Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Call for action as Assembly's petitions of concern 'played like jokers'

The DUP used a petition of concern to block a motion calling for the Assembly to investigate whether housing minister Nelson McCausland misled it over the Housing Executive/Red Sky affair

The Assembly's main blocking mechanism – the 'petition of concern' – has now been used more than 60 times.

And – perhaps unexpectedly – it is being employed more by unionists than nationalists.

Originally designed as a safeguard – to prevent unionists imposing their will on nationalists or vice versa – it is most often being used to block progress on specific issues and protect party 'sacred cows'.

The device ensures any issue must have a majority from MLAs representing both communities.

Parties have to secure 30 signatures to kickstart the submission of a petition, and only the DUP can 'go it alone' without requiring support of other parties. Sinn Fein is one seat short.

Thus, without backing from the SDLP, for example, republicans were unable to stop Jim Allister's special advisers private members' bill in its tracks.

In contrast, the DUP has been able to face down the introduction of gay marriage here and amendments to the Planning Bill – now abandoned by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan.

His SDLP namesake, former Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan, has referred to the petitions of concern as "being played like a joker".

The Assembly Executive and Review committee has signalled the device may need to be examined and has taken evidence to assist its deliberations.

Ray McCaffrey, from the Assembly's Research and Information Service, told members: "As of March 2013, 56 petitions of concern had been submitted since the Assembly was established in 1998."

"Since March, a further five have been submitted. So, in total, there have now been 61 petitions of concern: 34 unionist, 25 nationalist and two joint."

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