Naomi Long: Reform essential for Stormont's survival

The Irish News asked each of the main Stormont parties how they would make devolved government more stable. Here, Alliance leader Naomi Long argues that the power of the 'big two' to paralyse the institutions must be removed

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long

ALBERT Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.

I can’t help but think of that when looking at the latest deadlock at the Assembly and Executive.

Once again we are seeing ransom politics, where one of the two biggest parties have exercised a veto not only over their own participation, but also preventing everyone else from getting on with the jobs they were elected to do.

With each collapse, public confidence in the institutions erodes and it gets harder to put the pieces back together afterwards. Even if parties agreed to re-establish the Executive, how long before things collapse and democracy is subverted again?

The only way to break this cycle of crisis and collapse is reform.

Alliance has long championed institutional reform, dating back to the time of the Good Friday Agreement itself. The Agreement was a historic milestone but the ‘ugly scaffolding’ of its binary system has unintentionally handed the two largest parties the ability to collapse the institutions and hold the people of Northern Ireland to ransom at will.

Several immediate reforms are required.

The process of nominating First and deputy First Ministers should be amended so that if a party refuses to nominate, the entitlement passes to the next largest party.

This would enable those who wish to form an Executive to deliver government. Any party entitled to an office or ministry would retain that right – it is for them to decide whether to opt out, so no-one is excluded unless they choose to be.

A weighted majority should replace parallel consent in so-called cross-community votes in the Assembly. This would ensure the support of unionists, nationalists and, crucially, others, whose votes are currently ignored, without giving anyone a veto.

The issue of reform is not a new one for other parties either. Just over a year ago, all parties backed an Alliance Assembly motion calling for reform of the institutions, while various other parties have talked about the need for change, including the DUP, who stated ‘We remain convinced a voluntary coalition represents the best long-term option for government in Northern Ireland’ in their manifesto for the most recent Assembly election this past May. Our proposals actually give parties more protection than a voluntary coalition.

The DUP claim the protocol is the reason for collapse of the institutions. However, it is just the latest in a long line of excuses for collapse. The root cause of instability is the two main parties have the power to paralyse the institutions.

Even if the current issues were resolved to the DUP’s satisfaction, there is no guarantee they would re-enter the Executive, or that neither of the two largest parties would collapse it again during this mandate.

An Executive cannot solve all our problems. However, it is the difference between being able to do something to help those in need in these unprecedented times, as opposed to nothing. We need a functioning Executive and Assembly now more than ever.

We cannot simply place a sticking plaster over the gaping wounds inflicted by the constant cycle of crisis and collapse and hope for the best.

Instead, it's crucial we restore the institutions and do so in a sustainable way. Alliance’s proposals give us the chance to do things differently, end ransom politics and ensure wider society is no longer collateral damage in political disagreements.

Reform of the institutions is not only compatible with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement but, as we approach its 25th anniversary, is essential for its survival. Our proposals respect and build on the legacy the Agreement promised, whilst safeguarding its future.