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Alliance may not be at top table if Assembly is cut down to size

Published 14/03/2013

Reducing the Assembly to 70 Members would force the Alliance Party off the Executive, experts have warned.

While cutting the departments to seven could also cost the SDLP and Ulster Unionists a place in the Executive.

And despite the lip service paid to opposition, not least by the party to be launched by UUP renegades Basil McCrea and John Mc Callister, the prospect of DUP and Sinn Fein holding the reins of power sends shivers down the spine of every party.

For even a little bit of power for most politicians is better than none.

The Assembly and Executive Review Committee, which has been taking evidence on the future shape of an Assembly with fewer than the present 108 Members, has heard some interesting scenarios in the last few weeks.

Professor Brendan O'Leary of the University of Pennsylvania has warned that any significant reduction in the size of the Assembly – even by 36 – would enhance the likelihood that the Alliance Party would not win a place on the Executive, even if it remains at 10 MLAs.

"We also observe that a smaller Executive of six makes the likelihood of parity in the number of nationalist and unionist ministers far more probable. It would almost certainly remove the presence of others on the Executive," he added.

And Queen's Professor Christopher McCrudden underlined the point, telling MLAs: "The best possible way to support small parties in the existing system is by not reducing the size of the Assembly."

The unique set of circumstances which constitute Stormont were also raised by Professor O'Leary "...the distinctive characteristic of the dual leadership – having a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister – made it almost conceptually impossible to think of an appropriate set of opposition figures. Would there be a first leader of the opposition and a deputy first leader of the opposition? How could they be constituted?" he asked.

The academics also suggested that ministers could set up their own mechanism to avoid the mis-use of the 'petition of concern' mechanism, used by Sinn Fein this week to stymie the abortion amendment, but more often used in the past by the DUP.

Prof O'Leary added: "We were most reluctant to see judicial review petitions and most reluctant to see the two governments acting in some way as arbitrators over whether something was a genuine petition of concern.

"However, we saw no reason why the Assembly could not set up an informal committee... to establish some kind of protocols to try to inhibit misuse of the petition. It would be up to them to devise their own proposals."

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