Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Why we need more yes men in the Assembly ...

Saying no: opposition at Stormont to new anti-crime body gives Westminster a headache as Sir Reg Empey has pointed out
Saying no: opposition at Stormont to new anti-crime body gives Westminster a headache as Sir Reg Empey has pointed out

One of the most notable features of Stormont has been to block measures that would otherwise have gone through.

That seems to be one of the main values it has for the two big political blocs.

Nationalists genially use their veto power block measures which are UK wide. For unionists the power to obstruct is more often used to stymie liberal social legislation which could offend traditionalists.

The most recent was the successful nationalist blocking of introduction of the National Crime Agency (NCA) into Northern Ireland. The NCA is the latest in a series of bodies which have operated here without much controversy and which served to tie us into the fight against organised crime.

Predecessor agencies include the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. They were established without Stormont hold ups before justice powers were devolved in 2010. Now the SDLP and Sinn Fein can block change via a "petition of concern", requiring a measure to be supported by a majority of both unionists and nationalists. This was used to block the Legislative Consent motion which would have tied us into the Westminster legislation.

It is a big headache for Westminster, nobody wants Northern Ireland to become a modern day Tortuga, the 17th century pirate stronghold which became a centre from which the whole Caribbean could be plundered.

The comparison may sound fanciful but, a parliamentary committee heard last week, a fuel laundering racket which markets its wares across the UK is based here. Our long, open land border with the Republic also makes it easier for smuggling of contraband to operate from here. We need the help of a body like the NCA working with the PSNI.

Relevant legislation, the Crime and Courts Bill, has to be ready by next month so London is looking for a way to get round the obstacle erected by Stormont. Sir Reg Empey of the UUP was told the Government is "looking carefully at the provisions in Part One of the Crime and Courts Bill to see how they can best be modified to give the National Crime Agency some functionality in Northern Ireland, but in a way that does not require a legislative consent motion".

Petitions of concern have been raised by the DUP over proposals such as a private members bill to introduce gay marriage here. When pushed on the value of devolution Peter Robinson stated, just before Christmas, that it gave him the power to block things like gay marriage and abortion reform. As a result our family law is drifting out of line with the UK along with our security arrangements. Maybe voters will consider this yawning gap a price worth paying; but these issues would be best discussed on their merits, not simply headed off at the pass by blocking devices.

This can leave the Assembly looking like a 108 member taxpayer-funded debating chamber where agreement is reached mainly on motherhood and apple pie issues that it has no power over. A recent example was the vote to improve internet safeguards although telecommunications is not a devolved matter.

"At least it raises awareness of the issue" one party worker commented.

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