A pressure group has said the Opposition role at Stormont is being provided ‘by default’ by the Belfast Telegraph.
In an official response to the Assembly committee examining the current system, Platform For Change argued the current five-party Executive should be replaced with a requirement for an inter-party coalition — to allow parties who do not want to join to go into Opposition.
The self-styled campaign group, which forced ministers to go back to the drawing board on the now long-delayed Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy, also said the present 108 MLAs should be reduced to 80 and the 13 departments to seven.
Its submission to the Assembly Executive and Review Committee said: “The key problem at the moment is that, with all the main parties in government, there is no significant party to represent alternative perspectives in the Assembly — an opposition role often assumed by default by the Belfast Telegraph.”
The Belfast Telegraph has long highlighted the Stormont handling of many public interest issues — such as the CSI strategy, MLAs’ pay rises and expenses and department spending.
The group also said the Stormont committees are failing to carry out functions of monitoring ministers and departments.
Perhaps most controversially it argued the First Minister should be “the agreed leader of an agreed cross-sectarian coalition” which “should then exercise civic leadership for the whole society impartially, rather than representing merely the Protestant community politically (‘unionists’) as now”.
Group chairman Robin Wilson said: “What we are saying is that the St Andrews Agreement arrangement for the appointment of the First Minister, encouraging a sectarian ‘arms race' between the DUP and Sinn Fein for the position, should go. We want to preserve the baby of the principles of equality and mutuality at the heart of the Belfast Agreement while throwing out the bathwater of sectarianism in which these became enmeshed.”
Mr Wilson added: “There's obviously a lot of dissatisfaction out there about the performance of Stormont but this is perhaps the only attempt since the Belfast Agreement to advance a rounded set of structural reforms to fix the system.”
In September 2010 some 160 experts and community relations workers backed an initiative by the self-styled campaign group Platform For Change over Stormont’s strategy for tackling sectarianism. They warned the then Cohesion, Sharing and Integration paper holds out “only a future of sustained segregation” by assuming “Northern Ireland’s conventional politically-driven identities will survive indefinitely”.