognised as we go into the future.

You must also recognise that we currently have the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party refusing to say whether, under the current agreement, if Sinn Féin were the largest party after the next election, they would nominate a deputy First Minister. They cannot say it. How can we move forward and change in that circumstance? Let me make this clear: if Sinn Féin is the largest party after the next election, we will nominate Michelle O'Neill as First Minister. If Sinn Féin is the second-largest party, we will nominate Michelle O'Neill as deputy First Minister, regardless of who is the largest party. If we do not have enough votes to take seats in the Executive, we will be in the Chamber, operating the structures of the Good Friday Agreement and seeking change. Kellie has talked about her mandate. We will not allow anybody to treat our electorate as second-class citizens.

The question for the future is: how do we ensure that no one in the Chamber feels that they are being treated as a second-class citizen. Until that equation is made —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

— it will be difficult to progress from where we are now.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will speak on behalf of the SDLP amendment, but I acknowledge the Alliance Party's amendment to its own motion, which goes some way to addressing many of our concerns. Many Members have already acknowledged that review provisions were, in fact, deliberately written into the agreement, both in overall terms and in relation to specific institutions or strands. The SDLP, during those negotiations and publicly during the 1998 referendum campaign, recognised that the provisions on designation and cross-community voting should and would be subject to review. We said then that we hoped that some of the necessary checks and balances might be biodegradable so that, as the environment changed, we could see agreement to have less reliance on what would be seen as more artificial containment of democratic decisions. The abuse of the petition of concern, which was never properly legislated for or operated as per the Good Friday Agreement's actual terms, and other examples have led to wider questions about the efficacy, appropriateness or, indeed, extent of cross-community voting thresholds or even the system of designation on which these are counted.

As I have said, the SDLP is open to a review. Indeed, at Westminster, our MPs have tabled an amendment to what is known as the NDNA legislation. It was supported by the Alliance Party MP, Stephen Farry, and we are open to joint election being endorsed by one or more of parallel consent or qualified weighted majority — for example, 60% of those present and voting or two thirds of MLAs. If the Alliance Party can support that amendment to the British Government's legislation, I cannot understand why it cannot support that as a recommendation to the AER Committee, as outlined in our amendment.

Cross-community voting did not come out of nowhere. It came about as a result of intensive negotiations after a period of misrule by one party. The intention in the Good Friday Agreement was not only to prevent that from happening but to enshrine the rights of minorities, both now and into the future, whatever shape the jurisdiction —.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Can the Member confirm how she feels that cross-community voting that does not count my vote in the same way is protecting me as a minority in the House?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I want to move on to the Alliance Party's portrayal of itself as somehow being lesser citizens. In actual fact, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will recall that Mr O'Dowd did not respect our mandate when he said on 'The View' a number of years ago that the other parties did not matter outside of the two big parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

[Interruption.]

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. Order. Order.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Will the Member take an intervention?

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I will not take an intervention. That is a matter of record. He said that nobody else's mandate mattered but Sinn Féin and the DUP's. As for the Alliance Party, it was happy —.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I hope that it is a point of order.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

It is a point of order. Is it in order for the House to be misled by the Member by statements that are not factual?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I have no way of knowing whether it is factual or not. Your point has been recorded in Hansard.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is recorded on iPlayer and YouTube. I might be paraphrasing, but that was the gist of what Mr O'Dowd said. People were shocked that night, and there was quite a lot of response on social media to that.

I want to go back to Ms Armstrong's portrayal of the Alliance Party as being somehow less. Our mandate has been disrespected, and I think that the mandate of a lot of parties has been disrespected by the power struggle between Sinn Féin and the DUP, who look only to their own constituencies and not to the greater good. Of course, that was what the Good Friday Agreement was all about: we would end the tribalism and work together collaboratively for the common good. Seamus Mallon described what happened at St Andrews as the Balkanisation of the North, and we have seen that subsequently. Going back, the Alliance Party was happy to take the Justice Ministry when, arguably, the SDLP was entitled to a second Ministry at that time. I remember saying to the late Martin McGuinness that no nationalist need apply, and that still prevails in relation to the appointment of the Justice Minister.

Over recent years, the mandate of the Alliance Party has counted for much more than that of many other parties in the House. That is a matter of record.

I move now to the race to be First Minister. We all know that it is a joint office with equal standing. One cannot move without the other, which, of course, is why there is such paralysis around the Executive table these days and no business coming to the Business Committee. There is paralysis and a mutual veto that Sinn Féin conceded to the DUP at St Andrews to spare its blushes when going through the Lobby to vote for Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister. Now, it has come back to bite the DUP, and it has done so quickly. The SDLP is up for a review.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:45 pm, 19th October 2021

Will the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

We are up for a review that is in the best interests of all and for having collaboration across Departments that is in the best interests of all.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I support the Alliance Party motion and the Alliance Party amendment.

Recent elections have clearly demonstrated a heightened interest in a united community where everyone in Northern Ireland is treated equally, but the Assembly continues to represent institutionalised division through its binary and outdated designation system. Recent elections have also shown a significant increase in votes for parties whose members do not designate as unionist or nationalist. The 2017 election returned 11 such MLAs of the 90. That is factual.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Will he clarify the Alliance Party's position? Its Members here designate as not being unionist or nationalist, but some members of his party have indicated, including recently in the media, that they would support a united Ireland. Some of them might even be close to where he is sitting.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I can clarify my position. I have been asked many times over the years whether I am a unionist Alliance Party member or a nationalist Alliance Party member. The answer — clearly, firmly and proudly — is neither. That is the case today, and it will be the case going forward.

It is undemocratic that an effective veto power should continue for some parties — only some parties — in these circumstances. However, simply removing the petition of concern, for example, does not address the other issues, with the votes of unionists and nationalists counting twice while others count only once. That is why there needs to be a major reform of the voting system in the Assembly. It is untenable to persist with a mechanism that discriminates against up to 25% of voters. While it is tempting to consider minor tweaks, which, by the way, also require a majority of others, it does not make an unfair system fairer. The obvious solution for mathematical simplicity and in the interests of fairness is to remove designations and require key votes in the Assembly to be passed by other means, perhaps a simple weighted majority of two thirds initially that could be reduced to 60% over time. There are alternatives. These are matters for proper and further discussion and subsequent agreement. Given the relative strengths of unionism, nationalism and others, it would ensure that key votes had a de facto cross-community majority while removing the veto from any single party.

I am hopeful that the work of the AERC, which was referenced by Mr McHugh, to commence and bring forward reports will progress at pace and that those reports can be made available to us as soon as possible. It would improve governance in Northern Ireland if those changes were made, and it would help us to steer away from recurring stalemate and stand-off. If we are serious about increasing participation in politics by those from a wider range of backgrounds, including those currently underrepresented, and about making local politics more diverse, we must stop treating those who are not traditional unionists or nationalists as second-class citizens without equal voice or equal vote. The reform of the institutions is a vital part of that. Recently, some have talked about taking themselves and us back to 1998. That will not work either, given how, at the start of the lifetime of the Assembly, others were forgotten about then also. If truth be told, the Assembly, in its early days, was not without times of deadlock. That is no longer acceptable. Until the designations are removed and our votes are counted equally, parties such as Alliance will continue to be disadvantaged, and so will the people of Northern Ireland who choose to vote for us.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

In opening the debate, Mrs Armstrong made a number of powerful points that would be hard to refute. She has a legitimate grievance about the fact that her designation is less equal than others. She is right when she says that the system perpetuates division. That, of course, is the outworking of the Belfast Agreement, for which the Alliance Party was a cheerleader. Whereas Mrs Armstrong said that mandatory coalition does not work, the sad thing about her motion and amendment is that they utterly avoid that issue. The gaping void in the motion and the amendment is any reference to mandatory coalition, a system that is inherently and congenitally incapable of working because it is based on a number of unworkable premises, one of which is that you do not have to be agreed about anything in order to be in government. Hence it is no surprise that, in government, we see the dysfunctionality, the disagreement and the shambles that characterise these institutions.

Of course, the other fatal flaw in mandatory coalition is that it denies the electorate its most fundamental right: the right to change its Government. Yesterday, I quoted the late Tony Benn and his five democratic questions, the fifth of which was:

"How do we get rid of you?"

If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system. That is the very essence of mandatory coalition: provided a party continues to hold a handful of Assembly seats, it is guaranteed, as of right, a place in government. The right to vote a party out of government is removed from the electorate. Across the world, people go to the polls more often than not inspired by the determination to vote a party out. In this country, we are denied that basic democratic right because of the iniquity of mandatory coalition. There will never be stability or a working system of government in these institutions as long as there is mandatory coalition, because it disincentivises the need to agree about anything. It fundamentally denies the electorate the right that should be the most cherished: the right to change its Government. You all sit here cocooned in the knowledge that, no matter how big a hames you make of government, provided you hang on to a handful of seats, you cannot be removed. What sort of farcical system is that?

Then we are surprised when some come to the House and weep crocodile tears about it not working, its dysfunctionality and the fact that it is falling apart. Of course it will fall apart; it is incapable of holding together. The only glue that holds it together is the self-interest of being in government in the sure and certain knowledge that you can never not be in government. If you build into that farce the fact that you can only have a Government if, at their top and heart, you have a party that does not even want Northern Ireland to exist, you arrive at the ultimate farce of why this system of government can never work, will never work, cannot bring good government and will continue to bring the dysfunctionality that is a shame on the system.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I support the Alliance motion and amendment.

It is clear that change is urgently required in this arena. We will support a report being completed that would initiate that process, not least because of the misuse of the petition of concern to intervene in legislation that does not target one community or the other but targets all communities, issues such as welfare reform and marriage equality, to name but two.

I probably have different policies, politics and views from the supporters of the motion about the record or ability of these institutions to deliver for the people here. Obviously, I am not part of the Executive. The Executive have not done anything near enough to deliver for people generally. I do not adhere to the school of thought that we must save the Executive at all costs, especially when it involves continuing to attack working-class people and minorities. The record of the Executive and therefore these institutions is not great, to put it mildly. Time and again they have been part of the problem in implementing austerity, enshrining inequality and, indeed, entrenching division.

While I might differ on politics from the proposer of the motion, I can certainly get behind its action points. They aim to alleviate the entrenched sectarianism that exists in the Chamber, where socialist, oppositional and minority voices such as mine are constantly squeezed out and forced to the sidelines because of the communalisation of politics in debates where my vote and those of others literally do not count. The enshrined communalisation of politics perpetuated by these institutions has helped to create a situation where sectarianism thrives and re-emerges in a context of —.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Is it not lazy rhetoric, in some ways, to refer to sectarianism in the Chamber? Do you honestly believe that the thousands of neighbours you have in west Belfast who vote Sinn Féin are sectarian?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I did not say that, so I do not know where the Member is getting that. The point that I am making to the Member, which he cannot answer, is this: why do my vote and the votes of the people who elect me, the Alliance Party, the Greens and others not matter in debates in the Chamber? He cannot answer that question, so that is the question I would put back to him. Clearly, he has no answer to it.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

No, I have given way.

With regard to inequality, there are now more peace walls separating working-class areas than when the agreement was signed in 1998. The development of class politics based on unity as opposed to division is constantly undermined by communal competition. It is ironic as well as farcical to think that a mechanism such as the petition of concern, which was apparently set up to prevent sectarianism discrimination, has in reality helped to entrench sectarianism and discrimination. Worse still, perhaps, is the way in which that mechanism has been used to block progress on issues of rights and well-being for people from all communities. Clearly, that is wrong. There are many examples of that, and it adds insult to injury that votes on those issues were not considered from parties that do not designate as "nationalist" or "unionist" — a point to be emphasised for Mr O'Dowd. That is inherently undemocratic. The reality, however, is that that mechanism does not prevent sectarianism discrimination; it entrenches it. I do not know where else in the world only people with a certain political designation would be allowed to have a vote on LGBTQ+ rights or austerity cuts. In that sense, people from all communities have been let down.

I reiterate the view that tinkering with voting systems will not bring stability to this place. The petition of concern has not been used since the Executive reformed in 2020, yet levels of political stability are on the floor, with daily threats to bring the institutions down. There was dog-whistle support for mobilisations on the streets that led to riots, with some in the highest offices giving them a nod and a wink.

What we really need is a new kind of politics, one that rejects the communal and sectarian framework and tries to reach out across the divide on the basis of unity. We need a vision based on unity — fighting not one another but to challenge poverty, inequality and marginalisation — unity over division in order to build a better society for people, their health and our planet. That is what I am up for in the period ahead.

I want to talk briefly about the hypocrisy of those who are waging a somewhat pathetic fight over the First Minister position. The truth is that the First Minister and deputy First Minister positions have no real legal difference. The DUP has been happy to share power with Sinn Féin for years while implementing austerity with them as partners in government. Now, however, faced with a sustained crisis in unionism, they revert to what they know best: beating the communal drum and heightening tensions. They have been doing it for months, and much of the commentary from the DUP and some in the UUP about the First Minister position is simply another example of the chronic opportunism and insecurity that is a result of the crisis facing unionism.

Working-class people on the Shankill Road, in Tiger's Bay and in every other working-class area in our constituencies deserve much better.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:00 pm, 19th October 2021

I call on Mr Mark Durkan to make a winding-up speech on amendment No 2. You have up to five minutes.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

We live in a place, whatever people choose to call it, that has transformed over the last two decades, but that transformation is nowhere near to the extent that it is not recognisable. There is much that remains unchanged. Our institutional arrangements were designed to facilitate peace. They brought our citizens some semblance of stability after decades of bloodshed. As part of a carefully sculpted framework, they recognised the need to incentivise cooperation and accountability. That said, the arrangements were not and, certainly now, are not without imperfection.

In the negotiations and publicly during the 1998 referendum campaign, the SDLP recognised that the provisions on designation and cross-community voting should and would be subject to review. Flexibilities were deliberately written in, and those solutions were never meant to be permanent. However, while it may be premature to deviate from that framework just now, it is important that we discuss the stability or, rather, the instability of the institutions and strive to improve.

Ms Armstrong conveyed her and her party's frustration at being less equal than others in here. I understand her and anyone's desire to challenge and want to change that. However, I saw a wee tweet from Alliance members doing the rounds earlier that suggested that, far from being displeased or dissatisfied about the politics of us-uns and them-uns, they are almost trying to create a new us-uns and them-uns, where all of us-uns are those with any view on the constitutional question, regardless of what that view is.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

When the Member says that there are us-uns and them-uns and portrays Alliance as being on the outside, we are on the outside, because we do not have the same vote as you. I am a lesser person, and my vote counts for less when a cross-community vote happens here. Is that not correct?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

As the Member acknowledged in the amendment to her own motion, work is being done on that by the AERC. It has been accepted and is viewed as needing to be changed. I have accepted it. I stated clearly today that you are right to challenge it, and we need to change it.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I think that Alliance in particular is content to play the role of victim and has done so with aplomb, so I congratulate the Member on that.

In relation to the SDLP amendment, the civil rights movement challenged one-party rule or misrule that was compounded by a loaded voting system that denied due representation to others. Yet the outworkings of the St Andrews Agreement results in leadership that, arguably, is not truly representative of those in the Chamber, never mind the wider population, and it presents a thread of instability that hangs like the sword of Damocles over not just us but all.

We now know that unequal power can be granted to one party, selected by the St Andrews Agreement algorithm, to freeze or even crash institutions. Evidently, that does not count or respect people's vote or other parties' mandates in keeping with spirit of one person, one vote. We tabled our amendment to spell out that democratic reality. In supporting the Alliance amendment, we recognise the full picture of the problems that now threaten not only democratic credibility but stability. We accept that direction for change is needed; however, that does not begin with the abandonment of the Good Friday Agreement features before alternatives are agreed.

Prior to the St Andrews Agreement, the First Ministers' appointment was to be achieved through parallel consent. Yes, that is First Ministers, plural, as Mr Carroll reminded us that we have two First Ministers in a joint office, which seems to have been lost on some for some time and others more recently — I think it escaped Mr McHugh's attention earlier. The SDLP wants to see a return to that methodology or, as mentioned earlier, at least a review to identify alternatives. We are open to a joint election being endorsed by parallel consent, qualified weighted majority or a two-thirds majority MLA vote. Mrs Kelly pointed out that the SDLP recently expressed that desire at Westminster in an amendment to the so-called NDNA Bill, which was supported by Alliance. As such, it should be supported as an AERC recommendation for British Government legislation.

Our amendment acknowledges that there are problems that need to be addressed. The most recent state of paralysis, three years of inaction, served only to frustrate, to deepen our health and housing crises and to inflict more Tory austerity on our citizens. Put simply, it achieved only further suffering in our communities. Our aim is to support the AERC in the exploration of this issue and to contribute to greater cohesion and stability, which the motion seeks. We concur that the mechanisms that were once intended as safeguards, such as the petition of concern, have become tools of abuse, holding parties to ransom rather than facilitating inclusion.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

The time will come when we can remove the ugly scaffolding. Sadly, that time is not now. This place is a work in progress. To paraphrase Heaney, we may let the scaffolds fall when we are confident that we have built our wall.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Andrew Muir to make a winding-up speech on the motion and amendment No 1. The Member has 10 minutes.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. In winding on the motion and the amendment, I will seek to do two things: one is to make our case for the motion and amendment, and the other is to reflect on the debate, which was, in my view, good-natured until a short while ago.

The voting designations and the structures within the Northern Ireland Assembly are based on a society that was very different from the one in which we live today. Let us recall what life was like, back in 1998. 'Titanic' was released in the cinemas; Google was founded; Britney Spears issued her debut single; Geri left the Spice Girls; and, most importantly for me, there were very few legal protections for LGBT people in Northern Ireland. There were no civil partnerships, never mind equal marriage. There was no equal age of consent. It was a very different society and a different time in Northern Ireland.

I supported the Good Friday Agreement, and I still do. I was proud to campaign for it, and I was glad to see the yes vote having such a high majority. There were certain aspects of the Good Friday Agreement that all of us supported; on others, we had concerns. Some of us were on the other side of the debate, and we argued those points. Seeing Section 75 included in the Good Friday Agreement was a monumental change for me, as a gay man living in Derry in 1998. Public policy was changing to embed equality of opportunity in the public sphere. It was the first time that that had come on the horizon, and I had hope for the future. I realise that the institutions that were established reflected the time and the peace process that we were living in. I remember the Troubles and issues that occurred, probably a year before that.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

However, the rules of the Good Friday Agreement and of these institutions have not been updated to reflect the new, modern society. It is not just Northern Ireland that has these issues. I remember visiting Sarajevo about three years ago and meeting LGBT organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a result of being a post-conflict society, they live with the same structures, which very much embed division and inhibit decision-making. They are a community that wants to be heard and to have institutions that reflect the modern society that is evolving in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I want us to do that today. If not today, when? We need change.

It seems to me that, in many aspects of this place, the institutions have been stuck in analogue and are yet to move to digital, while the rest of society has. The reality is that not all votes are treated equally in the Chamber. Yes, votes on this motion will count equally, but when there are cross-community votes, for example on the Budget or when a petition of concern is tabled, my vote does not count the same as others', because cross-community consent is required for those things to pass. That is not right.

The system also ingrains deadlock and perpetrates division. We have to look only at how the institutions work to see that: the process of getting something onto the Executive agenda to get things through is very slow. People outside are frustrated with that. They want government to deliver for them. The thing that sticks with me is from when my colleague Stephen Farry was elected as MP for North Down. On being installed as an MLA, which was a great privilege, the first thing that I was asked to do was designate. You are not asked to do that in any other job. Normally, you are asked your name, you get your staff pass and you get shown around the building, but here you have to put down whether you are nationalist, unionist or other.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Yes, no problem.

Photo of William Humphrey William Humphrey DUP

Those of us who sit on these Benches are very proud to be unionists, and those on the other side claim to be republicans or nationalists. Do you not understand the confusion that there is for some of us when you come in here and do not align as unionist or nationalist, but out there your members in the public domain — the Member for Strangford Ms Armstrong can shake her head all she likes — declare themselves as being in support of a united Ireland? Some members of your party have done that recently.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

With respect, it is not a point of order. Arguably it is a point of debate, but it is not a point of order.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his intervention. I understand the point that he is making. Many people in society in Northern Ireland identify as many different things: unionist, nationalist, republican, loyalist, gay, Northern Irish or whatever. That is fine, and it is really important that people are able to have those identities and freely express them. The issue is that, when you are elected by the people and come in here, there is a legal requirement for you to designate and for the voting system to be based on those identities. That is the issue that we have with how the Chamber works and how every single person's vote does not count fairly and equally within it.

The amendment that we tabled acknowledges that the AERC is dealing with the matter. We received a letter from the Committee at the end of last week. It is important that that work is done by the end of the mandate and that change is delivered. We also think — this speaks to the amendment — that the UK Government should legislate on this issue. There is little point in the AERC debating the issue and the House potentially coming to a consensus on it, but then no progress. People want to see action on this.

That brings me to summarising some elements of the debate. Opening the debate, Kellie Armstrong said that we cannot be kicking the can down the road. If kicking the can down the road was an event at the Olympic Games, the Northern Ireland Assembly would win it. We need to be able to complete this work by the end of the mandate and give decisive leadership on it. As outlined by Kellie, where there is a will there is a way. We can do things here. We can change things.

I will not be able to go through all of the Members' contributions, as the debate was extensive. Paul Frew, in his contribution, made the case for reform. I agree with him that there is a need for reform, and one clear area of reform is in relation to the St Andrews Agreement. We are living with a situation where, day by day, there is a debate about who will hold the posts of First Minister and deputy First Minister, when in reality it is a joint office. We have been clear, as a party, that the posts should both be referred to as joint First Ministers. The St Andrews Agreement unpicked some elements of the Good Friday Agreement, and we are now living with the consequences of that.

I will speak to some elements of what the SDLP referred to in its amendment in terms of going back to the factory settings of the Good Friday Agreement. I do not want to go back in Northern Ireland, I want to go forward. That is very clear, so when I see comments about wanting us to go back to 1998, I do not want to go there. It was not a great place, to be honest. I want us to go forward.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The other Gerry was still in the IRA.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Proceed, Mr Muir.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Thank you. It is funny how debates sometimes turn to the Spice Girls, but maybe it would be better if they did that a bit more often in this place.

The changes to the process for the election of the First Minister that were made in the St Andrews Agreement were done purely for electoral benefit. We need to be able to address that, because we cannot continue with the constant instability in our institutions. We are very clear in the Alliance Party that we want the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — joint First Ministers, more like — to be elected beyond the designation system, and, strangely enough, there is some consensus emerging. We do not agree with mandatory coalition: we support a voluntary coalition and also collective responsibility, which is an element that has been lacking in these institutions.

A comment made about the institutions was that Governments need to be held to account and be able to be held accountable. Obviously, there has to be consideration in the AERC on the issue of designations. I understand that they are considering the election of FM and DFM, but there also has to be consideration in due course of mandatory coalition and the benefits of voluntary coalition.

Robbie Butler, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, wanted examples of how others are not treated equally. Since these institutions came back in January 2020, 11 cross-community votes have been held in the Chamber. Most were on Budget Bills, because that is a requirement. When those votes occur, my colleagues and I vote, but our votes do not count unless cross-community consent is achieved. That is not right. It is important that those votes are counted.

John O'Dowd made a point about equality and power-sharing. We can have all the structures that we want, and we can, as a result of the motion, reform all of the structures here. I strongly make the case for that, because we need good, fit-for-purpose structures. However, we also need to come to those structures in the spirit of partnership, power-sharing and respect. We can have negotiation processes, different deals and all the rest of it, but we need to come to the Chamber in the spirit of wanting to treat each other equally and being able to work together. That is crucial. I make that point alongside what we propose today.

Dolores Kelly from the SDLP made a point about the Minister of Justice. In 2011, when that post was up for election, it was part of the d'Hondt mechanism, and there was a cross-community vote to elect the Justice Minister. It is for the House to decide the way forward on that, but that was a process that we agreed in the Assembly.

I have already covered Jim's support for voluntary coalition and the need for us to consider a way forward in that regard.

Lastly, I will touch on some of the points that Gerry Carroll made. Some may see this as an Alliance Party —

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

— issue, but it also affects other parties. I urge Members to consider the amendment and the motion today.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I remind Members that, if it is made, I will not put the Question on amendment No 2.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly affirms the importance of the stability of these institutions in order to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland; recognises the growing numbers of people in our community who do not primarily identify as unionist or nationalist; acknowledges that the votes of those they elect are not currently treated equally within these institutions; further acknowledges that the system of designations perpetuates division, inequality, and instability; welcomes work initiated by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee to consider the matter of replacing the current cross-community voting system, which is based on community designations, with a weighted majority system free from designations, to be used in place of cross-community voting in the circumstances specified in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 or when a reformed petition of concern is invoked; calls on the Committee to report on the outcome of this consideration to the Assembly before the end of this mandate; and further calls on the UK Government to legislate to make provision for such alternative arrangements at the earliest opportunity.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Will Members take their ease for a moment, please?