New thinking at Stormont doesn’t matter if it’s not backed up by new governance

Jonny McCormick has got a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies and a Master’s degree in International Peacekeeping. Jonny writes about politics, business & anything else that pops into his head. Get in touch with Jonny on Twitter @jonnymccormick

I recently moved back to Northern Ireland after 5 years living in England. I was delighted to be moving back. I’d be closer to family. I could afford to buy a house. I could access a more reliable public transport system and generally enjoy a much more relaxed and better standard of living. The one thorn in my side was knowing the utter chaos of the political situation that was awaiting me back home. I was dreading coming back to a non-functioning government with self-interested parties fighting to restore a dysfunctional system.

Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 the current incarnation of the Northern Ireland Assembly has used mandatory power-sharing as way of managing disagreements between the main parties.. The application of mandatory coalition is straight from the consociational theory playbook. Consociational theory is most simply understood as a model of governance used to manage societies that have suffered a prolonged and entrenched ethnic conflict. It all sounds good so far. Who wouldn’t be on board with a model of government specifically designed to help Northern Ireland put to bed a divisive and bloody conflict? However, the question must now be asked: “is this model of government, which is designed to help us transition out of conflict, what is holding us back?”

The current political stalemate

The reasons for the current suspension of the Northern Ireland are well documented. Of course, there is a lack of consensus on whether or not the collapse of our devolved institutions were necessary and whether they’ll lead to the changes that they sought to achieve. However there appears to be a general consensus amongst the public that we’d like to see politicians back on the hill doing everything that they’re elected to do. So how to we achieve that?

There has been a lot of talk, politicking and gesturing about how ‘new thinking’ is the cure all solution to get the parties back into government. This ‘new thinking’ would allow our locally elected representatives to pass bills, debate motions, produce a budget, make much needed changes to the education system, and promote Northern Ireland on the global stage. So, is ‘new thinking’ the elixir that will get us back on track? I don’t think it is. I actually think it’s the wrong thing to focus on…much like fixing a leaking tap in a burning building.

New governance

I’d suggest that actually the focus should be on reforming our devolved government. There has been slow progress in moving towards a more normalised form of government that’s used everywhere else on these islands. The fact that petitions of concern can block a democratic majority is quite bizarre, and is it really needed to ensure that all voices are heard in a modern Northern Ireland? Aren’t the overwhelming majority of us now in a place where we can accept that we don’t like all decisions but not resort to picking up arms to resolve our differences? The fact that we are using d’Hondt as a way of ensuring that the Executive is balanced and not making decisions that only benefit some people in Northern Ireland is antiquated. Can’t we have a government and an opposition that respectfully but fervently debate real issues and fight for real outcomes?

Reestablishing Stormont with ‘new thinking’ and then applying that ‘new thinking’ to the more systemic issue of fixing our model of government

It’s absolutely time for new thinking to get our representatives back to Stormont. New thinking is essential. We need a budget, our healthcare system is full of people fighting to help people but the service is ultimately crippled, and our schools and the children & young people in them deserve so much better. So, new thinking will help us start to address these issues, but we also need to apply that new thinking to making our government more fit for purpose. It’s time to transition away from consociationalism which is a transitional arrangement itself.

So what do you think? Isn’t it time to trust ourselves that we can be grown up and treat our democracy with the reverence it deserves? Can’t we move to a more normalised form of government…surely we’re ready for that.

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