Politics

Matthew O'Toole: Overcoming the politics of deadlock and confrontation

The Irish News asked each of the main Stormont parties how they would make devolved government more stable. Today, SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole argues that reforms it has proposed could have delivered a return to power-sharing by now

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole. Picture by Hugh Russell
SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole. Picture by Hugh Russell SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole. Picture by Hugh Russell

STORMONT isn’t working. That statement is true in the most literal sense.

I’m writing this article at my desk in Parliament Buildings, on a Monday when the Assembly should be sitting in plenary, doing its job of debating legislation and scrutinising the work of ministers.

But none of that is happening. Other than the odd tour group, the Assembly chamber is gathering dust and there are no ministers to question or bills to scrutinise.

Read more: 

  • Michelle O'Neill: No fundamental change without people's consent
  • Doug Beattie: Return to factory settings of Agreement
  • Naomi Long: Reform essential for Stormont's survival

How can we be in this situation, as we approach the 25-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement?

When a portrait of former SDLP leader and Nobel laureate John Hume was unveiled at Westminster a couple of weeks ago, it was hard not to reflect on how far we have travelled (and not in a good way) from the vision that inspired Hume and others when building the agreement, and the institutions, that delivered us out of three decades of conflict.

The design of the institutions was supposed to engender respect for difference, but also enshrine mutual endeavour for the common good.

While the institutions of the agreement have helped embed a peace that brought an end to a terrible chapter in our past, no-one could credibly argue that they are operating properly – when they operate at all.

The question is how to reform them without jeopardising the fundamental principles of power sharing and mutual respect.

What should reform look like? The SDLP, as well as being one of the architects of the Agreement, has always been an advocate of review and improvement of its working.

Tragically the most significant institutional reform thus far – namely at St Andrews in 2006 – was designed to promote tribal vetoes and victories rather than common endeavour or good governance.

In Westminster last year, our MPs introduced legislative amendments to overcome the politics of deadlock and confrontation.

We sought to equalise the titles of First Minister in order to clarify the joint nature of the office and end political campaigning based on communal victory of one group over another.

And if another one of our amendments had been agreed – one designed to prevent one-party veto over nomination of first ministers – we could well have had a functioning Executive by now.

We attempted to introduce a change which would have allowed for the election of First Ministers based on the votes of two-thirds of Assembly members, ensuring broad-based consensus for an Executive without one-party veto.

Extending that provision to the election of a Speaker could have delivered a return to power-sharing by now.

We will engage with any serious proposals to end deadlock politics while retaining the core principles of common endeavour and mutual respect.

The DUP is destroying people’s trust in devolution, and the tools they are using are the same ones deployed by Sinn Féin just a few years ago. They have both profited from prioritising victory and veto in a system designed for partnership.

But nor can we pretend that the north is simply like any other jurisdiction and so sweep away protections for differing traditions without also considering the broader consequences.

We should also be mindful that no reform proposal will be agreed in time to deal with the current cost of living emergency or the buckling heath service this winter. They need urgent attention and an Executive now, something which is in the hands of Jeffrey Donaldson.

He and his party need to respect the mandate that the electorate gave parties in May and get back to work.

If they don’t, many people will be asking a more fundamental question that simply reforming institutions, they will be considering an entirely new future, in a new Ireland back inside the European Union.

Read more: 

  • Michelle O'Neill: No fundamental change without people's consent
  • Doug Beattie: Return to factory settings of Agreement
  • Naomi Long: Reform essential for Stormont's survival