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Owen Paterson questions wisdom of forced coalitions in Northern Ireland politics

PATERSON OWEN NW The Times today reports on comments that shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson has made in an interview with the BBC about future governmental structures in the province:

Owen Paterson, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, has promised to review the way in which the post of First Minister is awarded, which could lead to Sinn Féin being frozen out. “There is no timetable on this and there is no hurry,” he said. “But it has always been my party’s intention to negotiate the review mechanisms with all parties in Northern Ireland. This could be a long time coming but it would be done in close contact with all the existing parties and I think if it happens it would lead to a better Northern Ireland."

Speaking to the BBC, he added: “We would like to move towards voluntary coalition.” That has raised fears that the pro-United Kingdom UUP and DUP might join forces to create a Unionist “block vote” in the assembly, undermining efforts to leave sectarianism behind.

It has long struck me that the structure of the Northern Ireland executive, as set up under the Good Friday Agreement, is untenable in the long term in that it does not provide for there to be an Opposition at Stormont - as all the parties are obliged to work together as one administration.

Once politics in the province is "normalised", that situation surely has to come to an end and what Mr Paterson has said should not be thought of as controversial. After all, how would those of us involved in politics in the rest of Great Britain feel if it were set in statute that the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties must all take seats in government and that there should be no opposition to hold said administration to account?

Incidentally, the Times piece talks about leaving sectarianism behind - a noble aspiration. But let it not be forgotten that the Good Friday Agreement and its mechanisms actually entrenched sectarianism in Northern Ireland politics - since the first act of any elected member of the Northern Ireland Assembly is to have to declare whether they are a unionist or a nationalist.

Jonathan Isaby


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