Public Affairs

Designating as ‘other’

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong argues that with 20 per cent of MLAs now identifying as ‘other’ work must continue to give consideration to replacing the current cross community voting system with a weighted majority system free from designation.

Anyone who watched the finale of Derry Girls recognised the hope we all had when the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was welcomed by the majority of citizens across Northern Ireland.

Many of us recognised it was not perfect but it gave us a way forward towards a lasting peace. Twenty-four years later and some of the Agreement scaffolding is in serious need of review. Our designation system enables a consociational society only ever recognising a binary political system. Sadly, reviews and updates to the GFA have not modernised its ability to reflect a new and more diverse Northern Ireland, where not everyone is part of an ‘ism’.

Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly from 2017 to 2020. Now the DUP are using the same veto process to stop the Assembly, following the 2022 election. The GFA was created to give nationalism and unionism a veto, you cannot have one without the other.

Built into the GFA is a requirement for a cross-community vote, which only counts the votes of the number of unionists and nationalists, and excludes all others such as Alliance, People Before Profit, and the Greens.

Others’ votes on significant matters, such as the election of a Speaker, or First Minister and deputy First Minister, and deciding a budget are not treated the same. The politicians and the people who vote for them are disenfranchised. The Assembly is built on the foundations of division and maintains that, even when the system allows one party to collapse the institutions.

The Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC) had already begun in the previous mandate to scope the removal of the designations requirement (to be replaced with a requirement for weighted majorities on defined key votes or in situations where a reformed Petition of Concern has been invoked) and consideration of the method of appointing the First and deputy First Ministers as well as the titles, to reflect the joint and equal nature of the office and the principle of partnership.

In October 2021, AERC contributed to an Assembly debate on the stability of the institutions. The motion welcomed the work initiated by AERC to consider the matter of replacing the current cross-community voting system with a weighted majority system free from designations and called on the AERC to report on the outcome of this consideration to the Assembly before the end of that mandate.

However, given the limited time remaining before the 2022 election, scoping work was carried out, resulting in a body of preliminary research/evidence and a possible review of terms of reference for the next AERC to progress. It is vital this work is completed and both the guarantors of the GFA take forward legislation to break the veto cycle and bring equality into our politics.

With the Alliance surge, the ‘other’ designation now accounts for 20 per cent of the Assembly. Is it right one-in-five Assembly members’ votes should be treated as less than other parties who can use their power to veto devolution and prevent support from being provided to people and businesses hammered by the cost of living crisis and other issues?

Our society is changing. The Assembly should reflect that.

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