Northern Ireland

’Big Two’ out of step with their base but removing Stormont veto isn’t a priority - John Manley

John Manley

John Manley

A relative late comer to journalism, John has been with The Irish News for close to 25 years and has been the paper’s Political Correspondent since 2012.

DUP First Minister Paul Givan announced his resignation in February, collapsing the executive and requiring a senior civil servant to now take control of Stormont budgets. Picture by Mal McCann
Former DUP first minister Paul Givan prepares to announce his resignation from the executive in February 2022. PCITURE: MAL MCCANN

It’s fair to say Stormont isn’t universally popular and that everybody has a gripe of one kind or another with our devolved administration. Yet it’s generally accepted that for all its faults, power-sharing is better than nothing and infinitely preferable to arm’s length governance by the assortment of hapless Tories who’ve graced Stormont House’s corridors over the past 14 years.

Having ministers who are accountable for decisions made on their watch is an important manifestation of democracy. If we don’t like what they’re doing, in theory at least, we can vote them out.

The assembly too is important. The public may think it’s just about point scoring and winning elections but this is our legislature, the place where the laws that affect and impact on people’s everyday lives are made. It’s where, in theory again, MLAs plan for our children’s future, safeguard care for the elderly, and endeavour to bring prosperity to all.

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness announcing his decision to resign as Deputy First Minister in January 2017. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Martin McGuinness announces his decision to resign as deputy first minister in January 2017. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN/PACEMAKER

In order to make any headway in meeting these aspirations, Stormont’s institutions need to be sustainable. Stop-start government provides short-term political advantage but nothing else. The public knows and understands this – they can see it in their degraded public services, which while under-funded by Whitehall have also been seriously under-governed for half of the past decade.

Most voters think one single party should not have the power to collapse the devolved institutions

Yet while the public understands the value of devolution, for crucial sections of the electorate it isn’t a deal breaker. Compared to the constitutional question, the economy and other issues voters regard as greater priorities, ensuring Stormont’s stability and sustainability isn’t yet an issue on the doors.

The irony is that in order to fulfil any of the goals that matter to people – even the constitutional one – devolution needs to last.

But Sinn Féin and the DUP appear reluctant to surrender the veto that enables them to collapse the institutions, as they did in 2017 and 2022, respectively. The nuclear option is one they wish to retain, even though both have conceded there’s inevitable collateral damage. They may make noises that suggest they are amenable to reform, or at least to discussing it, but do everything in their power to impede it.

Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and Tánaiste Micheál Martin have both voiced support for broad reform of the institutions, including removal of the Big Two’s veto. Although the two governments (and here we’re probably talking about a future Labour administration in Downing Street) are naturally unwilling to meddle with the structures of the Good Friday Agreement against the will of power-sharing’s largest partners, they must nonetheless use their influence to push for change.

The Irish News-University of Liverpool polling indicates that an overwhelming majority support the removal of the veto, including supporters of the parties who want to keep it in their armoury.

Failure by Sinn Féin and the DUP to recognise the will of their base is, for now, unlikely to lose them significant votes but as we become accustomed again to having an accountable regional administration, the issue’s importance may grow. At the very least, it’s time to begin the conversation about reform.