Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

On The Hill: Concern over petitions sparks a rare cross-party agreement

Ann Travers and TUV leader Jim Allister watch the debate on the MLA's Special Advisers Bill

The taskforce set up to review how Stormont works is to examine the use – or misuse – of petitions of concern, which can be used to block any issue in the Assembly with a majority of both unionist and nationalist MLAs.

The Assembly and Executive Review Committee recently went into closed session to discuss the controversy over a mechanism designed originally as a safeguard for minorities.

And the behind-closed-doors discussion led to an agreement which might not have been possible in a public debate.

Now the committee, chaired by the DUP's Stephen Moutray, is to look at whether the 30-signature threshold used to trigger the petitions should be adjusted.

They will consider whether the use of the device should be restricted to specific key areas – and how that could be achieved.

The cross-party group will also look at "whether the petitions... should be replaced with an alternative mechanism, such as a weighted-majority vote".

Minutes signed by the committee's deputy chair, Pat Sheehan of Sinn Fein, show members also discussed three papers on different elements of the petitions "as set out in the agreed terms of reference".

There has been growing concern that the petitions have been used to protect party interests, such as when the DUP with 38 members thwarted an attempt to accuse Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland of misleading MLAs. Sinn Fein also tried, but failed, because it has 29 members and fell one short of the threshold to stop Jim Allister's Special Advisers (Spad) Bill.

As On The Hill revealed, between the restoration of devolution and March last year there were a total of 56 petitions of concern. Since then others have included the now-dumped Planning Bill and marriage equality following a constitutional convention in the Republic.

Some single issues – including the Caravans Bill and legislation underpinning the then-new Department of Justice in the 2010-11 session – have sparked several petitions.

Ray McCaffrey, of the Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service, told the committee the petitions of concern mechanism is not found in the other legislatures.

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