Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MP
LEADER OF THE DUP
MAKING DEVOLUTION WORK
Speech at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on Tuesday 8th September 2009
“As a unionist, the opportunity to come to the Ulster Hall is generally too good to turn down though this is a rather different gathering to some previous events I have attended here!
It is good to be with you for the first seminar of this new group and I want to congratulate Tom Kelly and Stakeholder for establishing what will, no doubt become a useful forum to consider and discuss the implications of devolution.
I am also delighted that Tom has been able to secure the attendance of the former First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell. I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say and I’m quite sure that we have much to learn from the experience in Scotland.
I thought that as this is the start of a new term it might be a good opportunity to take stock of where devolution stands in Northern Ireland. I also want to highlight some of the difficulties with how it has operated and make a few suggestions as to how we might move forward.
It’s over two years since powers were restored to Stormont and while, as we publicly pointed out at St Andrews, it’s far from perfect, we knew that as a staging post the new arrangements made a sensible and positive starting point. We have nonetheless come a long way in a short period of time. Let us reflect on the fact that Northern Ireland is enjoying its longest period of continuous devolution for almost forty years. Today, devolution is supported by the vast majority of the people right across the community.
Support for the principle of devolution is so widespread that we often forget why this is the case. As a life-long committed devolutionist, I have no doubt that devolution offers the best way forward for Northern Ireland. It gives local people a significant role in a whole range of issues which affect our everyday lives.
Decisions and priorities are set in Northern Ireland and for the people of Northern Ireland. Indeed, when I delivered my first budget in 2007 I indicated that for the first time in a generation it was ‘Made in Northern Ireland’. It set a very different direction than had been followed under Direct Rule.
But there are still some unionists who would rather have Direct Rule than see Sinn Fein in an Executive in Northern Ireland, and some republicans who have not yet realised that whatever they do, a united-Ireland cannot be delivered against the will of a majority of the people here. At an emotional level I can understand those unionists who do not support devolution which involves Sinn Fein in an Executive, but we must not make perfection the enemy of improvement.
Any considered analysis demonstrates that Direct Rule is not and never has been in the long-term interests of unionism. But there is undoubtedly an important job to be done to persuade people of the real benefits of devolution and the dangers of Direct Rule. Those who are opposed to devolution seek to exploit the imperfections of the present system. They are content to curse the darkness and offer no alternative achievable strategy. They would take us back to the days of division and conflict. What kind of prospect does that offer? But that is not our approach.
As they say in Texas –
"If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you ever got."
I don't believe the people of Northern Ireland want to return to the bad old days. Over the past forty years I have witnessed UK Governments of every political complexion taking decisions which were not in the interests of unionism. Unionists still remember the Anglo Irish Agreement, even though it is now almost a quarter of a century ago.
As a unionist I want control over my own destiny. Devolution gives me that, but I also think that it is in the interests of nationalists and republicans that devolution works. I don’t imagine the prospect of a Tory Government will be something that Sinn Fein would look forward to. While some unionists may see the prospect of Direct Rule with a Conservative administration as an easy alternative to the present form of devolution, the lessons of history would not justify such an analysis, nor is it in our long-term interests.
But most fundamentally, devolution is the one form of Government for Northern Ireland that can work and can command cross-community support. It can provide constitutional stability and allow us to be seen to be working again.
While republican aims for a united-Ireland are little more than fantasy today and their campaign for it is unlikely to deliver much other than Air Miles for Gerry Adams, unionists must also realise that having a government which only commands a bare majority of people is no recipe for stability either.
That is why a form of devolution where both unionists and nationalists can participate is important for stability and prosperity.
If unionists are not in the business of making Northern Ireland work then who will be? Devolution is good in theory but it has also been good in practice. However, I concede that the one area where we have failed has been in selling the benefits of devolution.
Significantly, devolution provides the foundation for peace and prosperity, but it also has allowed us to make a real difference to people’s everyday lives. I could name a whole range of initiatives that we have taken which would not have happened under Direct Rule.
• We have frozen, in real terms, the domestic Regional Rates for three years and have deferred the introduction of Water Charges.
• As a result of these two measures a householder who lives in a house with the average capital value of £112,000 is over £500 better off next year alone than would have been the case under Direct Rule. At the same time we have spent more than ever before in infrastructure investment on roads, schools and hospitals – almost £1.7billion last year.
• The Executive has agreed to abolish prescription charges for everyone in Northern Ireland.
• We have also extended our free public transport scheme to everyone over 60 years of age.
• We have introduced changes in planning to assist rural dwellers and we are taking forward proposals to expedite the planning decision making process.
• And this Executive has ensured that the poorest in our society got an additional £150 to deal with the fuel price increases last year.
I can say with certainty, none of those policies would have happened under Direct Rule.
Devolution has been a success for Northern Ireland but I believe that we can achieve so much more. Against that positive overall picture we should not be blind to the failings of the present form of devolution. I have spoken many times before about the need to reduce the size of government bureaucracy in Northern Ireland, but we must also attend to many of the other institutional aspects of the present structures which are holding us back.
We face two significant challenges in the period ahead. One is to complete the devolution of policing and justice and the other is to further reform the institutions to deliver better government.
Significant progress has been made towards the devolution of policing and justice in the last year. When the institutional arrangements have been resolved the two outstanding issues will be the financial arrangements and ensuring that community confidence exists. The proper funding of policing and justice is a necessary precondition to the powers being devolved. If the Government maintains its present position on funding then it will find itself responsible for further delay. The people of Northern Ireland would not thank us if we took on functions which are not properly funded and then be forced to divert funds from health and education to meet the short-fall.
While the devolution of policing and justice is symbolically important we should not lose sight of the fact that the operational independence of the Chief Constable and the independence of the judiciary mean that any Minister of Justice will have in practice a relatively limited role.
It is hard to ignore the irony that republicans who are so keen to have the powers devolved from London were content to appoint an Officer from an English force to the most important job of all, that of the Chief Constable or that those unionists who object to the prospect of an Alliance Minister say little about the more important role that Sinn Fein already play on the Policing Board and in appointing the Chief Constable.
But while the issue of the devolution of policing and justice receives considerable media attention we must address equally important structural issues. There are a whole range of changes to the operation of Government that would be of considerable benefit but I believe that we need to start with how the political side of the institutions operates.
The St Andrews Agreement provides for a review of arrangements by 2015 but we should address problems when they exist and not await an arbitrary date. Coasting along is not an option for those who want good governance. I would hope by 2015 we would be in a position to move to a more normal form of government in terms of a freely formed coalition but even before then we can make important improvements to the existing arrangements.
Ulster people will be acutely aware of the difficulties and challenges that are faced in our present arrangements. Multi-party coalitions are never easy and especially those with four parties - particularly when two of the parties are in denial about being a part of that coalition.
I don't pretend there are not difficulties. Far from it. I think we are better to face any problems and seek to resolve them.
Let’s be honest. Sinn Fein and the DUP in government was never going to be easy. Two Ministers in a department with certain decisions requiring joint approval is not easy either. Quite apart from all of the issues that are a legacy from the Troubles the political outlook of each is markedly different. In his judgment on the appointment of the Victims Commissioners Mr Justice Gillen demonstrated a telling insight when he commented,
“The process of joint decision-making which will command public trust and confidence is a fragile flower which requires careful tending. Sharing of power by leaders who straddle the political divide albeit with potentially diametrically opposed standpoints is never going to be easy to sustain. ...”
I can confirm that it is not always easy to reach agreement notwithstanding good faith efforts on both sides. It is fantasy to pretend that all would be well if the SDLP and Ulster Unionists were the two largest parties in the coalition. We know from experience that that was not the case. Indeed this Executive has operated much more smoothly than its predecessor, and from a unionist perspective the choice is not between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the one side, or the UUP and the SDLP on the other, but whether it is the DUP or the UUP who will be dealing with Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein's decision to block the Executive from meeting for five months in 2008 signalled some potential long-term difficulties with its operation and received considerable public criticism. However, the regular business of the Executive has often proved to be problematic on an ongoing basis. Business in OFMDFM has faced challenges which have either slowed down delivery or resulted in complete deadlock. We should not feel embarrassed about such an outcome. If you were to legally compel diverse parties to form an Executive anywhere in the world the very same problems would surface - though I suspect we have probably reached more agreement than would be the case elsewhere.
Of course I am frustrated by delays with a range of issues - the CSI Strategy included. The Lord Mayor expressed her frustration at the continuing delay to the publication of the strategy. I agree, and especially so as we believed, having approved in OFMDFM last autumn to share a document worked up by officials with key stakeholders that we were 99% agreed on the strategy only to find Sinn Fein resiling from this position and wanting to start again from scratch. I'm not suggesting that it is only the DUP who are frustrated by delays we know Sinn Fein has expressed disappointment at the pace of devolving policing and justice functions.
In light of the difficulties faced by this Executive and indeed the last one, I think it is reasonable to ask the question whether the arrangements can be improved to better meet the challenges we face. Having operated them for over two years I believe they can.
Parties that are ideologically opposed on a whole range of issues are always going to have issues where they have fundamental differences. It is not always going to be possible to reach an accommodation and as a result of our voting system a failure to agree means deadlock. This has been the case on a number of issues.
Modest changes to the arrangements could make significant improvements and help to normalise politics in Northern Ireland.
Later this month my party will publish detailed proposals for developing devolution, but today I want to give you a preview. Learning from experience, our proposals offer a simple and sensible step forward which could significantly enhance the operation of the Executive and Assembly without prejudice to long-term or permanent arrangements. They are about making government work better and should not be a cause for concern for any democrat who believes good decision making and delivering for the community is a priority.
At the heart of our proposals will be the abolition of community designation in the Assembly. As a consequence of this, new voting arrangements for the Assembly and the Executive will be required.
As a moral and practical matter community designation is fundamentally flawed. It is deeply undemocratic, it entrenches community division and hinders the development of normal politics in Northern Ireland and in practice means that the votes of all Assembly Members are not equal. While in its initial months the designation provision was seen as a way of safeguarding either section of our community against harmful decisions promoted by the other it is clear there are other ways to provide community protection without being faced with the negative off-spin.
In place of community designation we propose the introduction of weighted majority voting. Where a cross-community vote is required by legislation or triggered by a petition of concern a proposal would require the support of 65% of Assembly Members present and voting to pass.
65% of Assembly Members present and voting would mean that to be passed any proposal would need to have widespread support across the community, but would not permit a small minority to frustrate the will of what would be a strong cross-community majority. It would mean that no single political party would have the capacity to block proposals which otherwise could command widespread support.
And crucially 65% would allow various combinations of parties to form a coalition to pass a particular proposal. This would increase the relevance of all Assembly Members and would encourage co-operation and compromise between the parties. No single party could then hold others to ransom as their approval was not required for a proposal to pass.
Different coalitions could be formed on different issues to provide the required majority. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP alone would have a veto but support from both sections of the community would still be required.
In the Executive where a cross-community vote is required parties would vote on the basis of their strength in the Assembly.
An associated amendment to the Ministerial Code would require the First Minister and deputy First Minister, within a reasonable period, to table and permit a vote at the Executive on any matter proposed by any Minister. Consequential amendments would also be required to other matters which are predicated on community designation or cross-community voting to bring them into line with the new arrangements.
Changing the voting system cannot be done overnight but I would like to see a different approach taken to decision-making at the Executive as soon as possible. For some time the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP have complained about how Executive business has been handled and that they have been marginalized. At the same time Ulster Unionist and SDLP Ministers have been less than responsible in how they have approached Executive business. But rather than apportioning blame I want to find solutions. That is why pending the introduction of any new measures and as a gesture to the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP I believe we should consider requiring unanimity at the Executive in order to pass decisions.
While no party would be allowed to frustrate the commitments the Executive has made in the Assembly approved Programme for Government, in circumstances where the UUP and SDLP make a good faith effort to work constructively on matters in the Executive DUP Ministers would insist that all decisions will only be taken by consensus and we will not use our votes to override their opposition.
Indeed to make this participation really meaningful, I will ensure that SDLP and Ulster Unionist Ministers have a greater role in relation to Executive business. I cannot speak for the deputy First Minister but I am prepared, if they wish, to meet with UUP and SDLP Ministers in advance of each Executive meeting and to make arrangements so that their Special Advisors are fully consulted and involved in the process. The success of this approach will depend on the resolve of Ministers but I want to give everyone the opportunity to play the fullest possible role in the Executive.
Some have argued that the SDLP and UUP's present "opposition mode" in the Executive is tactical and cynical. However, both parties say they want to make a full contribution to the Executive's work. Time will tell.
Plenty of challenges lie ahead for us all in the years to come but I believe that Northern Ireland has changed unalterably for the better in the last few years and the challenges that we face in the future will be different than those of the past.
In the last few weeks the world has been focusing on the life and times of the Kennedy family. It was Robert Kennedy who said,
“We will not find answers in old dogmas, by repeating outworn slogans, or fighting on ancient battlegrounds against fading enemies long after the real struggle has moved on. We ourselves must change to master change. We must rethink all our old ideas and beliefs before they capture and destroy us.”
When considering how we govern ourselves in Northern Ireland I think that we should remember those words, but we should never lose sight of the fact that today, despite all our difficulties we have a more peaceful society than in decades. That is an achievement that none of us will want to give up.”
Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MP