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Liberal Democrats have always been opposed to the use of designations within the Assembly. It has been clear from the beginning that there are problems with this system. It institutionalises sectarian divisions, there is inequality of votes between MLAs, it is unable to adjust to changing demographic and political circumstances, and it enables minorities to hold the process to ransom.
Problems with designation and the voting system were brought into clear focus by the attempt to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister on Friday 2 November 2001, when 70.6 per cent of the 102 who voted supported the election of David Trimble, as he then was, and the honourable Member for Foyle to the top two posts. This comprised 38 designated nationalists100 per cent; 29 designated unionists 49.2 per cent; and five designated others. On the
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The difficulty is more fundamental than that and extends to the heart of the designation system, which requires Assembly Members to designate themselves as unionists, nationalists or other. Although this was proposed as a way to ensure cross-community consent, it actually contributes to reinforcing sectarian divisions. Right from the top down, the message is given that Northern Ireland society is rigidly divided into two separate communities and that people can be neatly pigeonholed into separate categories. Designations imply that that society is for ever to be two separate communities, requiring continual skilful conflict management, rather than becoming a unitedalthough diversecommunity with common goals and shared interests.
That two communities or both communities language fails to acknowledge that a significant number of people cannot be labelled as unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. Some people come from mixed marriages, are part of ethnic minorities or choose not to be described in such terms, preferring more multicultural and pluralist identification. That also ignores the reality that many Protestants and Catholics and unionists and nationalists have more in common with people across the perceived divide than they do with each other.
Similarly, the insistence on a two-communities language and approach presumes that the ideal state of Northern Ireland society is of two separate but equal elements, each working to its own interests, rather than that of one united, multicultural community working towards common goals and interests. The current system discriminates against those Assembly Members who do not choose to designate as either unionist or nationalist, and the voters who put them there.
Under the present system, on key cross-community votes in the Assembly, the votes of those representing cross-community parties designated as others either do not count or carry less weight. All MLAs have one vote, but some votes, it would appear, are more equal than others. Votes from the centre can count only negatively in the system of 50:50:50parallel consent. At first glance, it would seem that they count in the 60:40:40 method, as they are counted in the 60 per cent overall, but the votes of designated unionists and designated nationalists are counted twice, as they are considered for the respective 40 per cent threshold, as well as the 60 per cent threshold overall.
It is in the interest of a stable future in Northern Ireland to move away from such a divisive system. Amendment No. 9 requires the review committee to consider the issue of community designation, but does not ask the committee to take any particular view. New Clause 1 is, perhaps, a more radical approach, but a better long-term solution to the problem, because it changes the definition of cross-community support to a simple two-thirds of Assembly Members present and voting. Given the strength of the unionist and nationalist designations in the previous Assembly, and in the current one, it is entirely reasonable to expect that a vote passed by two-thirds of the Members would have a cross-community element.
Lord Trimble: I just want to unburden myself of a few thoughts. This is an issue that has existed since the agreement. I can well understand how certain parties, especially the Alliance Party, feel seriously disadvantaged by this arrangement. As a matter of principle, I must agree that it is undesirable and that dividing or, at least, entrenching communal divisions, is not the way to overcome them. I understand that.
However, the point is that effectively, as a matter of practical politics, it was necessary to do that to get an agreement. Had we not done that, there would not have been an agreement. Having an agreement between nationalism and unionism has been hugely important and has had a huge effect. Despite all the difficulties that there have been since 1998, it is quite clear that the politics of society and politics generally have been transformed. As evidence of that, you have only to look at the distance that certain parties have moved from where they were before the talks in 1997 to where they are now. It is not just one party that has moved; several parties have moved. My close colleagues and I therefore recognised that we would have to have this arrangement if it was not possible to gain agreement on comfortable terms. But I appreciate that it is undesirable in principle, which is why it is important to say that my view, and my hope, is that in the not-too-distant future when, through the experience of operating devolution over time and seeing that there are more than enough safeguards, through the close balance of parties and through the provision for the European convention to be entrenched, it might become possible for parties that wanted this safeguard in 1998 to see that it was no longer necessary and that we could move beyond this situation. I hope that that will happen. It will happen when there is sufficient confidence in the political parties for it to happen.
I must say to the noble Baroness that moving to a two-thirds figure will be more difficult in practice because of the cross-community requirement. It can be, and was, met on occasions with votes that were not much more than simple majorities. Always aiming for two-thirds would create considerable difficulty. That would be the practical consequence. I do, however, understand the point of principle. I know how it bears hard on the Alliance Party, although I
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Lord Rooker: I say at the outset, in response to the noble Baronesss principal point, that we all share her hope that one day we might be able to move away from the labels that we have in Northern Ireland to a less segregated society. It is, however, a bit of a step down the road yet. We have a way to go, which is why I cannot recommend that we support the amendments.
Clause 11 requires the Assembly to establish a committee, which I understand is sometimes referred to as an institutional review committee, to review the operation of the Assembly and the Executive Committee. This committee may consider any matter to do with the way in which the two key institutions operate. It is specifically charged with making a report by May 2015 on the operation of the provision of Parts 3 and 4 of the 1998 Act. Parts 3 and 4 deal with the mechanics of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, particularly the Executive and the Assembly. This is all provided for in new Section 29A, which Clause 11(1) inserts into the 1998 Act. That new provision does not commit the Secretary of State or the Assembly or Executive to any future action as a result of receiving the report. Much of Parts 3 and 4 represent excepted matters that can be changed only through primary legislation here in the Westminster Parliament. Any proposal that departed from the fundamentals of the Belfast agreement, on which much of the 1998 Act was based, would require the very careful consideration of all the parties to the agreement, including, as appropriate, the Government of the Republic of Ireland.
Amendment No. 9 seeks to place a duty on the committee established by Clause 11 to consider and make recommendations on whether to retain the system of designation, which facilitates the calculation of cross-community support. The issue of cross-community voting may well be one of those that the committee to be established under new Section 29A would want to consider. Clause 11 allows the Assembly free rein in setting the scope of the committees terms of reference through standing orders. If it made recommendations for an alternative model, I have no doubt that we, in consultation with the other stakeholders in the Belfast agreement, of which this is a key tenet, would take that recommendation seriously. But we do not believe that this matter merits separate provision of this kind
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Amendment No. 9 would not present that kind of binary choice between two workable models, but rather just presents a choice between sticking with the current arrangements or ditching themand without being clear on what would replace them. Given the importance of cross-community support to the Belfast agreement and the various stakeholders, we do not think that a negative resolution statutory instrument, one which the Secretary of State would have no discretion over whether to bring forward, is the appropriate vehicle for making any changes. Frankly, it is too important an issue to be dealt with in that manner.
It is right that this is something the Assembly parties may, if they so choose, want to look at, and it would be open to the committee to be established by Clause 11 to include consideration of the voting mechanisms within the list of things it wishes to look at. Cross-community voting in the Assembly is dependent on the process of community designation of its MLAs. Clause 13 amends Section 4 of the 1998 Act to require Assembly standing orders to make provision in relation to the community designation of Members of the Assembly. This was an important measure included in Annexe A to the St Andrews agreement and would effectively prevent an MLA changing his or her community designationnationalist, unionist or otherbetween elections except in cases where their political party affiliation has changed. Amendment No. 10 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, would remove this requirement and replace it with a discretionary power that the Assembly may include such a provision in its standing orders.
It is important that we recognise the vital role played under the current arrangements and in the current circumstances by community designations in safeguarding the interests of the whole community as represented in the Assembly. The current draft of Clause 13 is not about securing political fixes or tampering with the balance of power in the Assembly, rather we believe it affords greater certainty and stability within the Assembly in relation to community designations.
Similar arguments apply in relation to Amendment No. 11 and it is right that I should repeat that this is something the parties may choose to look at. It would be open to the committee established by Clause 11 to include consideration of the voting mechanisms within the list of things it wishes to look at. If it were recommending a change to the definition of cross-community support, that would require a change in the primary legislation and would therefore fall to the two Governments to review in consultation with the parties before we would consider bringing such legislation to Parliament.
I appreciatethe noble Baroness has given examplesthe level at which Amendment No. 11 sets the bar would mean in practice, and based on the current Assembly arithmetic, that in effect you could still secure cross-community acceptance even without the labels. But the reality is that we cannot assume that the balance between the different sections of the community will always be the same. We could set a threshold that works for the current arithmetic but which does not work for the figures following the next election or the ones after that. It is difficult, and probably inappropriate, to legislate in the general for a particular set of circumstances that may not continue to apply. However, in no way is that a criticism because the noble Baroness is trying to find a solution to what is perceived to be a problem. However, I think that it would be a problem if it was put into this legislation. The scope is there for change in the future and that changeI say this without being derogatorycould come from the bottom up; that is, from the Assembly itself and the Executive discussing these issues. But if the changes gained support among the stakeholders of the Belfast agreement, they would come back to this House because they would require primary legislation.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: I am grateful to the Minister for that thoughtful and comprehensive response to my amendments. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for recognising the problems that Alliance had with designations in the past and no doubt will have also in the future. I have spoken at length on these amendments, I shall speak no further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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