Stormont rules reward unionism’s decline & punish nationalism’s growth

Part one of two articles on how the Good Friday Agreement has drifted from its intentions — and how to fix it

The current situation

The DUP is the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland — by a big margin.

The DUP alone comprises well over 50% of the unionist bloc, before you consider the TUV and ex-DUP independent Alex Easton.

Realistically, there is no prospect of them losing this position. The UUP will likely never overtake the DUP.

Parties with a majority of the unionist bloc, or of the nationalist bloc, can veto key decisions, like forming a stable Executive, passing budgets, electing a Speaker, and so on.

This effectively means the Good Friday Agreement’s mechanisms have given the DUP a permanent veto over the Agreement’s own institutions — despite the DUP et al only having 30% of seats.

Around 30% in the north voted against the Agreement in 1998 (almost entirely anti-Agreement unionists). That wasn’t enough to veto it then. It shouldn’t be enough to grind the Agreement to a halt now.

Pro-Agreement parties still have 70% of the seats, and have got 60–70% of the vote in each of the 23 elections since 1998.

The way things have played out goes against what people voted for in 1998 and every other time since.

Upholding the Agreement’s principles

It’s a good idea that a high threshold of support — higher than a simple majority — should be needed to rule in Northern Ireland.

But the Agreement’s requirement of 50% unionist and 50% nationalist support to make key decisions is not workable.

The Agreement itself would not have passed if the talks forum had the composition of this current Assembly. The Agreement’s designers didn’t envision that the same minority which opposed the Agreement could take a majority of unionist seats, and halt the institutions nearly permanently — especially as anti-Agreement parties were a minority of unionism at the time, and were for years following the Agreement.

Nor did the Agreement’s designers anticipate pro-Agreement unionists shifting to Alliance, perversely giving anti-Agreement unionists an even bigger share of the unionist bloc, as the bloc overall shrinks while anti-Agreement unionists remain at a steadier level of support.

Communities are not monolithic

What we’ve seen is that communities don’t exist in silos. Many unionists are willing to vote for ‘other’ parties like Alliance, and vice versa. There are also nationalist/Alliance swing voters.

Pro-Agreement unionists who shift to Alliance should not lose their political clout — yet by giving unionism a veto but giving less recognition to ‘Other’ parties, this is what the Agreement has done, to its own detriment.

In any redesigned mechanism, the votes of ‘others’ must count.

Moving goalposts over the decades

Another problem is that, because a veto threshold is defined as a percentage of a blocs, this means the number of votes needed to use a veto can vary depending on the size of the bloc.

For example, unionism had 61 out of 110 talks forum seats in 1996 (55% of seats). This meant it could use a veto with 31 of its seats (which was around 27% of the total seats in the Assembly).

Compare this to nationalism on 38 out of 110 seats (35% of seats) — nationalists could veto with only 20 seats (around 17% of seats). As you can see, unionists needed more seats to use a veto than nationalists did — but this was accepted, and few raised this as an issue.

Fast forward to 2022, however, unionism only has 37 out of 90 seats (41% of seats), and now it can use a veto with only 19 seats (21% of seats). In short, the goalposts have moved.

The reason cross-community voting was agreed on as a mechanism, was to protect different minorities from being imposed on by majorities. The minority unionism decided it wanted to protect in 1996, was a portion of unionism represented by 27% of seats. But now, only 21% of MLAs are needed for unionism to use a veto.

Had unionism been able to deploy a veto on only 21% of seats in 1996, the DUP alone would have been able to veto the Agreement. The fact that the Agreement has produced this situation, shows that the letter of its mechanisms contradicts the spirit of its principles.

Decline rewarded, growth punished

Compare this to nationalism: in 1996, they only needed 17% of seats to use a veto, but by 2017, nationalists had grown to 39 seats (43% of the Assembly), meaning they needed 20 seats (22% of seats) to use a veto.

Thus, despite unionism having lost a quarter of its support since 1996, it has gone from needing 27% of seats to use a veto, to 21% of seats — a drop of one-quarter.

Yet between 1996 and 2017, nationalism went from 35% of seats to 43% of seats — an increase of nearly a quarter — and went from needing 17% of seats to use a veto, to needing 22% of seats — again, an increase of nearly a quarter.

The less seats a bloc (or party) needs to wield a veto, the stronger their veto power is. The more seats they need, the weaker their veto power is.

In short, the Good Friday Agreement has created a situation whereby unionism is rewarded for losing votes by being given more veto power, and nationalists have been penalised for winning votes by losing some veto power.

‘Others’ must be included in any mechanism

This is bad enough — but even if the veto threshold for each bloc had been fixed at their 1996 levels (27% of Assembly seats for unionism, 17% of Assembly seats for nationalism), rather than varying according to the sizes of the blocs, anti-Agreement unionism still surpassed the 27% threshold in 2003, 2017 and 2022 — the three elections after which it collapsed the Executive.

This underscores that it is necessary to take the ‘others’ into account.

The Agreement is outdated and unfit for 2022

The spirit of the Agreement, and the letter of how its mechanisms operate in the context of today’s changed political landscape, now contradict.

We did not vote for the DUP and TUV to be able to grind the institutions to a halt in 1998, and we aren’t voting for it today.

It’s time for change — for the sake of the health service, and all those who will suffer if the stop-start nature of government here continues.

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