Use it or Lose it!

During the weekend following the Northern Ireland Assembly elections (held on Wednesday 26 November) and after the results had been announced I sent letters commenting upon them to the Western Mail (Cardiff) and the South Wales Argus (newport) which until now I have not seen published. This is indicative of the level of interest their editors have, or believe their readers have, in the subject.
In continuance of my previous articles which show that I am not using hindsight when I say that it was a serious error of judgement to twice postpone these elections as it also was to suspend the Assembly. As i had anticipated, that suspension and those postponements simply allowed more time to produce the change in the balance of representation in and between both communities.
There is no clause in the Belfast Agreement which says that the leader of the largest party in the Assembly is automatically entitled to be First Minister, or that of the second largest to be the Deputy First Minister.
It is left to a vote in the Assembly, as per the regulation laid down under Executive Authority [clause 15 - 5(d)(i)] to determine who is elected to these positions and also to that of Chair of the Assembly.
Although the DUP, with 30 seats, and the UUP, with 27 seats, as well as the PUP (1 seat) and the UKIP (1 seat) will designate themselves as Unionist, if the Alliance Party, with 6 seats, temporarily – as some of them did before – designate themselves as Unionist for the elections to these posts, they could considerably influence the results. The single Independent in the assembly could, in some circumstances, also be influential.
Excluding the Independent and the Alliance members, Unionists can muster 59 seats. If the Alliance members designate themselves as Unionist then the number would be 65. However, when we allow for 6 dissident UUP members the Alliance members would balance out their effect should the dissidents join the DUP when the vote is taken.
Under the procedure of 5(d)(i) this would make the result very problematical, but impossible to achieve the election of a less fundamentalist candidate, especially if a significant spectacular action by the IRA was effected.
But if a way could be found to conduct the election to the two principal ministerial posts using the alternative method of voting on cross-community issues as set out under Safeguards, clause 5(d)(ii), which requires a weighted majority (60%) of members present and voting, including at least 40% of each of the Nationalist and Unionist designations present and voting, then I believe that, with the cooperation of the Alliance members, this could be achieved.
Discounting the 6 dissident UUP members the 21 others plus the 6 Alliance members – 27 in all – amount to 41.53% of the 65 Unionist members . Although the margin is small it more than meets the requirement of 40% of Unionist designations.
If we then take the 21 pro Agreement Unionists plus 18 SDLPs plus 24 Sinn Féin plus 6 Alliance we have a total of 69 supporting the Agreement . If they could agree on the candidates they would represent 66.6% of the 108 members, thus meeting the 60% set out under clause (5)(ii).
I would be surprised if this strategem has not occurred to Secretary of State Paul Murphy and his advisors. If not he could consult this website for guidance!
The two governments have said that the Belfast (or 'Good Friday' Agreement by which it is also known) will not be renegotiated, which is demanded by Paisley's party, the DUP, but the Secretary of State has said that, within its terms, its operation can be reviewed. It is therefore possible, if those parties which are pro Agreement could, in consultation with the British and irish governments, agree to the alternative way of voting and the candidates, the Assembly and the Executive could be functioning again.
It is important that politics can be seen to work else unravelling will really begin with rapidity.
The alternative is Direct rule in cooperation with the Irish government. What might be a stopgap solution could be the appointment of Northern ireland MPs to the governing administration as First and Second Ministers and an allocation of seats to the Inclusive Executive on the basis of the election results. This would allow the cross-border institutions to function and permit debates in the Assembly on the issues they were dealing with.
This, however, would be cumbersome and, as Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats at Westminster, would exclude their participation.
It will be well after the turn of the year before we see such movement but we can hope that in the interregnum some accommodation among pro Agreement members can be found.
And an IRA spectacular in support of peace can materialise...

© : Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran.

Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer, 1998.

Samuel H. Boyd