Category Archives: sectarianism

Is it normal to designate in one of two ways?

The other day on his blog Ian Parsley looked at what being considered “normal” is for Northern Irish politics, following on from Platform for Change’s AGM. One of his observations was:

You cannot force Northern Ireland’s voters to adopt the English party system, which is the inherent logic of what most of those advocating “normal politics” are suggesting. Identity plays a part across the board, and we should not be too surprised that it is Northern Ireland identity which determined the Northern Ireland party line-up.

Yet Ian sees no issue in forcing parties to fit into a preconceived idea of what a Northern Irish political party should be, either Green or Orange. That surely is a dichotomy. There is a problem with Northern Irish, or should we say Assembly politics. Enshrined in the Belfast Agreement is the following clause in the safeguards under Strand One of the agreement about key decision making in the Assembly:

(d) arrangements to ensure key decisions are taken on a cross-community basis;

  • (i) either parallel consent, i.e. a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting;
  • (ii) or a weighted majority (60%) of members present and voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting.

Problems do arise for any party that doesn’t fit into either a unionist or nationalist designation. What if a party truly upholds Article 1 (ii) of the Agreement, namely:

recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external
impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland;

What if a party were to operate in, or seek to set up and contest elections in Northern Ireland holding that premise of self-determination as central to their ethos. Such a party may not need all their member to agree on the issue, may even like some of the parties in the recent referendum allow their members to campaign on whichever side of the debate they want to. Such a party, or parties, would not have a say is key decisions in the Assembly. Read the above again, only parties of unionist of nationalist designation have a say in such issues. There is no majority simple or weighted of parties that are neither.

There was great outcry a few years ago when some of the Alliance MLAs temporarily designated themselves as unionists to be able to force through some legislation. That is because parties of the third way or third space, as is the Northern Irish parlance, neither nationalist nor unionist but working for the good of the people democratically whatever they determine is their future have no say. It is enshrined in legislation that parties must be either one or the other to have a veto or majority of a say.

Let’s suppose at some point in the future a non-sectarian group of parties were to storm to an Majority of the seats in the Assembly, and one of the designations were reduced to merely 5 members. Only three of those members would have to vote against every key decision, including changing the terms of the agreement to add a third designation. A party or group of parties that stood at election as ending sectarian politics, could end up having to designate themselves along sectarian lines to be able to operate. They would have to break maybe a key election pledge in order to operate within the straight jacket of the sectarianism that is enshrined in Northern Irish politics by that point in history back in 1998.

If we are truly are looking at a shared future here in Northern Ireland is it not time to look at redressing the issue of designation. After all the SNP majority Government in Scotland doesn’t need a 40% backing of the unionist parties to make any key decision in Holyrood.


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