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Petition of concern is a 'safeguard for unionism'

By Steven Alexander

Stormont's controversial veto - the petition of concern - is a vital safeguard for unionism, an Ulster Unionist peer has claimed.

UUP chairman Lord Empey defended the powerful mechanism after DUP leader Arlene Foster suggested it could be abolished.

Last month, the former First Minister said she wanted to look at getting rid of the petition of concern after the election - despite her party using it far more than any other.

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. DUP members signed 86 -although it no longer has the 30 MLAs needed to trigger a petition on its own.

Lord Empey said: "It is quite true that the DUP has misused the petition process to try and protect the political futures of its own ministers and even recently the Speaker. It is also true that the mechanism was never intended for this purpose," the peer said.

The petition of concern was included in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to protect either of the main traditions from running roughshod over the other in the Assembly.

"It is not a very efficient way of doing business, but it was necessary to get 'buy in' from those who were previously against going back into Stormont," said Lord Empey.

"It was and is a safeguard mechanism. Unionist negotiators supported this process, conscious that from time to time we may not be in a majority at Stormont as election fortunes ebb and flow over time. Given the events of last week, this has happened sooner than anybody expected - but how reckless of Mrs Foster to call for an end to the very process upon which she must now rely to protect the interests of the unionist community."

The UUP veteran said this demonstrated a "total lack of any strategic overview of unionist interests".

He added: "Imagine what would happen today if unionists could not rely upon this petition? It would mean that our interests could be overridden by a non-unionist majority."

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