Stormont: where Northern Irish politics splits and where it holds together

Data analysis of 21 years of legislation shows the faultlines and the room for hope

Tue 22 Jun 2021

The Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont is synonymous with suspension and breakdown but even when it is sitting it warps the concept of power-sharing, according to a study to mark its 100th birthday on Tuesday.

Opened officially by King George V in 1921, the assembly was suspended in 1972 during the Troubles. The legislature was reconstituted under the 1998 Good Friday agreement to underpin peace and stability in a new Northern Ireland but has become a hyper-polarised forum.

A unique analysis by the Guardian of 871 motions and amendments debated since 2000 reveals that 51% received zero cross-community support.

Even when Stormont is operational, in other words, extreme partisanship results in nationalist and unionist representatives herding into green and orange blocs.

Of the 871 votes, 442 received no support at all from one or other community – either no nationalist assembly member voted in favour, or no unionist voted in favour.

Just 32% passed with at least one or more votes from an assembly member from the opposing designation.

Polarisation is also evident in the use of the petition of concern, a mechanism whereby 30 assembly members can petition the chamber requiring a matter to be passed on a cross-community rather than a simple majority basis, in effect giving each side a veto. Envisaged as a seldom-used backstop, it has in fact been tabled 152 times (although the 30-member target was not always reached).

The findings followed a row over Irish language legislation between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party that destabilised the region’s power-sharing institutions and led to the resignation of the latest DUP leader, Edwin Poots, after just 21 days in the job.

Unionists used legislative dominance to discriminate against the Catholic minority for decades, leading to the Troubles. The assembly was reconstituted under the Good Friday agreement with support from all sides but has lurched from crisis to crisis.

Feuding has resulted in five suspensions since then, most recently a three-year mothballing from 2017 to 2020. Fiascos such as the renewable heat incentive (RHI), better known as the cash-for-ash scandal, exposed legislative incompetence and lack of oversight. And when it comes to important, thorny issues, Stormont tends to duck responsibility or retreat into green/orange silos.

Many votes are not wholly polarised along nationalist/unionist lines, said Jamie Pow, a politics lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, responding to the Guardian’s data analysis. “It is possible for the assembly to pass legislation on a reasonable cross-community basis most of the time.”

Bipartisanship is, however, largely confined to mundane topics such as water meters and block grants. Such issues seldom receive media or public attention.

Our interactive walkthrough of 10 representative votes underlines the subjects that unite the region, highlight those that divide, and show those that have stretched the assembly to breaking point and beyond.

Drilling down topic by topic, we can see areas where there is never any overlap in votes – on culture, language and symbols, for example.

It also highlights those areas where unionists and nationalist divisions have taken a new form such as LBGTQ rights, abortion and gay conversion practices, an abstention on which led to the end of the tenure of the previous DUP leader, Arlene Foster.

“The assembly does have a challenge with grappling with issues with higher stakes,” said Pow.

Partly this is because Westminster retains authority over taxation, defence, international relations and other key areas, and partly is a consequence of power-sharing, not least in the current executive, which has five parties.

“Most of the bills that come before the assembly have some level of agreement behind the scenes before they make it to the floor, which can mean many proposals never see the light of day,” said Pow.

This may partly explain why Stormont has ducked painful but necessary health service reforms, leading to huge waiting lists.

However, the analysis also shows up the matters on which there is agreement as an opening towards a path forward. Of the 871 votes, 15% (131) involved more than half of unionists votes and more than half of nationalists voting in favour. Although these tended to be more prosaic votes, Pow views this positively.

“Passing major legislation in a power-sharing system is, of course, not easy due to the high threshold of legislative support required. However, beyond issues with clear ethno-national connotations, there is much more scope for common ground,” he said.

Stormont’s legislative record is just one yardstick. The recent showdown between Sinn Féin and the DUP showed there is still another, familiar measure: whether it lasts a full term.

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