Forty-six citizens, broadly representative of the Northern Ireland population, convened on Saturday 5th March 2022 to participate in a three-hour deliberative forum, involving expert presentations and group discussion.
Project organisers Dr Sean Haughey (University of Liverpool) and Dr Jamie Pow (Queen’s University Belfast) presented the main findings from their research at a launch event at Queen’s University Belfast on Thursday 9th June. The project’s final report, available in full below, details citizens’ views on four key areas:
Download the full report: Public Attitudes to Institutional Reform in Northern Ireland [PDF 3.1MB]
(1) What people want from devolved government
Participants equate ‘good’ devolved government with stability, delivery in terms of public policy commitments, inclusivity, and with an Executive which governs cohesively and with common purpose. With the exception of inclusivity in the Executive, there was consensus across the discussion groups that the current model of devolved government has disappointed in these areas.
(2) Views on the current system
Asked about the advantages of the current model of government, participants frequently cited two significant and interrelated benefits: that it has presided over a sustained period of relative peace in Northern Ireland, and that it is representative and inclusive of the region’s different political traditions. Beyond it sustaining relative peace and ensuring inclusivity, participants generally struggled to cite any further benefits of the current model.
Participants found it easier to cite the weaknesses of the current model of government. Broadly speaking, these can be summarised into three main frustrations: Executive instability and collapse, a lack of cohesion and cooperation within the Executive, and a perceived dominance of communal identities and associated disputes. These problems were attributed to both institutional and behavioural factors.
In terms of the institutions, there was strong support for the principle of power-sharing. However, aspects of the current institutional framework were widely deemed problematic, such as the ability of one political party to collapse or prevent the formation of an Executive. There was also some ambivalence towards the idea of community designation in the Assembly. Some participants argued that the precedence afforded to securing agreement between nationalists and unionists undervalues the views of those who do not identify as nationalist or unionist.
(3) Views on possible alternatives to the current system
The prospect of Northern Ireland adopting a simple voluntary coalition model raised concerns. Whilst some participants recognised the possible benefits of this model, such as more cohesive coalitions and a more substantial opposition within the Assembly, the potential for an Executive forming in which only one political community was represented was deemed potentially destabilising – at least for the time being. Indeed, some participants worried that the formation of an exclusively unionist Executive or an exclusively nationalist Executive could trigger unrest in Northern Ireland. These concerns were shared by participants from all backgrounds (nationalist, unionist, and ‘other’).
Participants tended to be more open to the concept of qualified voluntary coalition (QVC). QVC would provide parties with some scope to negotiate as to who forms the Executive after an election, but the model would prohibit the formation of a government in which only one political community was represented. The cross-community safeguard of QVC meant that participants felt more comfortable in exploring what benefits this model of government might offer. These included a more cohesive Executive (given that parties would need to strike a coalition agreement before taking office) and enhanced scrutiny of government, facilitated by the emergence of a more substantial opposition in the Assembly.
At the same time, it was acknowledged that a QVC model of government would have drawbacks. Participants raised the potential for lengthy post-election negotiations, particularly given the track record of Northern Ireland’s political parties vis-à-vis protracted negotiations. Some also noted that a QVC which excluded one of Northern Ireland’s major political parties could be regarded as illegitimate by sections of the public. Others noted the difficulty in establishing workable and acceptable criteria as to what exactly would constitute ‘cross-community’ government in a QVC scenario.
There was clear consensus that changes of some sort are necessary to improve devolved government. Upon conclusion of the deliberative forum, a majority of participants (70%) – including a majority of unionist, nationalist and other participants – agreed that the Good Friday Agreement remains the best basis for governing Northern Ireland, but that it needs ‘to undergo some changes to work better’.
However, there was no consensus for replacing the current system outright. For example, identical levels of support were expressed for QVC and for maintaining mandatory coalition in the post-event survey, thus a clear favourite in terms of a preferred model of government did not emerge after participants had deliberated over each model’s strengths and weaknesses. Some participants took the view that more information is required – for example, on how alternatives might work in practice, on what other options for reform exist, and about how power-sharing governments work elsewhere – to fully consider this issue.
Attachment to the status quo, despite its weaknesses, was explained by some participants in terms of ‘fear of the unknown’. Even those with some attachment to mandatory coalition were supportive of reforming it, for example by removing the veto which enables one party to collapse or prevent the formation of an Executive.
(4) How any reform should come about
Participants were strongly of the view that the public should be widely consulted on whether Northern Ireland should retain, reform, or replace its current system of power-sharing. In this regard, there was strong support for the idea of holding a referendum on the matter. Some participants acknowledged that there could be practical difficulties with a referendum and that voters would need accessible, trustworthy information in advance. Citizens’ assemblies, for example, were recognised as a potential vehicle for the public to both learn about and have a voice in any institutional reform process.
It was also recognised as important that a majority of unionist, nationalist, and ‘other’ MLAs supported any substantial reforms to the institutions. Participants acknowledged a role for the British and Irish governments in any reform process, but there was a general view that the two governments should only facilitate rather than impose any reform(s).
What emerges most clearly from the deliberative forum is that citizens require further information on the subject of institutional reform and, indeed, there is broad appetite for a debate on potential reform. Crucially, the public would feel both aggrieved and cynical about substantial changes to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions were they to occur without extensive and inclusive public consultation.
Expert witness Dr Joanne McEvoy: Why do we have power-sharing in Northern Ireland [PowerPoint 51kb]
Expert witness Professor Jon Tonge: Moving to a more voluntary form of coalition? [PowerPoint 0.1MB]