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I want end to petition of concern, claims Foster... but Alliance dismisses call as an election stunt

By John Mulgrew

DUP leader Arlene Foster says she wants to abolish a controversial Stormont procedure that has been used by her party to block motions.

The petition of concern was introduced as part of the Good Friday Agreement, designed to protect minority rights in the Assembly.

However, it has been used by the parties to block decisions on a range of issues.

According to figures compiled by investigative website The Detail, over a five-year period from 2011 to 2016 a petition of concern was used 115 times.

Mrs Foster’s party has been one of the most frequent users of the mechanism.

It has stopped votes on same-sex marriage being passed and prevented motions of no confidence going through.

But now the DUP leader has said she wants to look at getting rid of the petition of concern after the election.

“We talk a lot about the petition of concern and our opponents talk a lot about the petition of concern,” she said.

“We would actually like to see the petition of concern got rid of for everything, but I think our opponents would like to keep it for the things they want to use the petition of concern for, and not allow us to use it.”

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry called on to DUP to stand by its pledge after the votes are counted.

“During the negotiations around the Justice Ministry last May one of Alliance’s conditions was reform of the petition of concern,” he said.

“We wished to see a limit placed on the veto, so it would be used as it was originally envisaged — relating to matters of either national identity, the legacy of the Troubles or the Good Friday Agreement institutions.

“Therefore, it is quite obvious to ask if this is an actual commitment or yet more pre-election talk from the DUP, which we will hear no more about after polling day?”

Meanwhile, Mrs Foster earlier said she did not want to see Irish given “equity” with English, but denied she was against the Irish language.

The DUP leader said she was “the first to acknowledge that mistakes have been made and things could have been handled better” in relation to the collapse of Stormont.

Speaking about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) controversy, she said: “Whatever the rights and wrongs of that scheme, while it became the excuse, it is of course not the cause of the election.

“I have absolutely no doubt that this election is about Gerry Adams reasserting control of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. Some in Sinn Fein saw it (the election) as an opportunity to damage me, to damage the DUP, to refight the last election and to precipitate a whole new round of negotiations. For Sinn Fein, it means putting the needs of the party ahead of the public.”

Mrs Foster said the Assembly election on March 2 will be close,  “probably far closer than it has been over the last decade”.

She added “That is why every vote matters in this election.”

Mrs Foster described her experiences over the past two months — both personally and politically — as “brutal”.

“The level of respect for difference, the level of tolerance, isn’t there at the moment. I deeply regret that,” she said.

Her defence over her position on Irish language came after she  said her party was vehemently opposed to an Irish Language Act.

Speaking yesterday, Mrs Foster said: “Some people had taken the view that because I had said I wouldn’t be in favour of an Irish Language Act that I was anti-Irish language, which of course is not the case. My difficulty with the Irish Language Act is around the cost, around the fact that it would have equity and equality with the English language.

“In terms of the Civil Service, there would have to be affirmative action for people who were Irish speakers, that there would be criminal offences if people didn’t co-operate with an Irish language commissioner.”

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