BBC Hearts and Minds: SDLP interim appointees

Tonight on BBC NI’s “Hearts and Minds” programme, SDLP leader Mark Durkan, and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness debated the SDLP’s proposals to have an interim set of 10 unelected representatives take the functions of the 10 NI Executive Departments, until the MLAs can agree to have them replaced. The interim appointees would be approved by both the British and Irish Governments.

Durkan’s defended that this was not outside the Agreement, in that it preserves the original structure of 10 Departments, and the interim reps would be replaced (presumably) with an application of the original d’Hondt mechanism.

He also said that it was no less outside the Agreement than the British Government’s current suspension of the Assembly, or Sinn Fein’s support to have the British Government appoint direct rule representatives to replace unionist MLAs who refused to take Executive office.

It was actually moderator Noel Thompson who came up with the more interesting points of discussion: (1) power sharing is a principle of the Agreement (not 10 Departments); and (2) if the unionist MLAs agreed, the SDLP could proceed with the its plan without Sinn Fein’s consent. The first is true, the second false.

Power sharing is a principle of the Agreement. Even the anti-Agreement DUP has formally acknowledged this. However, the SDLP is more fixated on having an involuntary Executive branch of Government (formed by d’Hondt), which may be more encompassing than a voluntary Executive, but has proven to be unsustainable and now unrealisable. An Executive that commands cross-community support is a consensually agreed principle of the Agreement. How it is formed, or how many Departments and Ministers, are open for discussion.

But Mr Thompson forgot the details of the sums when he said that the SDLP could proceed without Sinn Fein’s consent. Well, you could, but you’d have to at least introduce a weighted majority sans communal designation voting system in the Assembly, since the SDLP represent less than 50% of the nationalist-designated MLAs. The SDLP objects to modifying the voting system within the Assembly, though.

If the SDLP want to solve the Executive puzzle, they need to look more at the key to solving it — the voting system — than trying to bypass the core principle of power sharing.

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