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Years ago when all concerned people in these islands were trying to figure out how we might devise a democratic response to the reality of a ferociously divided Northern Ireland, I tried to excite interest in what I thought to be a sound proposal. I should have tried harder!

You see, it was always relatively simple to state the problem. We have two antagonistic viewpoints: nationalist/catholic and unionist/protestant. Now, how do we elect regional parliamentarians who can claim the support of both tribes?

Unfortunately, when an electoral system was restored, its design was part of the deal to secure peace rather than having an ambition to bridge the divide. The solution offered by the Irish and British governments has delivered dominance in their opposing camps to SF and the DUP.

There is a democratic way to ensure cross community support for all members of the Assembly. A by-product would be the likely failure at the polls of all extremists. Now that peace has been achieved, it might be time to revisit the electoral system.

My suggestion is to hold two sets of primary elections, followed by run-offs between winning candidates. The central idea is to recognise the divided society at the voting stage rather than at the stage of creating a government. There would be a Nationalist Primary Election and a Unionist Primary Election. Crucially, however, the entire electorate – nationalist and unionist – would vote in both primaries. In order to win a primary and an opportunity to contest the run-off, a nationalist would have to appeal to unionist voters and vice versa. In short, everyone seeking election would need cross-community support and it would be very unlikely that an extremist could be elected.

Yes, of course I can see the technical problems – particularly the fate of a non-sectarian party and how to deal with the predictable antics of the wreckers – but as a contribution to creating a more integrated society it might be worth solving these problems.


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