Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 10 October 2015

McCallister stands in way of petition abuse

By Liam Clarke

Published 12/07/2013

Opportunity: petition of concern row gives John McCallister and Naomi Long the chance to push for an effective Opposition
Opportunity: petition of concern row gives John McCallister and Naomi Long the chance to push for an effective Opposition

John McCallister, of the recently-formed NI21 party, picked a good moment to launch his consultation on the creation of an official Opposition at Stormont.

If there was ever a moment for the smaller parties to pull out of government it came this week, when the DUP rallied round their minister, Nelson McCausland, to defeat a democratic majority by launching a petition of concern.

It showed the powerlessness of the other parties in the face of the mighty DUP machine.

It is pointless to blame the DUP for using its power. A quirk of the Good Friday Agreement – proposed by the SDLP to protect nationalists from majority voting – has ended up handing the DUP a veto over all legislation.

Any party would be tempted to use such power to get out of a tight spot. But the DUP takes a particular pride in not being afraid to say 'No'.

Since the days of Ian Paisley, exercising vetoes has been one of its most hallowed traditions.

A petition of concern can be raised by any 30 MLAs. It then triggers a weighted majority vote, which must include a 40% share of both the unionist and nationalist blocs.

With 38 MLAs, the DUP is in the fortunate position of being the only party which doesn't need outside support to raise a petition.

The DUP also holds a majority amongst unionist MLAs – though not in the 108-member Assembly.

Under these rules, nothing which the DUP opposes can ever be passed into law at Stormont. This was graphically illustrated on Monday, when it defeated the combined opposition of all the other parties and independents.

By comparison, the second-largest party, Sinn Fein, has only 29 seats and needs outside help to exercise a veto. It lost the support of the SDLP on the recent Spads Bill and suffered a defeat as result. It is only the DUP which is fireproof.

This begs the question of whether we should still have the petition of concern in its present form.

David Campbell, who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement for the UUP, and Naomi Long, the Alliance MP, have already written to Theresa Villiers, the secretary of state, about it.

They ask her to use the Northern Ireland Bill, which is currently passing through Westminster, to modify the procedure, perhaps by tweaking the weighted majority, or stipulating that it must have the support of more than one party. She could cut another knot by legislating for the formation of a 'technical group' in the Assembly, as can happen in the Dail and the other UK regional parliaments. This would allow the six MLAs who are aren't in Executive parties to club together to claim speaking rights, office expenses and some of the other entitlements of an Opposition.

Mr McCallister's consultation, which will be over in September, provides an opportunity to gauge public opinion on such issues.

Ms Villiers will undoubtedly be reluctant to act without consensus among local parties.

Yet, she should realise that Westminster is the only place where our political system can be freed up – any proposal at Stormont will only be blocked by a petition of concern.

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