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Petition abuse must be ended once and for all

By Liam Clarke

Published 05/11/2015

In the white heat of negotiations, we hope, the parties should not forget to reform or abolish petitions of concern. That is the first step towards normal government.

When power-sharing was established in 1998 petitions of concern were meant to stop one side of the community riding roughshod over another. The safeguard is that 30 MLAs can sign a petition of concern, which requires a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists for the motion to pass.

None was used until 2001-2, and then just one. But by 2010-11 there were 20. In 2013, when 11 were used, Mark Durkan of the SDLP found the right words. He said they were being "played like jokers".

The DUP has used petitions of concern five times to oppose same-sex marriage. Four times it would have failed anyway; this week it would have passed.

Can that really be held forward as a measure that affects the unionist community more than the nationalist?

The Centre for Opposition Studies told Stormont's Assembly and Executive review committee that the petition "seems now to be a feature of regular Assembly politics, rather than a signal of exceptional concern".

The situation is particularly sweet for the DUP. It is the only party with 30 Members, so it can raise a petition on its own.

It keeps copies signed up and, if a member is changed, the name is blanked out and replaced. The party has used it to defend its former minister Nelson McCausland from a motion accusing him of misleading Stormont.

Sinn Fein has only 29 MLAs, but it still keeps signed petitions ready to look for the one extra signature - generally from the Greens or SDLP - when the issue comes up.

It came unstuck on the Spad Bill introduced by Jim Allister to stop ex-prisoners with serious convictions from acting as special advisers to ministers.

On that occasion the SDLP decided late on not to sign and Mr Allister's motion succeeded.

The Assembly and Executive review committee considered replacing the petition with a 65% weighted majority for some votes, but could not reach consensus on it, so the system remains.

One idea going the rounds is to reduce the issues for which a petition can be raised to try and restore the original purpose. A start might be to create a convention that they cannot be used to halt finance Bills.

When the SDLP raised a petition of concern against welfare reform in May it did not secure a nationalist majority, and we are still dealing with the fallout.

If the Assembly cannot agree a budget again, then it will fall even if it survives now.

Petitions could also be restricted in areas where there is no orange/green issue, like equal marriage.

It might be necessary to get an outside body or legal adviser to rule on whether they were permissible.

Belfast Telegraph

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