Belfast Telegraph

NI Election: Petition of concern on talks agenda as DUP loses its power of veto

By Claire McNeilly

The controversial Stormont veto - the petition of concern - is likely to be on the table for negotiations in the inter-party talks, a leading academic has said.

Rick Wilford was speaking after the DUP lost the power to trigger the mechanism that blocked, among other things, the introduction of same-sex marriage here.

The Queen's University political expert said that although he believed the threshold of 30 signatures would remain the same, he suggested that its future application may be restricted.

But DUP leader Arlene Foster recently said she wanted to "talk about, maybe after the election, getting rid of the petition of concern altogether".

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Prof Wilford said that, as it stands, the future of same-sex marriage here is unclear.

"The issue of same-sex marriage is hanging by its fingernails because we know there are 29 MLAs who would sign a petition of concern against it," he said. "The pressure is then on another MLA, presumably from within the Ulster Unionist Party to actually make the decision so it would hang on one person whether we're put on the same footing as the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland."

Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph called all 10 Ulster Unionist MLAs to ask them if they would sign a DUP petition against same-sex marriage and abortion.

North Down's Alan Chambers said: "I don't agree with petitions of concern so I wouldn't sign one despite my own private views on both issues."

East Antrim MLA John Stewart said: "I would not sign a DUP petition of concern on any issue, in any eventuality."

Meanwhile, the party's East Belfast representative Andy Allen responded with an emphatic "no", and Rosemary Barton, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, said she didn't know as she "hasn't considered the pros and cons yet".

At the time of going to print, we had been unable to reach the other six newly-elected UUP politicians.

Tabling a petition of concern means a proposal before the Assembly can only be carried with the support of a majority of both nationalist and unionist Members, rather than a straight head count.

A valid petition requires the support of 30 MLAs.

This then means a proposed law must have substantial backing from both unionists and nationalists to be carried.

It can - and has - been used to thwart the passage of legislation even when a straightforward majority of MLAs vote in favour of it.

In the previous mandate the DUP, with 38 seats, was the only party that could table a petition on its own.

That handed it an effective veto on a range of issues, including proposals to lift the region's ban on gay marriage.

In the 2011-2016 Assembly the petition of concern was used 115 times. The DUP used the powers the most, with its members signing 86 petitions of concern, while the second highest use was by the SDLP and Sinn Fein, whose members each signed 29 petitions of concern. Emerging from the election with 28 seats, the DUP has lost what had been a key tool.

Jim Allister, the Assembly's sole Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) MLA, has indicated his willingness to sign any petition that would block changes to marriage or abortion laws.

That would still leave the DUP one signature short of the crucial 30 and relying on support from elsewhere in the chamber to invoke a petition and thereby block the measure.

The issue could be rendered moot if the Stormont parties fail to form another power-sharing Executive in post-election negotiations and direct rule from Westminster is reintroduced by London.

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