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.