How to fix the Good Friday Agreement: the 30–20 rule

This article follows on from my previous one: Stormont rules reward unionism’s decline & punish nationalism’s growth. The previous article set out the problems the institutions face currently — this article sets out my proposed solution.

It’s clear that ruling in Northern Ireland should need a high threshold of support. To make key decisions like forming a stable Executive, passing budgets, etc, 50% of unionists and 50% of nationalists must be in support.

For the reasons I set out in my previous article, however, I don’t believe such a threshold is fit for purpose.

So what do I propose instead?

The 30–20 rule

I would argue that the threshold at which unionism can veto key decisions should be set at a proportion of unionist MLAs voting against, equal to one-third of the total number of MLAs voting. This is roughly half of the proportion of unionists and others combined in the 1996 talks forum — together, they held 65% of seats.

Meanwhile, the veto threshold for nationalism should be set at a proportion of nationalist MLAs voting against that is equal to two-ninths (22%) of those voting. Again, this is roughly half the proportion of nationalists and others combined in the 1996 talks forum — together, they held 45% of seats.

In short: unionists should need over 30 MLAs to veto a key decision, and nationalists should need over 20 MLAs to do so. This is assuming a situation where all 90 MLAs are voting on a matter — otherwise, the aforementioned proportions apply.

The numbers voting against in a given category must be greater than the relevant threshold — not just equal to it.

In Executive formation, Executives which do not include up to 20 nationalist MLAs and/or up to 30 unionist MLAs would be possible — so long as they have 50%+1 of seats overall, of course. All parties would still be entitled to ministerial portfolios if they are eligible under d’Hondt.

‘Others’ may have their votes counted under both the unionist and nationalist categories, to an extent, as outlined below.

‘Others’ votes should count towards vetoes — to a point

When cross-community votes on key decisions are held under the reformed system, ‘Others’ should also have their votes against counted as both unionist and nationalist votes, up to certain limits.

The proportion of ‘others’ votes which may count towards a given bloc’s veto, should equal the difference between the combined size of that given bloc and ‘others’ in 1996, and the size of that given bloc today.

Should the given bloc become larger than the combined given bloc and ‘other’ proportion was in 1996, then the votes of ‘others’ against would not count towards the given bloc’s veto threshold in that case.

In essence, this rewards the ‘other’ bloc for winning seats off the unionist and nationalist blocs, as unionists and nationalists are less able to wield vetoes in their own right, and ‘others’ will have more clout if they wish to support a given effort to exercise a veto.

Finally, should a given bloc grow beyond the 1996 combined size of that given bloc and ‘others’ after an election, the threshold of that given bloc should be equal to 50% of its new size, and kept there unless and until the bloc becomes larger in a future election.

We need a referendum to fix the Agreement

The Agreement was passed by approval of 50% of unionists and 50% of nationalists in the talks forum, and then concurrent referendums north and south, on a 50%+1 basis.

It is clear we won’t get 50% of unionists to support an amendment to the Agreement on the lines I’ve suggested — the DUP will object.

But Sinn Féin, Alliance, the UUP and SDLP all want to govern. With around 70% of seats, the heirs of the Yes camp should be able to.

If the Agreement can originally be enacted by referendum, then so too can an amendment to it, if the DUP won’t budge.

Sinn Féin, Alliance, the UUP and SDLP should write to the British government and ask for a referendum to amend the Agreement, to bring in the 30–20 rule.

Even if the UUP won’t support this referendum, Sinn Féin, Alliance and the SDLP hold a majority of seats, and could call one on that basis, with the UUP accepting the result if it succeeds.

If a majority of pro-united Ireland MLAs were elected, this would be enough to call a Border Poll. So why can’t a majority of MLAs request a referendum, to save the Agreement and its institutions, when it is in danger?

Some worry these changes would create a pretext for the DUP, UUP, Alliance, and SDLP to call for a similar referendum to impose on Sinn Féin in the future. I believe this is unlikely.

The DUP have always been the problem because it’s always been the one unable to work with others, contrasting with pro-Agreement parties.

Moreover, in 1996, it was implicitly accepted nationalists could wield vetoes with less seats than unionists, an outworking of the fact that the nationalist bloc is historically smaller. That logic rules out any such attempt by the DUP, UUP, Alliance and SDLP to amend the Agreement by referendum against Sinn Féin’s will under the Assembly’s current composition.

30–20 rule vs voluntary coalition

Some already back voluntary coalition. The DUP, UUP, and Alliance all support it. The SDLP are open to it. Sinn Féin are opposed. Unless Sinn Féin reconsider, voluntary coalition is a non-starter.

The 30–20 rule relaxes mandatory coalition, ensuring the Assembly is workable and ends vexatious attempts to wreck it, while providing adequate and proportionate protection to minorities.

It does not rule out a future move to voluntary coalition, and parties can still accept the 30–20 rule as a compromise in the meantime.

My preference for politics here remains a united Ireland via a Border Poll, but right now, we need an Executive which can save the health service and do what it can (limited as it may be) to help those in need.

There is no justification for the DUP wielding a near-permanent veto over our livelihoods and society. People have rejected it — repeatedly. It’s time our voice is heard.

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