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Stormont needs to be reformed to improve decision making, Jeffrey Donaldson tells Westminster committee

Mandatory coalition was established in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which enabled the formation of a ministerial executive and assembly at Stormont. Picture by Mal McCann
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said he would like to see Northern Ireland move towards a system of being governed by voluntary coalition to improve political decision making.

The DUP leader told a House of Lords committee that the current system of mandatory coalition is “unwieldy” and said he would support reform in the “medium to long term”.

Mandatory coalition was established in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which enabled the formation of a ministerial executive and assembly at Stormont.

It ensures that every party with significant Assembly representation gains a place in the coalition.

Mr Donaldson was giving evidence to the Lords constitution committee and told peers that the Stormont system of government is not typical.

He said: “In the Assembly at present we have five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive and that is at times quite an unwieldy coalition.

“You have parties from both ends of the political spectrum.

“It would be akin to having a government of national unity in the United Kingdom involving Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, the SNP and the Labour Party.

“You can just imagine how difficult it would be to devise a programme for government in those circumstances given the very different ideological approaches that those parties take.

“Well, it is the case in Northern Ireland, and yet we have managed on each occasion to devise an agreed programme for government for Northern Ireland that has a broad consensus, despite the differences in political opinion that we represent.”

He added: “However, it does lead to a tendency where ministers operate almost in silos and the capacity for the Executive to take collective decisions is therefore limited and sometimes undermined.

“I think in the last year and a half the Executive has functioned quite well in terms of its collective decision making on Covid.

“But when it comes to other areas there is no doubt that very often there is an inability to reach decisions on a collective basis which means sometimes ministers will often do their own thing and that creates political difficulties.

“I think that we do need to look at reform in the medium to long term of those institutions.

“Personally I would like to see Northern Ireland move towards a voluntary coalition style of government where we reach a level of political maturity where after an election parties get together and decide who wants to be in the government, agree a programme for government and then go forward on a voluntary coalition basis.

“Because I think mandatory coalition at times can be unwieldy, difficult and makes it difficult to get decisions which are pressing.”

The DUP leader was asked about ways to improve political decision making in Northern Ireland.

He said: “If I may draw upon remarks made once by the former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, when he once said ‘Perhaps the time has come to remove the ugly scaffolding of the Good Friday Agreement’.

“What he meant by that was there are so many props, so many safeguards built into our political system that it makes it very difficult to have an effective, efficient functioning government.

“And therefore there is a tendency at times when we run into difficulty to look to big brother, the UK Government, also nationalists very often turn to the Irish Government.

“If we were to proceed with further reform of our political institutions in Northern Ireland, along the lines Mark Durkan suggested, then we might move to a situation where the political parties develop a degree of greater political maturity in terms of taking the tough decisions that need to be made.

“I think a voluntary coalition would be more conducive towards that kind of consensus politics than is the case when people automatically have a right to be in government and therefore don’t perhaps develop the same level of maturity around consensus building as is required.

“I think there is a need to reform the way the political institutions operate so that the political parties in Northern Ireland take more responsibility for the tough decisions that have to be made on a consensus basis and perhaps through a more voluntary, rather than mandatory coalition arrangement.”

Read more: Jeffrey Donaldson raises fears over political instability if Irish Sea border is not removed

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