Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Paterson to set out plan for Stormont opposition

Owen Paterson

The Secretary of State is to publish a document making the case for establishing an official opposition in Stormont.

It will propose reducing the size of the Assembly and fixing the length of Assembly terms.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph after outlining the proposals in Dublin, Owen Paterson conceded most changes would need the agreement of local parties but insisted he would legislate to “eliminate double jobbing” regardless.

Double jobbing refers to the system by which some politicians hold dual mandates as MLAs as well as MPs. Those directly affected would include Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP leader, and Sammy Wilson the Finance Minister and DUP MP.

Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minster, recently resigned his Mid-Ulster seat where there will shortly be a by-election.

“We will also be asking whether it is desirable in principle for the institutions to move to a more normal system of government and opposition and, if so, how this might be achieved,” Mr Paterson told an invited audience at the Institute for International and European Affairs, a leading Dublin think-tank.

Mr Paterson made it clear that the Government wants to see an opposition. “Both the Prime Minister and I have said that we would like to see this happen over time. But we are clear that any changes must first command widespread support across the community and be consistent with inclusive government at the heart of the Agreement,” he said.

He quoted former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who said in 2008 “there will come a time when the system will suffer because there is no opposition”.

He urged politicians here to “move on beyond the politics of the peace process to the issues that really matter to people”.

“Party politics in Northern Ireland needs to move into the mainstream, to focus on predominantly economic and social concerns as they do in Great Britain and here in the Republic of Ireland.”

He expressed disappointment that the Executive had not yet agreed a Cohesion Sharing and Integration Strategy to combat sectarianism, stating: “For example, some 94% of children are educated separately, while separate provision has contributed to a state of affairs in which there are more than 85,000 empty school places.”

He warned that unless politics was focused on generating economic growth and rebalancing the economy away from reliance on the public sector “there is a real danger that public confidence in the institutions will decline — and voter turnout fall”.

He vowed that talks on devolving corporation tax, one of his pet projects which business leaders say will stimulate investment, will continue into the autumn.

So far direct approaches to the parties have produced little response. “I wrote to the local parties on 5th September last year and nobody replied. I have written again and only the UUP replied.”

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