Friday, 9 May 2008

Northern Ireland's democratic deficit

Mick Fealty has chosen to focus on Northern Ireland’s democratic deficit in his reflection on a year of devolution, carried on Comment is Free. Yesterday I alluded to deficiencies in our system of government as regards accountability, but it is worth quoting Mick’s most pertinent paragraph in order to slightly develop the point.

“With mandatory coalition it is simply not possible to vote the government out. Even if voters shift their allegiance there is no decisive tipping point at which the electorate can collectively punish parties that don't come up to scratch. At most, success and failure are only relative points on a single continuum. The danger in the long term is that it institutionalises mediocre government and the system fossilises into elective patronage that cannot be challenged.”

Yesterday none other than the First Minister delivered a rare moment of perspicacity and transparency, acknowledging that government here is “not perfect and not wholly democratic, but the best [he] could get for the people of Northern Ireland”. Rather a mellow understatement from a man whose career was built on grotesque rhetorical inflation of imperfections in similar initiatives to which he did not assent.

Without proper provision for opposition at Stormont, executive initiatives are not subjected to the scrutiny which is essential in delivering effective government. Nor, as Mick has outlined, can voters clearly express their democratic judgment on how government has been conducted when it becomes time to go to the ballot box. In the present carve-up, Sinn Féin and the DUP are free to impose their will on the smaller parties, without assuming clear responsibility for the policies which they adopt.

Understandably within nationalism
there is reluctance to countenance a return to straightforward majority rule. Any opposition system should be structured to reflect the acceptance of power sharing principles which all but the most recalcitrant extremes now acknowledge. A system whereby voluntary coalitions can form governments if they satisfy certain cross-community criteria should be no less Byzantine in construction than d’Hondt.

Amongst unionists, constitutional nationalists and smaller groups there appears to be at least an acknowledgment that the current system is flawed and that movement toward an oppositional system is desirable. Albeit tempered in some cases by a note of caution which maintains that in the short-term mandatory coalition is required to build trust and confidence.

Republicans and republican apologists are less interested in providing Northern Ireland with better, more efficient government. Their interest is simply in maintaining structures through which they can impose their agenda. Whether these structures are actually accountable to the electorate or reflect its democratic wishes is largely irrelevant.

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