Strand 1 of the Good Friday Agreement: Discussion

We have received apologies from Senator Mullen. Senator McGahon will be here but has been delayed. All Members of the Oireachtas should attend this meeting remotely from their offices within the Leinster House campus. Remote participation from outside the Leinster House campus is not possible for Members of the Oireachtas. Here is the proposed rota for questions. We have a panel of three witnesses. If we want to get everybody in, I will have to be fairly strict on the time allowed for questions and answers. I propose that each group be given ten minutes staring with Fianna Fáil and then moving through Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, Alliance, Independent Members, Aontú, Sinn Féin again, Labour and the Green Party. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Our engagement this morning is with Mr. John McCallister, former MLA for the Ulster Unionist Party and NI21 who also sat as an Independent Member, Ms Anna Mercer, public affairs consultant with Stratagem, and Professor Jon Tonge, professor of politics, University of Liverpool. The witnesses were nominated by Ms Claire Hanna MP under our agreed procedures for deciding who to bring in. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the witnesses to today's meeting.

I will now read the notice on privilege. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected, pursuant to both the Constitution and statute, by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings that a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given. They should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the person's or entity's good name.

I will call the witnesses in alphabetical order to give their three-minute opening statements. It is part of our rules and regulation that we have to wear masks so I ask the witnesses to forgive us for doing so. I will call on Mr. McCallister. He will be followed by Ms Mercer and then Professor Tonge.

Mr. John McCallister

I thank the Chairman. I assume everybody can hear me okay. I have a few comments and thoughts. It was with wisdom that the framers of the Good Friday Agreement ensured that a review mechanism was built into the agreement and recognised that those provisions would need adjustment over time in the interests of efficiency and fairness. At the heart of those provisions was a recognition that political institutions must evolve over time in order to develop and remain secure amid inevitable social, cultural, economic and political change. Of course, the existence of the review mechanisms also implies recognition that the political architecture of the institutions was designed to deal with the immediate post-conflict context of 1998 and might not remain appropriate for Northern Ireland in the decades to follow. Despite the political wisdom that shaped those provisions, the political will to act upon them has not always been present, principally in Belfast but also in Dublin and London to some extent.

The one serious initiative to reform this architecture was the Private Members' Bill I introduced which became law as the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016. I knew when I was framing that Bill that it would not only have to garner support but that it represented a legislative mechanism to test what support existed for the various provisions. Things were certainly removed or significantly diluted. Like most people trying to pass legislation, I probably set the bar much higher than I expected to reach. However, I would argue that some of the things we failed to do have come back to bite us and may also affect us in the future. I refer to things like designation, which I will speak about in a minute, collective Cabinet responsibility and renaming the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister to reflect those particular roles.

I will start with collective Cabinet government. Throughout the process, I argued that we do not have power-sharing but rather power that is shared out. It is stated in the Irish Constitution that the Government will act as a collective. It would have been very difficult for Ireland to get through the changes caused by the economic downturn and financial crash without collective Cabinet government. There are approximately 300 years of convention at Westminster. Collective Cabinet government broke down during Theresa May's time and we saw the difficulties that caused. It is essential. If Government is not acting as a collective, it becomes very difficult for us in Belfast and Northern Ireland to tackle waiting lists and to reform the health service.

The designation system is responsible for preventing the emergence of serious and meaningful parliamentary culture. I understand why it was introduced at the time. It was necessary to help build in trust. It almost provided a veto. However, times have changed and we now have more MLAs who are not designated and who are therefore classed as other. You have to look at where their votes count in a designated voting system. That is unfair and not necessarily reflective of the situation. It brings us back to my point on efficiency and fairness.

We could well be in a position after the next Northern Ireland Assembly election where even more MLAs will refuse to designate as either unionist or nationalist. Society is moving beyond those labels of unionist and nationalist and people may have strong views on the constitutional position. There is much more to it. I believe the designation is a frozen part of time and has probably held the institutions back. I am of the view that it should be seriously looked at and changed. The absence of reform has undermined the ability of the assembly and the Executive to govern. It has undermined the public's perception of the institutions. For those generations, the terms unionist and nationalist do not adequately or fully define their politics. Irrespective of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, it is clear that the political institutions established by the Belfast Agreement will remain as a means of administering this region. It is imperative, in the interests of everybody on these islands, that we encourage, promote and facilitate reform of the institution and that we maintain that efficiency and fairness. Edmund Burke once said: "A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation." The failure to reform and to go further has been a blockage and has held us back.

One of the great successes brought about by the assembly was building relationships. It got people in to talk about the business of government and what concerned their constituents. Suddenly people were working across parties. Over the past four and a half years, we have neglected that. There are probably two good reasons. One is that the Assembly collapsed in January and February of 2017, so there was a three year back in the assembly running. Devolution continued but the assembly and the Executive were not in place. We have now had almost 18 months of virtual working. That has not been great for building those relationships between MLAs, parties and people working together to get to know each other on a more personal level. It is much easier to demonise somebody when you do not know them. I am happy to take questions. I thank the committee for its time this morning.

Ms Anna Mercer

I thank the committee for the invitation to present at it. My name is Anna Mercer. I am a senior consultant at Stratagem, which is a Belfast-based public affairs agency. Based on a paper which I delivered at the MacGill Summer School in 2019, I hope to provide some practical suggestions that could support our politicians to deliver more effective government through institutional and policy reform. Drawing on the current thinking about the relationship between citizens and the state, alongside the importance of societal, economic and environmental well-being, Northern Ireland has the opportunity to build on both the Good Friday Agreement and the principles and practice of recent innovations such as an outcomes-based programme for Government.

I will look first at an overview of institutional review and reforms. Mark Durkan famously referred to the "ugly scaffolding" of the Good Friday Agreement when describing some of the safeguards installed to protect against abuses, such as community designation, a lack of opposition and the petition of concern. Over the years, we have seen agreements reached, including the St. Andrew's Agreement, Stormont House Agreement and New Decade, New Approach, which have dealt with some of the aspects that have bottle-necked our politics. Each of these has responded to a specific crisis. They have been reactive rather than proactive or strategic. They have been subject to political negotiations and horse-trading. These are not the optimal conditions under which we should be reviewing our institutions. We need to put some oxygen back into this debate, do it away from a crisis, and review the Northern Ireland Act in its entirety to ensure that institutions are fit for purpose in a modern and evolving post-conflict society? One option when doing this would be to mandate an external body such as a citizens' assembly to deliver this, as has been done in the Republic and across the water. There is an opportunity to incorporate this into a commitment within New Decade, New Approach to establish this model of deliberative democracy in Northern Ireland. Other contributors in the committee have looked at this previously.

Moving on to public policy reform, getting a strong framework follows on from the need for a renewed institutional framework. It is critical in setting the tone for good governance. The prominence and dominance of constitutional politics permeate our public policy. The extent of the normalisation of this approach is such that it has become an acceptable and sadly often self-fulfilling characteristic of our policy. We only need to look at our education system for evidence of this. We need to find a vision that all parties can coalesce around which is nothing to do with constitutional preference and which can unify rather than divide. There is an opportunity to make this shift through the welcome development of an outcomes-based programme for Government and the centrality of well-being in this approach. A concept which has promoted by the Carnegie UK Trust for this focus on well-being establishes a more long-term vision that endures beyond electoral cycles, which we need for issues such as climate change, poverty and things which are not just fitted into the electoral cycles, and which is based on a clear, unambiguous ambition to improve the well-being of citizens. Key to making this work is underpinning it with legislation. We have seen the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act and the Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales. They have been able to implement this legislation. Legislation was introduced just two weeks ago by Lord Bird, which seeks to introduce this across the UK for reserved matters, but principally for England. All this legislation has had well-being at its heart.

This may also enable a rights-based narrative that is more acceptable for those who are less comfortable with this language. We know that the rights debate, which has been part of the Good Friday Agreement, has become toxic and unpalatable in some political corners. If we reframe the debate and change the language around it while maintaining the integrity and the principles to which we committed, we might be able to inject life into the debate again.

Accompanying the legislation to underpin the programme for Government, there needs to be a duty to co-operate. In the same spirit as my proposal on institutional reform, this goes hand in hand with enshrining well-being in policy. Mr. McCallister talked about collective responsibility. It does not just happen. It is about moving people together and integrating rather than having them separate but equal. A pick-and-mix approach will fail to address the structural requirements that we need to support the policy ambition.

How our politicians interact with the institutions has evolved. An independent, system-wide review is required to consider how the legislation that governs them is fit for purpose and promotes integration and not just equality. We need to move away from the quid pro quo approach that has characterised our politics and our policy and agree a new platform that can sustain the turbulence of governing and which accommodates but does not prioritise our constitutional positions.

I call Professor Jonathan Tonge from the department of politics at the University of Liverpool.

Professor Jonathan Tonge

I thank the committee and Claire Hanna in particular for the invitation. I am grateful to be able to appear before the committee. It is a great opportunity to advance a positive case. For all the naysaying and doom-mongering about the Executive and the assembly, what is remarkable is that the public has remained so supportive of the institutions in the North. I speak as the director of general elections surveys for Scotland, Westminster and Northern Ireland for the Economic and Social Research Council. We have tracked public opinion across those four elections. It is remarkable how the public stuck with the institutions. When we asked at the June 2017 Westminster election what percentage of the population in the North would want the institutions to come back, it was 70% and only 7% were opposed. The number in support of the return of the devolved institutions rose between 2017 and 2019. By the December 2019 Westminster elections, it was at 81%, with only 2% of the population being opposed. Absence actually made the heart grow fonder of the institutions. People wanted them back. They recognise that there is no alternative. Other options, if you want to call them that, such as direct rule from Westminster, are simply non-runners.

The figure of support for Westminster direct rule has never risen above 12% for any of those options in past election surveys. The first positive point to make this morning is that the public back the institutions and want devolved power-sharing.

The second important point is that the public backs the principles of cross-community consent for key decisions. The majorities are not as strong, it should be said, in favour of principles of cross-community consent as they are for the principle of devolved power-sharing, but we still found the majority of unionists and nationalists, and even a slight majority of those who say they are neither unionist or nationalist, back the principle of cross-community consent and the idea that the Executive must contain unionists, nationalists and, indeed, others. The principles that were there in 1998 that led to the introduction of devolved power-sharing on 2 December 1999 remain intact. That is not to say, as I will touch upon in a moment, that those communal designations should remain as rigid in the long term.

The other point to make, starting on a positive note, is that the assembly can be an effective legislature. If one looks at the volume of legislation the assembly passed during its most functioning period, between 2007 and 2016, it was almost the equivalent, in the context of legislative items and Bills passed, of the Scottish Parliament, which has and has acquired substantially more powers since the period of devolution. There is a very strong case for the Executive and the assembly, and no one has come up with any credible alternative to them.

That said, there are sensible proposals for reform, some of which are very modest and could be usefully made. The first is a very simple one, namely, to co-badge the titles of First Minister and deputy First Minister. Michelle O'Neill is not deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland; she is co-First Minister. It is a simple case of altering the badges.

Second, designation size should be immaterial in the context of who fills these posts. Why should the size of an overall bloc matter? I do not like the term "sectarian silos", but designation size represents thinking in terms of ethno-national blocs and it permeates appointments at the top. There is no need for designation size to be a factor in those positions.

My third point - and I do not want to engage in utopianism - is that, as the two previous speakers highlighted, in the longer term there is a case for a fundamental review of the assembly. As we have just heard, such a review should not be carried out in desperate circumstances where the assembly has collapsed. There is an argument to make, in the context of the longer term, in favour of getting rid of those communal designations or of only applying them in certain circumstances in respect of what might be designated very key legislation. It would be up to the MLAs to decide what would constitute key legislation whereby one would register as a unionist or a nationalist, or, rather than using either of those, under the rather reductionist label of "other". Already, 81% of votes in the assembly are taken on the basis of a simple majority. Cross-community consent is only deployed on a fairly irregular basis. Why not reflect the way in which those votes are taken in any event through the nature of designations within the assembly?

Other points to make very briefly, recognising that my three minutes are virtually up, is that I have in my statement to the joint committee undertaken some consideration of the legislation that is going through Westminster at the moment, namely, the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill. I have some concerns about that Bill because it is a negative one and is all about preventing collapse rather than rethinking the institutions. It creates greater space and time before the institutions collapse. My concern with that is that one creates a zombie government of caretaker Ministers with undefined powers in order to prevent collapse. That does not amount to good governance for the North on anyone's basis, be they unionist, nationalist or other.

I also note that that Bill addresses the issue of petitions of concern. The vetoes within the petitions of concern are not the big issue for the current assembly. They were of their time and were over a period when the assembly was of a larger size when parties could realistically expect to win more than 30 seats and could go on solo runs to block measures. That simply is not the case anymore. There are other forms of veto that lurk within the Executive and the assembly that are much more important than petitions of concern

I do not have any particular objection to the measures that are going through Westminster at the moment, I welcome the provision in the Bill to which I refer that bolsters the ministerial code. That is all there in New Decade, New Approach. My regret about this current legislation is that there is not a great deal more of New Decade, New Approach, which is a very healthy document, in it.

There were some very interesting suggestions there. As agreed, we will have ten minute slots and it is up to each individual party, independent group or whatever to decide how they use their time. Questions and answers are probably the best way proceed. Fianna Fáil has the first slot. I cannot see everybody and I apologise if I am missing people. As I understand it, Senators Blaney and McGreehan are present. I ask that they nominate between themselves their time allocation and proceed now, please.

I will go first. I greatly welcome Ms Mercer, Professor Tonge and Mr. McCallister. It is a case of "long time no see" to Mr. McCallister. It is good to see him again.

This is an interesting debate involving thinking outside of the box. I will ask a number of questions. I do not really have a great deal to ask about and am more interested to see the response of political party members in Northern Ireland to these ideas.

Part of me wonders how the proposals that are being put forward will work out because, ultimately, we all know how hard-fought the Good Friday Agreement was. A key part of any democracy is getting all people around the table to agree. Everybody recognises that the agreement is not perfect and that changes may be needed but the key question for me is how one gets buy-in from the political parties and from the people of Northern Ireland. The key to anything, and, in particular, the Good Friday Agreement, because so much work went into it, is that when people get involved in something, one gets the return and the buy-in. If we are going to establish a citizens’ assembly, how do we get the political buy-in? Without it, I would have doubts about how anything that would be brought forward would really stick together. That is my key question. I thank all of our participants for their presentations.

I thank the Chairman very much. I also thank each of the contributors for their opening statements. This is a very interesting debate. I am in learning mode here because we are creating new institutions or new frameworks for institutions, which is very exciting. This is a very worthwhile conversation.

Professor Tonge stated that Scotland has more autonomy and devolved functions. Is the lack of additional autonomy, structures and powers crippling the Northern Ireland Assembly? At present, one party might go to the UK Government on a particular issue and another party will do the same thing in respect of a different issue. We saw that very recently with the Irish language Act, where those big problems are solved by outside bodies. Is it the case that more autonomy is needed in order for people to be able to act and react and to get away from an us-versus-them mentality whereby those occupying the middle ground are left out and their voices are not heard?

Mr. McCallister, Ms Mercer and Professor Tonge may reply in whatever order they wish. There are seven minutes remaining in this slot.


There is a problem with the sound. Somebody needs to do something

As we said earlier, there is an issue with the audio. Is Professor Tonge going first?

Professor Jonathan Tonge

Yes. That is an excellent point about a citizens' assembly. Provision is made for the use of a citizens' assembly. I confess that initially I was cynical about deliberative democracy and citizens' assemblies but then I saw how well they have worked in your own jurisdiction in resolving very tricky problems indeed. I am a convert and I bring that zeal of the convert to the idea. There is provision within the New Decade, New Approach agreement for at least one item per year to be resolved via a citizens' assembly. I stand open to correction, but I believe it is up to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to choose which topic could be put out to a citizens' assembly. I very much hope to see that implemented because it is there within the devolution restoration deal. It really ought to be implemented, and I hope it does not fall by the wayside.

On the extra powers, one of the problems with the regulatory collapse is that the assembly has been collapsed for 38% of the time since 2 December 1999. Amidst its good periods, there have, as we know, been really bad periods. One of the products of this is that the assembly has not acquired any significant new powers with the big exception - and I do not underestimate the importance of it - in 2010 of the devolution of policing and justice. Given the troubled history of the North, it was a phenomenal achievement to acquire those powers. The assembly has not acquired powers of any real significance beyond that. In the context of direct legislative powers, it has actually been overtaken by what was previously the national assembly for Wales and is not the Senedd. Until the Northern Ireland Assembly gets that stability from a prolonged period of sustained devolved government, it is not going to be given substantial new powers. It cannot be given that. It is a question of the sequencing. Longer term, however, it makes perfect sense to devolve more powers to the assembly.

Mr. John McCallister

It is good to see Senator Blaney. I congratulate him on his return to the Seanad.

As we get buy-in, we can use measures such as citizens' assemblies. What I have been seeing from the public have been incredibly high levels of support, as mentioned by Professor Tonge. On some of the key issues, I sense that the public is well ahead of the politicians. There is certainly buy-in and support. People want to see good government. Sometimes one has to manage expectations as to what a government can deliver, but I certainly sense the public appetite to get on. There are no great alternatives out there, as Professor Tonge pointed out. Direct rule does not have public buy-in. What we have, like it or loathe it, is what we have. The vast majority of the population will know an MLA personally. As a result, there is a very much a culture of chatting to people and knowing about and supporting local issues, which people like. All elected colleagues across both jurisdictions know this.

Senator McGreehan referred to the lack of powers. I agree with Professor Tonge's point. I would very much have been a supporter of devolving tax varying powers to the assembly, but one would have to reform it first. I would love to see the assembly being more powerful but it must be reformed and functioning. In my view, that would be a truly collective, functioning government, preferably with an opposition holding it to account. We went through a period where politics had no consequences, and even the failure and bringing down of the assembly in 2017 had no real impact on the electoral support of the parties. Consider, for example, the political parties that had to take very difficult decisions ten or 12 years ago. This had a real impact for them when it came to elections. We have not had that and it is part of building up an actual parliamentary culture.

From a personal perspective, I was very pleased that Professor Tonge mentioned how productive the assembly was between 2007 and 2016, which entirely reflected my membership of it. I do not wish to take all of the credit for that.

Ms Anna Mercer

On the point about a citizens' assembly, Stratagem hosted a trial citizens' assembly on adult health and social care on behalf of a client a few years ago. One of our tasks was making the case to politicians as to why this would be helpful to the political process and not a hindrance. That journey was challenging. There were sceptics at the outset but we did manage to bring most people around. It was about making the case to the MLAs that we were not trying to replace them or challenge their mandate. That it is a very positive thing to bring the public in. All over the New Decade, New Approach agreement is a commitment to civic engagement. Professor Tonge mentioned the commitment to it. It may be actually two citizens' assemblies per year, which seems a wee bit ambitious, but we would take one and that would be a great start. We also referenced how successful these assemblies have been in the Republic on subjects such as marriage equality. It was a game changer. The assemblies changed how an issue was perceived. It is an opportunity to widen the conversation beyond those within the assembly who of course have a bit of a vested interest in sustaining some bits that they like and not others. We need to take it outside of Stormont.

On Senator McGreehan's points around having more devolved powers, I am not sure that it is about the actual powers; I believe it is the processes. The issues referred to have needed a bit of help, shall we say, from the UK Government, but they have not been reserved issues. The Irish language Act is not a reserved category, it is just because it has been too hard. We need to look at the process around how we facilitate policy development here. I have referred to some of this in my presentation such as the development of a fiscal council, which is another commitment in New Decade, New Approach that will bring better governance to some issues, and particularly around budgetary matters. We really should be looking towards how we can do this and how we can facilitate these processes. We have a lot of politics but we do not have a lot of governance. Of course there is a place for politics, which is so important, but sometimes politics can completely subsume the actual processes and then the issues get lost. This is why we need the systems and the institutions to reflect that and to have stronger foundations. The policy-making itself needs to be more robust also to take the heat out of going back to what we know, which is nationalism, unionism and constitutional positions. Taking the heat off that would be very helpful.

I want to thank Claire Hanna for suggesting this engagement. It is a very good morning's meeting. The witnesses may feel that we are not asking in-depth questions and that maybe we are not interrogating it fully but honestly it is very good to hear the witnesses talk about how things work operationally, and for us to hear this and piece it all together. It is hugely beneficial.

I very much value the opening statements and the witnesses' reflections on where we are in a post-conflict society. Ms Mercer talked about how we can move from equality to integration and how some of the scaffolding is self-fulfilling division. That was very insightful. Ultimately, power-sharing is problem-sharing and we are trying to make that work is best as possible.

On the citizens' assembly, I presume this is in strand 1, or do the witnesses think beyond strand 1?

Yes, there is a review mechanism included. How far do the witnesses think it is possible to go in tweaking the Good Friday Agreement without it beginning to unravel or people losing confidence in it? Is that another reason to bring people back into it or is that why politicians might be nervous of something like this? Do the witnesses get push back about this? Have they had any support from the political parties regarding a citizens' assembly? Funnily enough, something that came up at our meeting last week with the up-and-coming politicians is that they feel that political decisions which affect the Good Friday Agreement are made behind closed doors and not in the open, when the Good Friday Agreement is the people's agreement. I am not giving my opinion. I am asking for more information on the matter.

It was stated that the institutional framework reinforces constitutional politics. Does that benefit the two main parties and extremes? Given Mr. McCallister's healthy statistics on how people support power-sharing and Stormont, why does he think that people vote for parties which threaten their collapse or parties involved in the collapse? With regard to 2016 and the efficiency of the Bills up until that point, nobody has mentioned Brexit. How much has that played into this? How much of this is trying to fix local problems based on bigger issues?

As regards the well-being piece, is that similar to what we are doing at present whereby we are changing our measures of success with regard to well-being? New Zealand is doing it as well, and Scotland has done it. I am not as familiar with what is happening in Wales and England.

Can we afford not to address community designation in search of more stability and to bring more young people with us? One thing I came across last week was how effective the councils are at working together. Do the witnesses see a difference between how the councils work together versus Stormont? Perhaps the witnesses can give us their views on the petition of concern, the problems involved and the perceived solutions? That would be useful as well. I did not mean to ask so many questions, but there is great stuff here and I appreciate the witnesses' time.

There are just five minutes left in the slot so I ask the guests to reply in whatever order they wish. Whoever wishes should just speak up.

Professor Jonathan Tonge

I will be as brief as I can and take the questions in the order they were posed. As to whether the citizens' assembly would be strand 1, in an ideal world it would be strand 2 and could be an all-island citizens' assembly. One can see the obvious political difficulties with that, however. One would want buy-in support for it from the unionist parties to create an all-island citizens' assembly, but that would be the optimum solution. It would very much depend upon the topic that was chosen by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. As Ms Mercer corrected me, one can have up to two citizens' assemblies per year. I hope they go ahead. I suspect the first will certainly be strand 1 and will only be for people in the North. It would be necessary to get a representative sample of those people, but it is perfectly doable as can be seen in this jurisdiction. There is no reason that it cannot take on very contentious issues such as marriage equality and abortion were, although they might seem entirely uncontentious now. There is no reason that it could not be replicated in the North.

In terms of the review mechanisms, a review mechanism for the Good Friday Agreement is long overdue. We need a formal review of the Good Friday Agreement every five years. As to whether it would get rid of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, not necessarily. The Good Friday Agreement was a fantastic political document and a conceptual framework for the future when it emerged, but not every clause of the agreement has to remain in stone in perpetuity. It can be adjusted and adapted. It was adapted, somewhat controversially, in 2006 with the St. Andrews Agreement, but that was an update that was very necessary to restore devolved power sharing. There is no reason that one cannot adjust aspects of the Good Friday.

As regards decisions taken behind closed doors and alienating young people, one of the biggest problems we have is that only one third of 18-year-olds to 24-year-olds voted at the last Westminster election. I strongly suspect the figure is very similar for the last Assembly election, although I have not checked it. People aged between 18 and 24 are less likely to vote in an election on my side of the Irish Sea, full stop, but that is particularly acute in respect of elections in Northern Ireland. That is a problem. Young people appear to be disaffected by the type of politics taking place.

In terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the reinforcement of constitutional politics, the constitutional question is dealt with by the agreement. Consent, North and South, will be required for constitutional change. I do not see changes to the Good Friday Agreement affecting that. I would argue that there are aspects of the Good Friday Agreement that are unsatisfactory in terms of the way it deals with constitutional politics, for example, the criteria by which the Secretary of State shall call a Border poll in the North. We might want to look at whether they should be clearer. It seems to be based on whatever the Secretary of State's criteria appear to be on a given day, but the constitutional issue is dealt with in the Good Friday Agreement.

On the question of why people vote for parties that threaten its collapse, the obvious, if unsatisfactory, answer is that the voters for those parties would not see their parties as being responsible for those collapses. It should be said that the collapses of the institutions have been for very different reasons. The post-conflict reasons for instability between 2002 and 2006 when we had the assembly hiatus are very different from the issues that collapsed the assembly in more recent times.

As for Brexit, even if there had been an Executive in place, I do not believe it could have dealt with Brexit. There were the initial encouraging noises after the Brexit vote when Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster issued the joint statement talking about the special circumstances in the North that had to be dealt with and addressed in the fallout from Brexit, but soon afterwards the assembly collapsed anyway so there was nothing that could be done in terms of assembly and Executive management of Brexit.

In terms of the question the Senator raised about petitions of concern, I dealt with that in the statement. I do not believe petitions of concern are the big problem now. There is an argument for saying that petitions of concern should only be lodged where there is not just two parties but that those parties should be from different designations. That way one can argue that one is not playing the communal veto game. However, I do not believe petitions of concern will be a major issue. I do not see parties adopting petitions of concern as the major veto tactic over the next life of the assembly.

I must move on to Sinn Féin. Our problem is that we only have a maximum of two hours for our meeting. The content of the replies is very good so, if needs be, we can have another meeting later in the year to deal in depth with some of the issues that we may not be able to deal with now. It has been indicated that Deputy Mac Lochlainn and John Finucane will address the meeting now and ask questions. They have ten minutes.

I thank the witnesses. It is good to see Mr. John McCallister again. I always thought he was a thoughtful and conciliatory parliamentarian. In terms of the submissions that are being made, the proposition is that the form of parliamentary assembly or democracy that is in place in the North is satisfactory.

I think we all agree that it is not an ideal scenario. Ideally, in any democracy, you want a government and an opposition with legislation debated back and forth. In no normal democracy would the DUP and Sinn Féin be in coalition government together. They are diametrically opposed on social, economic and constitutional matters. It is not just a question of whether we should have a united Ireland or a United Kingdom. We disagree with the DUP on a whole range of matters and would never be in coalition together in a normal democracy but this is not a normal scenario. I put it to everyone, not only the contributors but all the members of the committee, that the reason we came to this type of Assembly and Executive under strand 1 of the Good Friday Agreement was to reflect the experience particularly of the nationalist community of unionist misrule over many, many years. We needed to have protections and guarantees for the nationalist community particularly and shared government was what we arrived at. It is not ideal at all. It is very regrettable that the civic forum element of strand 1 has been disposed of, that it is not up and running. It is really healthy to have a citizens' assembly and a civic forum. It is badly missing in the North. I would like to believe the members of the committee, TDs, Senators and MPs, would have the humility to accept that we do not have all the wisdom and that there are people in civic leadership who may have a lot to contribute who may be better connected to communities than ourselves, God forbid. There is definitely a need to put back in place a civic forum-citizens' assembly that could input into the governments.

Changing the structures will have to be negotiated out. That will be a very sensitive matter. We should be open to changes. As the presentations pointed out, the problem has been that we have made the changes, whether it is the St. Andrews, Stormont or New Decade, New Approach agreements, it is always from a crisis. It is not proactive, it is responding to a crisis and that is accepted. Sinn Féin would like a citizens' assembly to look at the whole issue of Irish unity and a border poll to prepare properly for that. That is the context in which we would like to see that but it could look at transitionary arrangements and the form of governance we have on the pathway to that border poll or potential Irish unity down the line.

Sinn Féin does use the title of joint First Minister for Michelle O'Neill. It is correct that it is, in all reality, a position of joint First Minister. It would be good to have that formalised. I agree that the criteria for a border poll is very vague and not satisfactory at all. This committee has corresponded with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland seeking clarification on that. There are not that many failings in the Good Friday Agreement but that is one of them.

Would Mr. McCallister acknowledge there is a concern in the nationalist community about moving away from firm power sharing protections? How would he, as a unionist, reach out to the nationalist community and reassure it on those issues in the pathway to change?

Will Professor Tonge and Ms Mercer comment on how we deal with a civic forum? I would be interested to know why they thought it was removed, and why it has not been put back in place. I certainly cannot understand that. I will pass over to Mr. Finucane.

There are five minutes left in the slot and Mr. Finucane is also nominated for this time. It is up to the members to decide.

Mr. John Finucane

I am conscious of the time so I will just echo Deputy Mac Lochlainn's opening questions and his setting of the context. It is also worth reminding that the Good Friday Agreement is enshrined in international law as well as domestic law. It has been added to over the years but has never been subtracted from, with Weston Park, St. Andrews, Hillsborough, Fresh Start, New Decade-New Approach.

It was great to have everyone before the committee this morning. It is good to see Mr. McCallister again. Ms Mercer's opening statement referred to an outcomes-based approach and governance that is essentially fit for purpose. I was struck by the absence of the economic reality which Stormont is subject to. Conor Murphy as Finance Minister has set up a fiscal commission to deal with the problem around the inability to budget on a multi-year approach so that we can identify priorities and provide fit-for-purpose governance. Can Mr. McCallister comment on how having to budget on a year-by-year basis impacts on the points he is making around governance?

In his opening statement provided to the committee, Professor Tonge said that no amount of legislative insulation can prevent against collapse and that it is political attitudes that need to change. Can he elaborate on that? Could the implementation of the long-promised bill of rights act as any comfort or protection to adverse political attitudes being able to undermine good governance and the institutions here at Stormont?

There are three minutes left and some very good questions there.

Ms Anna Mercer

I am happy to answer on the outcomes-based approach and the economic realities. It is a really good point. Places like New Zealand have budgeted for outcomes. One problem, and why I think legislation is needed for the outcomes-based approach, is that if you do not put all the pieces of the machine in place, it will not work. There is a really good example of this in community planning. Our local councils were given duties to deliver well-being in 2014. We have been working with the Carnegie Trust on delivering that. One example is in Derry where a community crisis intervention service was set up in response to crisis mental health issues. It had buy-in from a range of public agencies which are obliged under the legislation to act in partnership as well as community and voluntary service. In the first six months it had 141 interventions, which is essentially suicide prevention, and generated £23,000 in savings in that time. However, because we do not budget for outcomes, the Assembly had a debate on this twice, calling on the Minister for Health to provide funding to cover the services. Part of this is about health but a lot of it is about other issues, including poverty, community, and policing and justice. It sits within so many areas. Until we move our budgeting to reflect an outcomes-based model we will not get it right. We cannot do this in little bits, we need to do it in totality.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn mentioned the civic forum. The citizens' assembly model might be a better one now because it brings everyone in, it does not just take the people whose voices are probably heard in other walks of life that are advocating and representing. It is the people on the ground who are living in communities are those who we really need to hear from. They are the people whose confidence in the institutions is probably a lot lower and their voices are not heard. We need a model of deliberative democracy. That energy would be better spent in a citizens assembly model at this point.

There is just half a minute left in this slot.

Mr. John McCallister

I thank Deputy Mac Lochlainn and Mr. Finucane for their kind words.

On Deputy Mac Lochlainn's point on the experience of nationalists, if one looks at the numbers in the Assembly now there are 40 designated unionists and 39 designated nationalists. There are no majorities. It is an assembly of minorities, in effect, so there are no concerns about that. An earlier questioner mentioned councils which work on weighted majority voting, and asked what would happen If we were to remove things like designation. Designation does not impact on creating the Executive, as such, as that is done with d'Hondt. That is why we end up with the DUP and Sinn Féin in the one government, which as the Deputy rightly says, would not happen on any other planet, almost. Those two parties would not be in same government otherwise. Unionism is much more fractured at the moment than nationalism. There is probably more of a confidence in nationalism. Numbers suggest there should not be a problem. It was different building up trust in 1998 as opposed to doing so nearly a generation later.

I thank Mr. McCallister. We move to the SDLP. Ms Hanna has ten minutes.

Ms Claire Hanna

I thank the Chairman and the witnesses. It has been a really interesting session and really encouraging as well. We heard some surprisingly positive statistics there about people's attachment to devolution. To paraphrase what Mr. McCallister said, nobody has come up with a better idea than an architecture to facilitate power-sharing. I know where Senator Blaney was coming from in terms of the Good Friday Agreement having been endorsed by the people and we must be sensitive about potentially changing it. There have been some problematic divergences, like the fact the petition of concern has never really been used in the way envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. It has never or rarely had the ad hoc committees that were supposed to look at the reasoning. Also, some of the more problematic changes like the privatisation of the election of First Ministers happened at St. Andrews over the heads of people. Thus while things like reviewing designation should absolutely go back to the people for endorsement some of the changes have already happened and were done by politicians, for politicians. Notwithstanding Professor Tonge's point that no amount or rules and regulations can counteract the will not being there it is important we see the Good Friday Agreement not as a family heirloom or some relic one just looks at but rather as a living, breathing toolkit to facilitate this stuff.

I have loads of questions and I am interested in the Chairman's suggestion we might be able to get the witnesses back. I have a brief question for each witness.

Ms Mercer suggested well-being concepts could be legislatively embedded both as a way of getting better outcomes and going around those who set their faces against a rights-based approach. Are those Bills working in Scotland and Wales given they have some of the same strictures on their finances as we would, in other words, the lack of the full tax toolkit?

Mr. McCallister spoke about the mandatory coalition aspect and the fact there is not really an incentive to compromise. The parties know that so long as they get their mandate and their voters out for their position there is not really a need to appeal to anybody else. He is right to say that the five parties in government are a fairly unnatural set of partnerings. Will he briefly touch on some of the other mechanisms that could give protections short of mandatory coalition, and maybe if designation changed, things like qualified majority voting? I believe he touched on the latter in his bill, though it did not pass on that day.

Turning to Professor Tonge, how would a review of this stuff optimally happen? I was interested in, and did not know about, Ms Mercer's point about how citizens' assemblies can come from the First Ministers regularly. Some things, like formally equalising the First Ministers, the SDLP tried to do by amending the New Decade, New Approach Bill. In theory, if the will and legislative time were there could these changes be done in the Assembly or are they reserved?

Ms Anna Mercer

I thank Ms Hanna for the question and the invitation today. She asked about well-being outcomes and how that is working in other jurisdictions. Scotland has the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and Wales has the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Wales also has a future generations commissioner whose responsibility is to ensure public bodies are fulfilling their duties to long-term planning and to putting well-being at the centre of it. Wales is probably the best example for us to look at locally. The Carnegie Trust facilitated a study trip with a lot of councillors and community planners from Northern Ireland over to Wales to see how it was operating and it was a really useful trip for them. As to whether they are working, both are in pretty early days at the minute. The right signs are there. The problem is the only place doing budgeting to outcomes is New Zealand. We are all limited across the UK by the Chancellor moving to annual budgeting, as Mr. Finucane mentioned earlier, so we cannot plan for multiple years. I believe it was because of Covid we moved away from that commitment but that is an an issue and we must move beyond that.

One of the things that has been really interesting has to do with New Zealand, which is the world leader in this. I read an article in The Guardian recently by one of the public health experts on New Zealand's response to Covid. As members probably know, New Zealand has been one of the most successful countries in the world in terms of Covid response. The expert said New Zealand's commitment to well-being and seeing its people as its economy had underpinned the response and the value base was part of the success in that. Due to New Zealand putting well-being at the centre of what it was trying to achieve in its response it has been able to have very low levels of death and hospitalisations. That whole approach has been something that has characterised how its public policy is delivered. She said if new Zealand had not had well-being at the centre she did not think it would have done the same thing. There is a lot to learn from other places and a lot to learn locally from community planning, as I touched on earlier. Those are really good working examples of how we could take that forward.

Professor Jonathan Tonge

I might answer Mr. Finucane's question on a bill of rights as I did not get time before. I am unambiguous on this and can give a very short reply. I totally support full implementation of a bill of rights in the same way I support full implementation of Irish language provisions. It is a clear-cut answer. On the question on political institutions and the attitudes to change, the point I was trying to make was not to put blame any particular party but to say collapse must be a last resort.

I thank Ms Hanna for helping to raise the invitation. On what would happen with a citizens' assembly, there are obviously different models for setting those up. I would try to follow the model that is there in the South for setting up and getting a truly representative body. It is certainly entirely doable. On the mechanisms of it, it is there in New Decade, New Approach that one would have this civic advisory panel set up under that agreement which advises the Executive. I think I was mistaken before in saying the First Ministers choose the issue. It is the civic advisory panel that advises the Executive on how that citizens' assembly should proceed, the nature of topics that could usefully be addressed and the decision-making forum. What influence it would have would again be up to the Executive and whether it would then make legislative recommendations and draft a Bill on the basis of what a citizens' assembly proposes.

The citizens' assembly model is better than a civic forum model. Deputy Mac Lochlainn's question about what happened to the Civic Forum for Northern Ireland is a good one. It disappeared without trace. I would like to see it back but it is more important to have a citizens' assembly. The civic forum was contentious because some people objected to who should be in it. There was never consensus about who should be in it. For example, the Orange Order asked why it was not in it as it represents thousands of people in Northern Ireland. Thus you will not get consensus, whereas with a citizens' assembly, because it is randomly selected, albeit weighted to be representative of the population, no one can seriously object to who takes part in it. It would not be a credible position to take.

Mr. John McCallister

I thank Ms Hanna both for arranging this and for her question. There are a few things. Around the removal of designation, we can easily move to weighted majority voting, like our councils do.

This is even though some of our councils are quite heavily skewed towards one community or another, such as Derry City and Strabane District Council versus the area of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council I live in, which is quite heavily unionist. As was stated earlier, they still function. One could move to that designation but it is something that belongs to the late 1990s and early 2000s more so than today.

I would certainly move a petition of concern. If there is a move away from designation, at least three parties should have to sign a petition of concern so broad support is built up in order to really challenge something. I recall someone, who is now First Minister, wanted to bring in a Bill on some issue and Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Green Party and the Alliance Party were all willing to sign a petition of concern to stop it. That type of broad coalition is needed.

There are other issues we need to look at. We are nowhere near talking about the D'hondt formula, which is the mathematical calculation that populates the Executive. It goes back to Deputy Mac Lochlainn's point that in no other place would there be parties as diverse as that. One could look at other mechanisms and the D'hondt formula as a default if a Government cannot be formed, considering how long it took to negotiate and form a Government in the Republic.

It should also be asked if one party, of any persuasion, should be allowed to collapse the Assembly. The lesson learned from the 2017 collapse was that it is easy to collapse the Assembly but be warned about how long it takes to get it back. The reasons for the collapse included the renewable heat incentive, RHI, scheme, the Irish language issue and, more recently, the problems when the DUP changed leader, wanted to nominate a First Minister and the problems around that. Mechanisms to have a vote in the Assembly whereby not only First Ministers but the entire Executive are approved could be looked at. The issue of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is key. I pushed for it in my Bill but did not get support, even from people I thought would have been more supportive of it. We could well hit next year when suddenly this becomes an issue and we are trying to solve something that need not, and should not, be a problem, that is, to do that.

Those areas are on whether one party should have the monopoly on collapsing the Executive. If one party wants to sit out of the Executive there is space now for opposition, but should it have that monopoly of nobody else being allowed to go in? There is a challenge to all parties in this. For example, would members of the Ulster Unionist Party want to go into an Executive if the Democratic Unionist Party was not in it, or would the SDLP want to go into an Executive if Sinn Féin was not there? There is almost this fig leaf or cover of respectability in having the other party in there. We might not like or agree with a party but it gives an element of political cover for worries about who will move or do what at the next election and jog in for position. All of those issues play a part in how we build up. If we can get over the hurdle of another election, get into a period of more stable Government and get the Assembly working, we can start to do this and, as was stated at the very start, not deal with this in a time of crisis but in a time of stability.

Professor Tonge mentioned the Irish language issue. The time to have dealt with that would have been after the 2016 election, when unionism was in a very strong, confident position and was being generous about doing something about the Irish language. If I had been re-elected then, I wanted to do something on the Irish language and on the armed forces covenant. I would have got something done as long as I could have avoided the petition of concern. That would have been an interesting way to do it.

Dr. Stephen Farry

This has been a very interesting discussion. I will reflect on the sobering reality that while the Good Friday Agreement is a remarkable document, in the current context we have to be realistic that it is very difficult to see, with the current state of relations between the two Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland, how an agreement could be negotiated on first principles today. This really puts into context how fragile our politics are but given Northern Ireland is a society of contradictions, at the same time, we have a very fast moving, evolving society, especially in its attitudes and how people are framing their identity. It is important that the agreement is capable of evolving and keeping up with developments in that regard.

My first question is probably one for Professor Tonge, as the academic, to pick up but it may also be for Ms Mercer and Mr. McAllister, if they have anything to say on it. I look elsewhere in the world, particularly to other deeply divided societies, to see how and where peace agreements can evolve either by agreement or force of circumstance. I am conscious that there are more examples of situations that have become more ossified. I am thinking of somewhere like Lebanon where I believe there has not been a census since the 1940s because people there are scared of the implications of the results in undermining the very rigorous consociational model seen in somewhere like Bosnia. In Bosnia in the mid-1990s, around the same time as the Good Friday Agreement, a three-stranded Bosnian-Serb-Croat sharing of power was locked in, which is still with us today and is, perhaps, stopping Bosnia from evolving.

How can we persuade those parties with a vested interest in the current system, particularly, of the need for reform? I am struck by the fact that the Governments, primarily the UK Government, will not move with more radical change unless the parties, collectively, ask for it, especially the two largest parties that benefit from the vetoes in the Executive and the designation. Those parties do not see it as in their interests to reform. How can we manage this process of evolution of our structures outside of a crisis having to force action in that regard? How can we persuade those who have an interest in the status quo of the need for change?

I will highlight what can often be the law of unintended consequences. I am particularly conscious of the petition of concern issue, which was put into the agreement for very good reasons given the history of Northern Ireland over the previous 70 years but has acted, not to protect minorities as such, but to ossify power structures. If we have neutral vetoes, it tends to serve the interests of those who are happiest with the status quo and has hampered those who want to see change. In that regard, I am particularly struck - and I stand to be corrected - that I cannot think of any significant time when the Assembly passed any significant human rights or equality legislation. It has always had to fall back on the Westminster Government, either during direct rule or through other types of intervention, to address those issues. How can we break the cycle of the Assembly being incapable of addressing those issues that cut to the heart of identity, human rights and equality issues?

Professor Jonathan Tonge

I promise the Chair I will be brief. Mr. Farry is correct that there has not been a census in Lebanon since 1932, given the sensitivities of it.

Consociational deals like the Good Friday Agreement are inherently unstable because they are about trying to resolve acute constitutional differences within a framework which at least parks those constitutional questions. That is inevitable. The Bosnia case mentioned by Dr. Farry has created three different presidencies, a whole mass of legislatures and approximately ten different cantons. That is the nature of it. Without getting bogged down in it, you have Bosnian Serbs who resist further moves to integrate into a Bosnian identity with which they do not associate and that is the problem. There is a limit to which you can push identities if they are not dearly held. The Good Friday Agreement is a step up on the Lebanese and Bosnian cases because it offers far greater respect for differences in identity. That is why I am more positive about the Good Friday Agreement than those two cases which I teach and are regularly fairly disastrous politically. That is the only point I want to make. There is no alternative to a consociational deal for Northern Ireland pending a longer-term resolution of the constitutional position.

Mr. John McCallister

It is good to see Dr. Farry. He served five years as the employment and learning minister. He knows some of the issues of trying to resolve or move issues such as that and how difficult it is. With regard to the petitions of concern, I accept Professor Tonge's earlier point that with numbers below 30, it is harder to trigger, but I would like to see a broader number of people being able to sign it, at least from two or three different parties or independents, whereby you have to build in and argue for support and it not just being triggered because you are greatly opposed to equal marriage. Even over contentious things such as abortion, had the Assembly acted on abortion when I was coming to the end of my time there - amendments were coming from Trevor Lunn and others - there would have been no need for Westminster or no pressure for it to do so. However, Dr. Farry is right on human rights issues and we are fortunate to have things such as the human rights commission, the equality commission, section 75 and things like that to do that. I do not know whether there would be confidence that the Assembly would necessarily address those issues.

Moving on to things such as a bill of rights, we have probably seen movement, albeit minor, on that over the past 18 months from the New Decade, New Approach. I agree with Dr. Farry's points around that. Were Alliance to do well in next year's elections, it would raise the question of how do you handle this large group of others with no designation. What would happen in respect of the posts of First Minister and deputy First Minister, or the First Ministers? I refer to all those issues. If we could get a period of stability and start drilling down and recognising the Assembly is probably much more level in numbers, we could get on with providing good government.

Would Ms Mercer like to say something?

Ms Anna Mercer

I will briefly say that what we need to do, rather than always trying to criticise or catch politicians out, is to try to help them. What we need to do is to create a situation whereby we are not trying to get one over on the DUP or one over on Sinn Féin or any of that sort of thing. We are trying to make the institutions work and no politician should be afraid of that. The status quo does not suit anyone at present. I do not know whether anyone will be terribly concerned about keeping things as they are, because everyone has their issue with it. There is an opportunity, in that Brexit, Covid-19 and the climate at present in terms of the need to build back better means we may be at a point in the road at which it would be appropriate to have a wider public conversation and, critically, to take it outside Stormont. I know it is hard. We need to get Stormont's buy-in to take it outside of Stormont but if you look at the text in the New Decade, New Approach, NDNA, and the tone, it is all about public engagement. It is all about accountability. It is really making people do what they say they will do and holding them to account.

The other thing is in terms of switching the focus from everything is about the constitution. People are rightly entitled to hold their beliefs, whether they are nationalist, unionist or they do not care. We are not taking away from that. I am harping on about well-being but going back to changing the focus of why decisions and policy are made is really important. When that outcomes-based approach came out in 2016, there was so much excitement. We had Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster standing side by side, really excited about this concept. Wider civic society was really excited about it as well and there was an opportunity there for us to be, not quite world leaders, but up in the top five of being able to deliver on this.

With regard to creating a bit of ambition about what we can do within the current state we live, we need to somehow take the heat off the constitution. The provision is there within the Northern Ireland Act for a border poll. That is there and that is not going anywhere but we need to be a bit more at ease with ourselves in terms of what we can achieve when we are living in this moment, because we are missing the opportunity to deliver better outcomes for people by always transferring the focus to whether you want live in a united Ireland or in the UK. We need to look at other ways of having that conversation, reframing the debate and changing the focus.

I thank all our witnesses this morning for an amazing and informative discussion and I am intrigued by it all. My question has been covered. I had a question about the civic forum and the witnesses have touched on it frequently. I love civic forums and citizens' assemblies. That is where I come from. I will ask a question to hear a little bit more around the civic forum, the citizens' assembly and the witnesses' thoughts on it. We know that in 2019, 89% of unionists, 83% of nationalists and 80% of others supported restoration of the Executive and the Assembly and we know there is a solid support for a cross-community legislature and power-sharing body. Professor Tonge's opening statement also mentioned the need for attitudinal change to ensure a stable Northern Assembly and not necessarily institutional reform. I would love if the witnesses could say a little bit more about whether they think having a civic forum that could not collapse is a solution to this or what their thoughts are. This is for all of our witnesses this morning. I would love to hear what their thoughts are on that. I thank the witnesses again and Ms Claire Hanna for inviting them in. It has been really informative and I really enjoyed hearing them all this morning.

Professor Jonathan Tonge

I concur with those sentiments that the civic forum should not have been allowed to have been abolished because it was in the Good Friday Agreement. You had this 60-strong composition to it. It was unfairly criticised by people who said this was the unelected and unelectable when it was actually a pretty positive body. It should not have been allowed to disappear. As I said earlier, citizens' assemblies ultimately are better ways of resolving issues than a permanent civic forum but there is a place for both. A civic forum ought to be reconstituted and that provision for one or two citizens' assemblies per year ought to be enacted.

It is not listed in the priorities of New Decade, New Approach and when this will be enacted is open to question. I hope it is sooner rather than later. It would be a sign of progress. The point that was made by Deputy Mac Lochlainn earlier is it is not a threat to the elected individuals. These are not surrogates or substitutes for democratically-elected representatives. They are complementary to them. That is the way these bodies should be conceived.

Mr. John McCallister

The key is that one is not competing against or trying to replace a representative democracy. That is the only comment I will make. I am supportive of the concept. It made such a huge contribution in the Republic that we could use it to start to tackle issues and get rid of some of the myths that every unionist is against an Irish language Act, liberalising abortion law, equal marriage or whatever it happens to be.

They can be useful for drawing out some of those, but not to compete with or replace your representative democracy.

Ms Mercer?

Ms Anna Mercer

I would add that one of the things that is slightly not optimum in terms of citizens' assemblies for Northern Ireland is that, unlike in the Republic where it is a constitutional convention, there is no legal footing for it. You do not want to just have one that is a talking shop. That would be probably a bit pointless. We want to have something that functions and contributes towards policy-making. It is really important that it has buy-in and that it is given its space.

One of the things when we were delivering an adult social care citizens' assembly a few years ago was about looking at the question and making sure what you are asking people. With Brexit, for example, there was much criticism around the question that was asked and whether it was the right question. It is important that we frame it in the right way.

Also, it is of critical importance to look at what issues we talk about. Deputy Mac Lochlainn mentioned earlier about whether it should be strand 1 or strand 2, or all three. We need to start with strand 1. We need to have the conversation with people within Northern Ireland first to get buy-in because once you start bringing in strands 2 and 3, you start losing support from unionism. We owe it to ourselves to have that conversation within Northern Ireland initially and then broaden out, because you need to take people with you. If you want to find your agreed Ireland, we need to start having those conversations with our neighbours first. The legal compulsion is the bit that I would be a bit concerned about, namely what status a citizens' assembly has.

I thank Ms Mercer. It is back to Senator Black.

I just want to thank our guests for their presentations this morning.

I will ask a question, if I may. Going back to the final point about what such an assembly could, in fact, discuss or should ideally discuss, the biggest difference is the constitutional issue. I suppose the point is you could not select people from a community that would speak because of differences of opinion on the constitutional position and from the unionist side, I would presume that if whoever would be in the lucky position of being on that assembly were to form an opinion which would be different from the unionist majority, it would not make sense either. Is it fair to say that what you are really saying is you work on things, such as the social issues, you can get real change on within the existing parliament structure? If it is a fair question, is that where its strength would lie?

Professor Jonathan Tonge

I can come back on that. I see the inherent difficulties of necessarily getting unionists to engage if you have a citizens' assembly on the constitution but it is not impossible. There is that ongoing debate within unionism. The former leader of the DUP, Mr. Peter Robinson, for example, is arguing that unionists should engage in constitutional debate. There is not a uniform position within unionism.

It might not be the starting point. I would not necessarily recommend the first citizens' assembly to be on the constitution, but there is an argument for a citizens' assembly on the constitution, not least to work out the structures. Unionists would still be unionists. They would still vote for the union in a border poll but you could have a legitimate debate within a citizens' assembly as to the structures to try to form what a united Ireland would look like if there was a vote in favour of a border poll. For example, what would be the role of Stormont? How much power would be devolved to the North in the event of Irish unity? That would be one area to consider.

As a starting point, I would echo Ms Mercer's point. One should build up gently. The first citizens' assembly topic might have to be something rather more routine, whether it be integrated education provision or something like that. I cannot think off the top of my head of a precise topic to be worked out but I would lead in gently with it to build up confidence in the idea that citizens' assemblies can and do work.

I must check if Deputy Tóibín is present, and the Labour Party and the Green Party members.

Our problem is that the committee finds it difficult to get engagement with unionists in the political sense. Although we certainly have very fine members of the unionist community talking to us, there is no engagement. It is difficult to try to understand people's point of view because they feel that if they discuss issues with us, they are ipso facto moving into a united Ireland discussion which they do not want to go into. That is the problem we face.

As Deputy Tóibín is not present, I will call Sinn Féin followed by the Labour Party and the Green Party.

I found this discussion really interesting. It is nice to see Professor Tonge again. It has been a while. Before the pandemic, Professor Tonge was here in Leinster House and I thought what he had to say then was extremely interesting. I thank Mr. McCallister and Ms Mercer as well.

I get what Mr. McCallister says in terms of attitudinal changes being more important than institutional reforms. I suppose what would concern me is that the focus here is particularly on institutional reforms and the fact that we have an international legally-binding agreement that we all bought into on that basis. I suppose what concerns us as a committee is the implementation deficit. Are we only to keep moving on and on without implementing what was painstakingly agreed, whether it be in New Decade, New Approach or the Good Friday Agreement? Are we running away from this? Mr. McCallister says that we should lead in gently but I had to smile at that. After 23 years, maybe it is time for us to grasp what we need to do. My sons were not born 23 years ago. We are moving on to another generation. All of us here on the call have a real responsibility to make sure that it does not continue on for generations. We have to try to stop it at this generation.

My questions, I suppose, are for everyone, but maybe Professor Tonge and Mr. McCallister in particular. What are the main blocks, as they would see it, to implementing the outstanding elements, particularly in terms of the bill of rights? We can talk forever and a day about outcomes for citizens, but the measure on all of us, whether we are here in the Oireachtas, in the Assembly or in the Executive, is what difference there is for people on the ground. After all of those agreements, are we in a situation where the mother or young person in Shankill Road, Falls Road or wherever has a greater opportunity? Are we opening up things for them or are we closing them down, and are we almost using them to build up an industry around talking about it without getting in there and doing what needs to be done? For me, even going through New Decade, New Approach, all of the answers to all of the things that we spoke about in terms of the societal well-being are there. We do not need to reinvent the wheel around it. I very much appreciate I am coming from Mayo. I am coming from an outside view of this and I stand to be corrected on most or all of it.

The thing with the citizens' assembly is there is real hope for us there. If it was to be done right in terms of the terms of reference and the make-up, in particular, in having an inclusion of voices there, the architecture and structures that we talk about here could be examined and discussed within the context of other issues like rights-based health, education - in which I have a special interest - etc. regardless of the constitutional preference.

We can also have over-consultation and over-engagement with civic society as well. In 2019 we had 1,000 citizens from across the country and right across the island writing to the Taoiseach and to the people who are responsible for implementing these agreements saying what they basically wanted in a citizens’ assembly. The Taoiseach at the time agreed that he would certainly not rule that out and engaged with the idea of it. I want to know what our witnesses think where we cannot just keep pushing the can down the road. The Taoiseach at that time said that this should not be a threat to anybody’s constitutional preference and he even said that the Good Friday Agreement explicitly recognises and validates the legitimacy of both constitutional positions.

I would even say to Mr. McCallister that it is very difficult to hear what the merits of the union are, other than identity and we want to hear what these are. As republicans, nationalists and everyone across the island, would a citizens’ assembly not be an opportunity to say that this is why we really believe that the Six Counties should be a part of the union rather than Irish unity and we could have the discussions there.

I am sorry that I have gone on for so long because I want to get back to the issues of the bill of rights, the Assembly and the political attitudes and to ask whichever one of our guests would like to deal with these questions first. I know there is a great deal to be covered here and I wish to sincerely thank the committee and our guests for having this discussion.

Ms Michelle Gildernew

I will come in just very briefly-----

My apologies to Ms Gildernew.

Ms Michelle Gildernew

-----as well because I am delighted to see our three guest speakers here today. I do not wish to pick out anyone in particular but Mr. McCallister and I grew up in the Assembly and while we did not come from the same constitutional point of view we became friends and had a great deal in common. I wish to add to Deputy Conway-Walsh’s point where I meet people from a unionist persuasion every single day who are totally exasperated and frustrated by the lack of planning and engagement from political unionism. The Chairman made the point earlier about political unionism. Civic unionism is way ahead of political unionism and there are many people who want to be involved in creating a better society for all of us on the island of Ireland.

Brexit was a game-changer. Farmers in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone are deeply frustrated about the challenges they face as a result of Brexit and they want to be involved in that discussion. Like Deputy Conway-Walsh I do not believe that 23 years on we should still be tiptoeing around these issues. We have a responsibility now to build a future where we can do away with many of the problems of the past and work together to build an Ireland where everybody can have their place.

I have no doubt that with people like Mr. McCallister within unionism, there are very many courageous and visionary people who would see themselves as unionist but know that the union does not offer them that much and they want to be involved in the discussion as to what the alternative is. I appreciate all of our guests coming here today but it is especially good to see my old buddy, Mr. McCallister.

There are approximately three minutes left in this slot and we have approximately 15 minutes in total remaining afterwards. Can I have replies to some of those excellent questions please?

Mr. John McCallister

I would like to respond, Chairman, to both Ms Gildernew and Deputy Conway-Walsh.

Please do.

Mr. John McCallister

I met Deputy Conway-Walsh at Balmoral Show a few years ago. My acknowledgement of my good friend, Michelle, should surely kill off any chances of a political comeback if this is broadcast to any audience out there.

Ms Michelle Gildernew

Mr. McCallister might run for Sinn Féin.

Mr. John McCallister

Even 20 years after the agreement that might be a bit much.

I will make a number of points but following on from the Chairman’s own comments as committee foreman and those of Deputy Conway-Walsh. Looking at the citizens’ assembly, I probably would not start off with a discussion of Irish unity or the merits of staying in the union like Professor Tonge. There is a very significant swathe of issues that we need to look at and address. We need to make Northern Ireland work, no matter whether one wants to stay in the union as I do, or leave the union as Ms Gildernew would like us to. The Assembly does not debate very often the merits of staying within the union or of a united Ireland. The vast majority of the Assembly’s time as a legislative institution has been spent putting through legislation and it is one thing that it has been actually quite good at. Professor Tonge mentioned the figures of how much legislation it covered in the 2007 to 2016 period.

Even when I was sitting on the health committee with Ms Gildernew we would have been talking about issues such as services in South Tyrone Hospital, Daisy Hill Hospital or Craigavon Hospital that affected all of our constituents. In respect of under-achievement in education, I always knew that there would be much support from members of Sinn Féin in tackling under-achievement in places like the Shankill Road and the Falls Road and in Protestant working class areas. There was a real hunger to actually address those issues way up-stream with early intervention. We have talked a great deal about this in the Assembly but have never really started to deliver on it. There will be a plethora of issues that any citizens’ assembly could really start to unpick and help that policy development that Ms Mercer has talked about right through this morning’s presentation. All of those things are worth doing.

Where does Deputy Conway-Walsh want me to begin on the merits of the union? It is a very good product and well worth selling. From being part of one of the world’s largest economies, and need I say more than the National Health Service, which did a fantastic job in looking after the level of the vaccine roll-out in Northern Ireland and across the UK, which has been phenomenally successful. That is one of the big advantages of having a dedicated public health system. I will not overdo it too much but it is all of those things.

On issues like a bill of rights, it is probably getting at the times when there is the political will to do this. Sometimes, when the pressure is on we can get agreement but then we can quickly move away. Without naming parties or anybody there was probably enough guilt on all sides of things with this not being totally backed by all or where people moved slightly away from different positions when we got going. It is almost like keeping the train on the track and hoping that none of these things come and derail it.

There is a great appetite over some of those policy matters and the bread-and-butter issues. On some of those issues, there is a much greater unity of purpose between the parties than sometimes the opening labels, the party websites or the party mantra might suggest.

I thank Mr. McCallister very much. That was a very important contribution and it indicates the kind of debate we need to have in the future on this committee with people like him and it is very important that he is participating here today.

We have ten minutes left so I am going to bring people back in for a second round such as representatives of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. We will wrap up then in whatever few seconds remain, if that is okay. I call Senators Blaney and McGreehan to speak now if they are still present.

I thank the Chairman. I forgot earlier to pass on Deputy Brendan Smith’s apologies to the Chairman as the Deputy had an appointment in Cavan this morning and could not be here.

The conversation has been very good and interesting. The one thing that is still hanging out there for me is how do we go about pulling this together. Have any of our contributors got any vision or thoughts around how they might make this happen? That is the key. The material and the discussion is very good but how to get this on the agenda, get it heard and getting a process under way is the issue. The Good Friday Agreement, as alluded to by Deputy Conway-Walsh, is an international agreement and so much work was done by the two Governments to deliver it, with the US Administration as a middle guarantor.

Will something like that be necessary? Have the witnesses other ideas as to how this might work?

Does Senator McGreehan wish to come in? No. We are back to our guests then.

Senator McGreehan is at another meeting.

Excuse me. I did not hear you properly, Senator Blaney. I thought you were talking about Deputy Brendan Smith. If anybody would like to respond, go ahead and I will bring in Senator Currie afterwards.

Ms Anna Mercer

I will briefly mention delivery. Senator Blaney is entirely right about being practical about this. I think Deputy Conway-Walsh and Ms Gildernew alluded to the fact that 23 years later things have not been delivered, so there is a real need to start bringing things forward.

As for institutional reform, the model is there. We have a commitment to a citizens' assembly in New Decade, New Approach. It is a matter of holding people to account and delivering that. There are citizens' assembly models across the UK now, as well as in Ireland. There has been one on Scotland's future and one on climate recovery across the UK, so the model is there and it is a matter of holding our politicians to account in delivering this.

As for embedding the policy, we have an outcomes-based programme for government. It is just about getting the legislation to support well-being within that. There are people lobbying for that at the minute. These things are doable and practical. As responsible organisations, we need not to stand on the fringes criticising what politicians are doing but to give them practical tools and to tell them, "If you do this, it may help make your job easier." Change is nothing to fear. That might not be a statement that has characterised the past 23 years, but we need to make the case for these changes in helping the political process. No one should fear being more effective at governance. It is not just about supporting politicians; it is about layering not just the politics but also governance for them to do the best job they can. If we have not created the optimal conditions for people to deliver legislation, to deliver on policy and to deliver on outcomes for people's lives, we cannot be surprised when things fall apart every few years. There are practical things we can do in that regard; I have alluded to them in my presentation. It is about having those conversations and taking them forward. None of the things I have suggested have been completely pooh-poohed by any party, so it is about having the will to take them forward. The role of this committee is really important in doing that because it is charged with the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, so perhaps the members are the people to start putting these recommendations to the Assembly and delivering a paper in that way, while getting the British and Irish Governments involved as well. There is a bit of a perception that they come in at a crisis point and then leave the stage. How do you get the British and Irish Governments to come in when things are not too bad and to facilitate conversations, using the mechanisms that are already there, to discuss how Northern Ireland can optimise its operations in a political sense?

That was a very important contribution. I call on Senator Currie now, and then we will go back to our guests for the last few minutes.

Ms Mercer has just had the last word, really. She has given us the pathway to pursue this if the political will is there. Maybe the question is not for Ms Mercer and the other panellists; maybe it is for the politicians who can make this happen. We have had a great discussion and I hope we have enough time to get to Ms Hanna for the last word on this, as she suggested the discussion.

I have no problem at all bringing in Ms Hanna. If she would like to come in, we have six minutes left.

Ms Claire Hanna

I would be very keen to get last reflections from the panellists. Professor Tonge had some very interesting data on people's attachment to the institutions and the concepts of power-sharing. Is there anything out there that disaggregates people's attachment to power-sharing and to the precise set of regulations we have at the moment? Could Mr. McCallister and Professor Tonge build generally on Ms Mercer's point about how this could be brought forward? I appreciate that this is kind of an entry-level conversation, not least because the agreement has been our lifeboat or our amulet against a very hard Brexit and there are those who would be only too willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in examining it. As we have established through the likes of the St. Andrews Agreement and, for example, Mr. McCallister's Bill in 2015, which created an official opposition, we have tweaked this in the way the Good Friday Agreement was designed to accommodate these matters. Perhaps all the witnesses could build on how we should best advance this conversation. I agree with Ms Mercer that this committee is charged with overseeing the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There are so many external impediments, frustrations and challenges, Brexit being the key one and Anglo-Irish relationships being a broader one, but there are efficiencies and improvements here that could be in the hands of the Assembly and that are entirely within its gift. It would be a good function of this committee to help facilitate that conversation and, as Senator Currie suggested, maybe advance a paper on it. Perhaps there are other actions that members think could be taken within the confines both of the politics as they stand and the purview of the committee and of the Assembly. I thank everyone again for coming.

We have four minutes left. Whoever is speaking at 11.30 a.m. I will have to stop mid-sentence. Those are our Covid regulations. I call on Mr. McCallister and Professor Tonge, whoever wants to come in first.

Mr. John McCallister

I will be very brief then. The one thing I will mention to Ms Hanna and Senators Blaney and Currie is building relationships. We need to get back in there. It is to be hoped that, with vaccines and the start of a shift back to a more normal life, we can start to rebuild those relationships within the Assembly and get a better understanding as to how to face the challenges we face. Ms Mercer mentioned building back better. In dealing with all the issues, there is no doubt but that Brexit has been hugely unsettling and I suspect we are not out of the woods yet in dealing with the Northern Ireland protocol, the impact it is having on the economy and what it is doing. There are all those issues, but the key, I would say to Senator Blaney, is how to pull this together. It is about building relationships. I go back to my earlier point about people like Ms Gildernew and me, with our diverse political views, sitting around a committee table working out how best to serve our constituents and the people we represent and build a Northern Ireland we can be proud of for everyone. The relationships are the key to that.

I thank the committee for its time.

We have two minutes left. I call on Professor Tonge to give his parting words of wisdom.

Professor Jonathan Tonge

Obviously, I will be very brief. I echo what Deputy Conway-Walsh said. We need to get on with this. New Decade, New Approach needs implementing in full. That should be the priority. That would take care of supposedly contentious issues such as the Irish language. It would not fully address the issue of a bill of rights because New Decade, New Approach only sets up an ad hoc committee, and it is time for a full bill of rights. We need to get on with it. Most of New Decade, New Approach is very good. We do not need to deviate from it. Too often agreements have been agreed and then unpacked. The next item to come from Westminster will be something that will probably unpick aspects of the Stormont House Agreement, for example, on legacy issues. We need to stick with what is agreed and get on with implementing it. Most of New Decade, New Approach is almost a penalty kick, which is painful for me to say at the moment for obvious reasons. Let us just get on with implementation and have timetables for implementation from here on.

I thank the Chair for the invitation.

I thank our witnesses for coming along. It was a very important meeting. As we went through the meeting the discussion got clearer, more interesting and better.

We have to adjourn now. At 12 noon we will have a private session to deal with technical and legal advice we have received.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.29 a.m. sine die.