Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

It's time for Stormont to develop a maturity

The Assembly needs the normal to-and-fro of Government v Opposition – not the tribalism that passes for politics here, writes John McCallister

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Bad day for democracy. That is how the Belfast Telegraph rightly described the outcome of Monday's Assembly debate on the serious allegations surrounding the Housing Executive and Red Sky.

I have no doubt that very few people in Northern Ireland spend time at the dinner table, or over coffee, talking about petitions of concern. Surely such matters are really only the concern of political anoraks?

Last Monday, however, showed us that the workings of the Assembly cannot only be a matter for political anoraks.

If we are to have a proper, functioning parliamentary democracy in Northern Ireland, and if our political parties are to be really accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, then we have to change how the Assembly operates.

The contents of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC) report on reforming the Assembly – published last week – reinforces that need.

Disappointingly, no meaningful, significant proposals for Assembly reform were forthcoming and an opportunity was lost.

Rather than offering a road-map of democratic reform to increase the Assembly's ability to hold the Executive to account and to scrutinise ministers, the committee, instead, supported the status quo.

This leaves the Northern Ireland Assembly in the position where it is to remain as the only legislature in these islands without an Opposition; in which Government entirely dominates the legislature; unfettered by the scrutiny and accountability provided by a formal Opposition.

This is why it is important that Stormont has an official Opposition. Citizens everywhere else in these islands know that, in their elected parliaments and assemblies, governments are held to account and scrutinised by an opposition.

Without the robust and rigorous scrutiny provided by an official Opposition, our Executive ministers are, to all intents and purposes, unaccountable. It is for these reasons that I am introducing a Private Member's Bill to create an official Opposition in the Assembly.

Why a Private Member's Bill? Simply because the Executive has been unprepared to bring forward legislation to reform how the Assembly works.

This means that my Bill will face an uphill struggle to pass the Assembly, but I am determined that the other parties must face up to the need to change how Stormont works.

There is another reason why we need an official Opposition in Stormont. If we are to see real change in Northern Ireland politics, a move away from the politics of sectarian tribalism, we need an official Opposition at Stormont.

Our society deserves and needs better than all political questions and debates being forced into an Orange v Green mould.

A changing Northern Ireland needs a changed politics. It needs the normal politics of Government v Opposition, rather than the tribalism that passes for politics.

Of course, there needs to be other reforms to how Stormont works – not least changing the current rules on how petitions of concern work.

Creating an official Opposition, however, makes the fundamental change, bringing choice and real accountability into our politics.

Fifteen years ago, the Belfast Agreement allowed our society to move away from conflict. Now, with cross-community confidence established, it is time to move forward, so that our politics does not remain stuck in the past.

So, don't leave this issue to the self-interest of the other parties and the political anoraks. This consultation phase on the Private Member's Bill is an opportunity for citizens and organisations right across our society to express their views on the need for an official Opposition in the Assembly – on the need to change how we do politics.

So make your voice heard and together let's create a new politics for all in Northern Ireland.