When the Good Friday Agreement aka Belfast Agreement was negotiated in April 1998 the emphasis was on getting the various paramilitary organizations to give up their weapons in exchange for a share of power in provincial and local government in Northern Ireland. Small parties, like the loyalist Ulster Democratic Party and the Progressive Unionist Party that represented the loyalist paramilitaries UDA and UVF respectively, were over-represented in the 1996 election that served to create the parties to the talks. The idea was to be as inclusive as possible. Now five years after the agreement was finally bedded down in 2007, many residents of Northern Ireland think that the agreement created an inefficient monster. The only real changes to the agreement were made in late 2006 at the resort of St. Andrews in eastern Scotland in order to allow the Democratic Unionist Party to claim it was signing up to a new agreement, but this was mere tinkering.
In the Belfast Agreement there was a provision for a major review within five years of its going into effect. Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson has at last revealed a plan for revisions. It is discussed here in an article in the Belfast Telegraph. Patterson envisages changes in three major areas:
- the size of the Assembly;
- creating an official opposition;
- prohibiting double-jobbing so that MLAs cannot also serve as MPs.
Probably the easiest way to cut the size of the Assembly is simply to reduce the number of MLA (members of the legislative assembly) in each Westminster constituency from the present six to five or even four. Northern Ireland is set to lose one MP in any case lowering the number of constituencies from eighteen to seventeen. Reducing the number of MLAs per constituency to five would reduce the total number of MLAs from the present 108 to 85.
Sinn Fein is opposed to these changes, probably partly out of fear that creating an official opposition could turn Sinn Fein into just such an opposition, whereas now Sinn Fein shares power with the DUP. But the official opposition could also be created on an ethnic basis so that there would be both a ruling nationalist party and an opposition nationalist party and a ruling unionist party and an opposition unionist party i.e. the DUP and Sinn Fein would remain the ruling parties in the Executive in control of government departments for the province while the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP became the official opposition outside of government. This would make Northern Ireland more like other democracies in the West, while still recognizing that it is a deeply-divided society split on ethnoreligious lines. Presumably over time voters would oust one or both of the ruling parties and replace them with the opposition parties--this may be Sinn Fein's real fear. Better to starve the SDLP and UUP so that their voters stop voting for them than to risk losing power eventually.
Preventing double-jobbing is easily done by simply changing the eligibility requirements for MLAs so that MPs and Lords (and possibly members of local councils as well) would be prohibited from running for office. Such changes are badly needed to give the residents of Northern Ireland the efficient responsible government that they deserve.