ROBINSON - "HOW WE CAN BEST GOVERN OURSELVES"
The First Minister Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MLA was the guest speaker at the installation of North Down Mayor Cllr Wesley Irvine, during his speech Mr Robinson said,
“I want to talk about both our economic and political future.
Turning first to the future political arrangements for Northern Ireland we can, five years since the restoration of devolution, look forward to the next stage of normalising our democratic structures.
Make no mistake, after decades of conflict, the restoration of devolution in 2007 was a truly remarkable event. No one would claim that it has all been plain sailing but for the first time in generations people can have confidence that government at Stormont is here to stay. Unlike the period of devolution after 1998 when crisis and suspension were the order of the day, we have managed to ensure that this administration is marked by stability.
Devolution is about more than just local politicians taking decisions. It provides the stability that is essential to our future peace and prosperity.
It’s no secret that the devolved arrangements are not precisely what any of us would have designed if we had been given a free hand. Nor were they intended to be a permanent solution. They were a compromise and a basis upon which we could command widespread support to re-establish Stormont in 2007.
As part of the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 it was proposed that the political institutions in Northern Ireland would be reviewed before the next Assembly election in 2015. Earlier this year the Executive published its Programme for Government which committed us to conclude that review before the end of this calendar year. This would allow for any necessary legislation to be passed at Westminster to facilitate changes immediately after the next Assembly election. In fact in parallel the Northern Ireland Office launched a consultation on these issues during the summer so it is an appropriate opportunity to revisit them.
For over a decade I have argued that the best form of government for Northern Ireland is a form of voluntary coalition with weighted majority voting. That remains my goal for the future, but I also want to see a more streamlined administration with fewer Government Departments and fewer Assembly Members. After many years of being the lone voice in the wilderness on these issues there is now a growing acceptance at least in public, from most, if not all, political parties that these issues will have to be tackled.
I believe that there is a reasonable basis to believe that agreement can be reached in these areas in the next few months, but it’s the issue of the precise structure of government that will make a real difference.
Now, I am acutely conscious that when I have raised this matter in the past there has been a fear, real or contrived, that I am seeking a return to majority rule at Stormont. For that reason I want to be particularly careful in addressing this issue.
I want to make it clear that the last thing that I would wish to do is to de-stabilise the present fair and functioning arrangements in the search for the perfect form of devolution. Because despite its difficulties, I am not someone who believes that the present form of devolution cannot deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. While the arrangements are designed to place inclusion ahead of efficient or effective decision making, the approach that politicians take to structures can be as important as the structures themselves.
That is why I believe that the whole of society could benefit now from a fresh look – five years on – at how we can best govern ourselves. We recognise that there are still a few who would happily see the present structures torn up even if the result were a return to chaos. But let me remind those people that, from a unionist perspective, cross community government has led to the strongest ever support for Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. Nowadays surveys are consistently showing that it’s no longer just a majority of Protestants but a majority of Catholics who would opt for the constitutional status quo of retaining the Union.
I make this point as an overriding principle of any review of the present arrangements. Nothing must jeopardise the support for the Union that has been achieved in recent years. As a unionist I believe that maintaining arrangements that can enjoy support across the community is the sensible option when it is delivering broad constitutional support for our position within the United Kingdom. From a unionist perspective it is both the right thing to do and also the politically beneficial thing to do as well.
A form of unionism that can command only a bare majority of the population in support of the Union will be constitutionally unstable and will not provide the kind of society that most of us would want to inhabit.
Having said all of that, no one could claim that the present arrangements are best devised to deliver the most efficient or effective government. They were never intended to be permanent and have always been seen as a temporary expedient. While it may be some time before a consensus for change may be built, I believe that there is real value in opening up this debate so that the matter can be considered. And even if we are unable to agree fundamental changes in one step during the present review there may be a more pragmatic piecemeal approach that can be adopted in the short term.
I would suggest that as a starting point we should seek to build a consensus around two key pillars. The first is that the present form of government is not the ideal long-term option. The second is that change will only take place with cross-community agreement.
Such a basis for discussions would allow a free exchange of views without fear on any side that their position could be undermined. It would also create an incentive among those of us who want to see change to persuade others that change is in everyone’s best interests.
We must always be mindful of the mistrust and suspicion between unionists and nationalists that has grown up over many decades and accept that this will only dissipate over time.
In any event the position of Her Majesty’s Government is clear. Change to the devolved institutions will only take place with cross-community consent in Northern Ireland. Whether we like it or not, this means that those who vote for nationalist parties will have to agree to any changes.
I believe that this places a responsibility upon unionists to make clear to nationalists that there will be no attempt to exclude them from a full role in government. I also believe that nationalists must in return recognise that political architecture needs to be devised to deliver the most effective government possible.
The present arrangements are strong from the point of view of inclusion, but weak when it comes to delivering efficient government. You don’t have to possess particularly acute antenna to sense the increasing pressure from the public for delivery from the Assembly. That pressure will continue to increase and it is Stormont’s democratic duty to respond.
Anyone who has been involved in a coalition government will know the inherent problems and pressures it brings. No one could pretend that a two party coalition, never-mind a five party coalition, is easy to operate. It’s obvious that such an administration could not be as effective as a single party government.
The simple reality is that there is no prospect that the form of government which existed before 1972 will return to Northern Ireland in the foreseeable future. This means that any adjustment to the current structures will have to command support right across the community.
As you all know voluntary coalition with weighted majority voting has been my preferred form of government for well over a decade. But while we believe that it would undoubtedly provide the best form of government the truth is that for many in the early years, this policy was primarily designed as a means of forming a government without Sinn Fein.
Back in the days when the SDLP was the single largest nationalist party such an outcome was a real possibility, but because of the refusal of the SDLP to proceed without Sinn Fein that opportunity was missed. As Sinn Fein grew in strength and support it became increasingly clear that it would be very difficult to use voluntary coalition as a model to isolate or exclude it. Mind you, that is not to say that every party, including the DUP, should forever and a day be entitled to an automatic place in government.
I agree with David Ford that the structures should not place less value on an elected representative from a non-designated party than those who designate themselves as unionists or nationalists.
At the Ulster Unionist Party conference, Mike Nesbitt stated that cross community government is here to stay. I agree. He also suggested that such a government would need to include the largest political party from each community. However, I would suggest a different approach.
To merely turn each election into a run-off in each section of the community is to impede the development of politics here. I would rather we moved to a weighted majority voting system which would ensure cross community government, but would give no party an automatic entitlement to it.
I suspect that there will not be any agreement to a ‘big bang’ solution in the next few months but I am prepared to suggest one option which could help move things forward. Because rather than having to ask Westminster to legislate to make such changes in the longer run, it could instead seek the authority for the Assembly to pass its own powers.
We have previously proposed modest changes which would remove the veto in the Assembly and Executive from any single party and would require all to co-operate and compromise. This could even be done on a voluntary basis as an interim step to allow confidence to build in the new arrangements.
While it would be my wish to move quickly to a voluntary coalition, I believe that we should be realistic about the timetable in which we may be able to persuade nationalists of the need to make major changes to the present arrangements.
But that is not to say that we cannot do anything to improve the current ways of working without changing the legislative architecture.
As a first step we could make opposition easier for any party which believed that this was the best course of action. There is no reason why there could not be voluntary opposition in a mandatory coalition government. Speaking rights in the Assembly and the financing of an official opposition are often cited as the obstacle for a party going into opposition.
I do not believe that either of these obstacles are insurmountable. Both could be achieved with minor changes and could be passed by the Assembly itself.
This approach allows a gradual move towards normality and because it only moves at a pace and direction that is capable of achieving cross-community support in the Assembly it removes any fear that the interests of any section of the community would be by-passed.
I have no doubt that in the weeks and months to come, we will hear much more about the structures that exist at Stormont. The debate has begun. The responsibility on us all is to devise structures of government that can best deliver for Northern Ireland.
Because in addressing the structural issues, we must never forget that we are elected to represent our constituents and to help improve their lives. In my experience no single party has the monopoly on wisdom and very often when politicians work together better outcomes for all can be delivered.
Ultimately, the people we represent don’t get over-excited about structures and processes. They simply want politicians to deliver.
Northern Ireland still must reach many vital and difficult milestones before it can boast that it has created a fully united and shared society providing stability and prosperity for its people.
Yet what we now have is almost unrecognisable from what we - or at least some of us - experienced 30 or 40 years ago.
Northern Ireland is one of the most exciting places to be in Europe.
And thanks to the Executive’s focus on the economy we are making it a top location for investment as well.
In the last few years Belfast has become the most desirable place in the UK, outside London, for Foreign Direct Investment.
Who would have believed a decade ago that we would see the New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange open offices here? Who would have believed that it would be the venue for motion pictures and leading US television shows?
When you consider what it was like just a generation ago you can see what can be done when politics works.
Local people making decisions that affect the lives of those who live here must be the right way forward.
In the last five years, and despite the global economic downturn, we have been able to attract more new jobs to Northern Ireland than at any time in history.
In the past five years we have spent more on infrastructure - roads, schools, hospitals and housing - than at any time in history.
We have the lowest local taxes in the UK, and unlike elsewhere, we judged that, especially in a recession, the burden of water charges should not be placed on householders.
Since devolution we have attracted more than twice our share of UK incoming jobs and investment.
Belfast is now established as one of the top 10 destinations for financial service technology investments in the world.
And in knowledge-intensive business functions, this is the best performing region in the UK.
Even during this recession many of the world's leading companies have invested in Northern Ireland - the Citi Group, Terex, Dow Chemicals, Allen and Overy and both Allstate and Coca Cola have increased their considerable investments. And Bombardier has been investing heavily after winning a multi-billion pound order for its jets.
In this new era we can make the case for Northern Ireland right across the world. We are reaching and penetrating markets we have never appealed to before. We are creating better value added jobs - fully using the skills and talents of our young people - giving them reasons to stay.
I know it is deeply frustrating that as fast as we bring in new jobs the global recession is causing companies to shed jobs at the other end. However, it does show that when the economic downturn is stemmed the local economy will significantly improve.
Peace, stability and opportunity make a real difference to the lives of those who live here. For centuries, our people have travelled across the globe to make their mark.
The challenge before us is to create opportunities, at home, to encourage our citizens to root themselves here.
Of course, if we can persuade the Coalition Government to devolve Corporation Tax-setting powers it would be a game-changer and lift our economy in a way that could only be imagined in our dreams.
Our attractiveness as a place to invest and to visit is markedly improved. We've already opened the state-of-the-art Titanic Visitors Centre and welcomed the 500,000th visitor in less than 6 months.
We’ve welcomed the 200,000 visitor to the Giants Causeway Visitors Centre. Importantly in both cases almost two-thirds of the visitors came from outside Northern Ireland. Our golfing greats have put us internationally on the map and added to our tourist value. Next year will see tens of thousands coming to take part in the Police and Fire Games and our UK Year of Culture in Londonderry as well as the (Flaigh) which will attract many thousands to the North West.
Let us dispel the habitual negativity that sadly sees the media talking down what we have and can achieve. Let us positively sell the benefits of coming here.”