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Assembly, Northern Ireland

NI Assembly performance…

This post looks at an approach to your essay and it should help get you started along with the ‘plan’ we discussed in class.

 Evaluate the performance of the Northern Ireland Assembly?

 There are two aspects we should cover:

  1. The ‘expectations’ of the Assembly &
  2. A ‘Comparative’ – with the past and with Direct Rule
  1. It is reasonable now, approaching 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement, and even longer since the paramilitary ceasefires, to expect our Assembly to function fully as we would expect any legislature to function in a western liberal democracy. We should therefore judge the Assembly on how well it carries out its role and functions, namely:

                                           i.            Scrutiny

                                         ii.            Representation

                                      iii.            Legislative role

                                       iv.            Delivering leaders/forming our government

                                          v.            Legitimisation process

                                       vi.            Deliberative role.

                   i.            The scrutiny role is essentially twofold:

  1. Scrutiny of the executive departments via committees
  2. Scrutiny of legislation in committees at the committee stage of the five step legislative process.

It is wholly reasonable to expect that scrutiny has an impact on the daily politics and that policies and departmental decisions have been changed in some way as a result. Use the handout on committees I gave your for the Committees essay and, although you won’t go into the amount of detail, provide some specific evidence of the performance of the Assembly in terms of scrutiny.

Don’t forget Assembly Questions as a method of scrutiny!

We can easily compare today’s scrutiny with the past and even the recent past and say that scrutiny is on the up. The level of scrutiny is much better than stop-start Assembly of 1999-2002. What is more, in the more distant past, politicians were more concerned with violent conflict and its consequences than dealing with “bread & butter” issues.

In comparison to Direct Rule it is a no brainer – scrutiny only happened when the SOSNI was due for Question Time in Westminster once every 5-6 weeks (although NI MPs could submit written questions) and NI did not even have a committee devoted to it until the NI Affairs Select Committee was set up in 1994 – Stormont was suspended in 1972!!!!

One glaring omission from the scrutiny instruments however is the lack of a formal opposition. NI has quite literally gone from no-one (Direct Rule) in government to everyone in government! This really hinders Committees in their scrutiny role. After all, the politicians are still very much ‘party animals’ and MLAs are very reluctant to criticise ‘their’ Minister. Indeed, it would seem that the DUP & SF steer clear of regular criticisms of each others Ministers – for the purposes of maintaining good relations at Executive level.

For this reason, and because the DUP & SF are monopolising decisions in the key departments such as OFMDFM & Finance, the UUP & the SDLP have flirted with the idea of forming an ‘opposition’. In reality this would mean giving up their government departments and it would require legislation fromWestminster. It is unlikely to happen in the short term.

                 ii.            In terms of representation the NI Assembly allows for 108 MLAs to be elected from 18 Constituencies (this is due to drop to 16 for the 2015 election). The PR-STV electoral system enables two key elements – proportionality & representation.

At first, the proportional electoral system enabled small parties such as the Women’s Coalition, to gain seats from vote transfers in the Assembly in 1998, but since then the NIWC and other small parties have been swept away. Thus the electoral system doesn’t necessarily enable small parties to get a seat e.g. Belfast West has 5 SF & 1 SDLP. Where is the broad representation there? On the other side of the coin Jim Allister’s TUV won a seat inNorth Antrim. This is an example of a small party making a breakthrough.

In 1998 there were 10 parties in the Assembly, now there are only seven and one Independent. Five parties hold 105 out of the 108 seats and those 5 parties are all in the executive! Alas, it could be argued that everyone is represented at government level as both main nationalist and both main unionist parties have seats on the Executive, andAllianceholds two seats in the executive. But this brings us back to the question of scrutiny – who is in opposition? Who is there to highlight gross governmental failure?

Further, whilst the Assembly does well to represent Nationalists & Unionists, it does not adequately allow for broader representation. Sectarianism is institutional with MLAs designating themselves as U, N or “Other”. If you are “other” you have a very limited role in voting for key decisions (effectively any decision of importance, including the budget). “Parallel Consent” voting procedures in the chamber render the “others” quite disenfranchised.

In spite of this the MLAs do represent their constituents and there is no doubt that democracy is better served now than when under Direct Rule from Westminster. Many of the MLAs do a good job and are very accessible for constituents. Our students, for example, get a chance to meet MLAs at Stormont and ask questions every year and many students go on work experience with an MLA. Furthermore, the MLA host ‘surgeries’ each week in their constituencies and we have six MLAs to choose from!

Part of the “democratic deficit” under DR was the First-Past-the-Post electoral system. This “winner takes all” format often left the minority population in a given constituency feeling completely unrepresented. Although PR_STV doesn’t solve this problem completely it makes the scenario much less likely.

iii. Whilst, writing during the Halloween holidays, I don’t have facts and figures to hand but it can be argued that the Assembly has dragged its heels with legislation – particularly in the 99-02 phase. Most legislation at that time was ‘parity’ legislation. i.e. catching up with the rest of the UK. The remaining legislation was secondary or delegated legislation. Nonetheless in the last few years the Assembly has upped its game and more and more primary legislation is coming through. The website http//:www.niassembly.gov.uk has plenty of examples for you to use. Don’t over-select. One well chosen example is better than a list of bills ZZzzzzzzz.

In any event, legislation today kicks legislation of yesteryear well into touch!!! Under Direct Rule from 1972-1994 NI legislation was passed via Orders-In-Council. I’ll tell you more about this in class, but for now it is sufficient to say that no effective scrutiny of NI legislation took place. This was the biggest ‘democratic deficit’ of DR.

iv. Our government is formed from our Assembly based on the d’hondt formula. It is easy to be critical of the Executive, but this essay is an evaluation of the Assembly as opposed to focussing on the Executive. Nonetheless, the Executive, as part of the Assembly, does deserve some attention. The Assembly is really ‘executive led’. With the big five parties in a mandatory coalition government it is only natural that those MLAs perceived by the party leadership to be most gifted, will take the Executive positions – thus leaving the remainder to fill the Committee positions.

Under Robinson – McGuinness OFMDFM has been business like and thus so too has management of the Assembly and their respective parties. Much has been done, including appointing a Children’s Commissioner, a Standards Commissioner, introducing free transport for over 60s, introducing free prescriptions and agreeing a Budget for each department. This is no mean feat when compared to the first Assembly of 1999-2002 when the DUP refused to attend plenary executive meetings with SF and even relations between Trimble (UUP First Minister) & Seamus Mallon (SDLP Dep First Minister) soured significantly.

Executive action can be very slow though. In September 2008 after the Lehmann Brothers bank in the US collapsed causing the world economy to crumble, the NI Executive failed to meet for five months because SF were huffing over no date being set for the devolution of policing & justice. The 11 plus/academic selection issue has still not been sorted out and it appears to have been ‘parked’ as no quick resolution can be found.

                  v.            By virtue of PR elections; d’hondt mandatory coalitions & parallel consent procedures in the Assembly, laws passed can be said to have legitimacy on both sides of the political fence. This could not have been said of Direct Rule.

               vi.            The Assembly debates local issues and MLAs can introduce Private Members Bills that are close to the hearts of their constituents. They can deliberate and debate issues of concern. Such debates may lead to pressure on the executive to act.

Final point to note: There are still those who detest the Assembly and its composition. Jim Allister of the TUV is still not happy that the DUP are working with SF and dissident republicans believe that SF have become traitors by accepting a ‘partitionist settlement’. These fringe elements deserve a mention as they do have a bearing on the Assembly – particularly at election time.

There are so many things I have left out, but I hope this give you a real kickstart for your essay.


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