SDLP leader Mark Durkan has stunned the political parties in the north by calling for power-sharing between nationalists and unionists, a key safeguard of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, to be scrapped.
In a major speech, he said the time was approaching when rules introduced to protect the minority community within the Six Counties should be removed.
Simple majority rule, which has always favoured the North’s built-in unionist majority, has not operated in the Six Counties since the notorious unionist regimes which ruled from 1920 until 1972.
For decades, the SDLP argued that power-sharing was the only way to prevent unionist domination. But now Mr Durkan has declared that an unseen bill of rights could provide sufficient protection for nationalists.
This week, in a heavily promoted speech, Durkan said the Stormont Assembly in Belfast should operate under a simple majority voting system.
Durkan put forward the idea in an address to the British-Irish Association conference in Oxford.
He said that at the time of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations he had said that the system of designation was necessary “because of what we were coming from but should not be necessary where we were going”.
“I argued that such measures with their arguable sectarian or sectional undertones should be bio-degradable, dissolving in the future as the environment changed,” he said.
“Most, if not all of us, had such future adjustments in mind when we wrote the review mechanisms of the agreement.
“As we move towards a settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice.”
The Good Friday Agreement requires the consent of the two communities on all new legislation. Elected members of the Assembly are therefore required to designate themselves as nationalist, unionist or other.
In the last Assembly election, the SDLP was overtaken by Sinn Féin as the largest nationalist party, alongside Ian Paisley’s hardline unionist DUP. The current coalition executive is dominated by the two parties, and pronounced disputes between Sinn Féin and the DUP have prevented meetings of the executive since June.
The SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party, which also sit on the executive, have become critical of the current administration.
“The possibilities for political realignment with new or changing party offerings in the future could be stunted by permanent reliance to the present degree on designation,” said Durkan.
“If we are serious about a truly shared future then we have to allow for truly shared politics where parties can appeal across the traditional divides.”
Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, expressed “amazement” at Mr Durkan’s comments.
“It amazes me how the leader of the SDLP would take up and argue the position of Unionists over the past ten years that the mandatory coalition should be ended.
“The position he has adopted is effectively throwing his weight behind the likes of Jim Allister and other anti-peace process elements.
“The partnership arrangements as defined by the Good Friday Agreement were supported overwhelming the by the people of Ireland, north and south; this proposal from the leader of the SDLP is a total recipe for disaster.
“What Mark Durkan is suggesting, is an abandonment of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and essentially an abandonment of the rights and entitlements of Nationalists and Republicans as secured by that agreement.
“This disastrous u-turn by the SDLP indicates how willing they appear to be to surrender to the DUP and others demands for a return to Unionist majority rule.
“The position articulated tonight is evidence of a desperate desire by the SDLP to get into power without the actual mandate to do it.”