Time to end Stormont chicanery
Published 08/08/2014 | 10:00
When the Assembly returns after the summer recess, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland will face a barrage of criticism, including calls for his resignation, over his role in the controversial Housing Executive contracts row.
Charges laid against him include one that he deliberately misled his own scrutiny committee and that his comments on four contractors were wildly off the mark. In any other part of the UK, his position would be in severe jeopardy, but at Stormont he can simply continue with his work.
Under our system of government, only a minister's party can get rid of him. And the DUP has shown no inclination to dump Mr McCausland. Indeed, it is likely to use a procedural device, a petition of concern, to ensure that there is no effective censure from the other parties. Petitions of concern, introduced with the return of devolved government, were meant to protect minority parties, particularly in matters of human rights and equality. But they have been used increasingly to veto proposals which displease the big parties.
Sinn Fein tried to use the measure to stop a Bill aimed at preventing people with serious terrorist convictions becoming special advisors at Stormont but failed. The DUP used it to veto the introduction of gay marriage legislation in Northern Ireland and even amendments to a Planning Bill. In all, it has been used more than 60 times, 37 of them by unionists, mainly the DUP.
This all smacks of abuse of a measure which was put in place for worthy ambitions. It should not be used, for example, to protect a minister from due accountability to the Assembly. Mr McCausland, or any other minister, should face the verdict of his peers squarely and fairly without hiding behind a legislative procedure which can potentially thwart the will of the Assembly.
As it has been used in recent times, the petition of concern is now a matter of concern and serious consideration must be given to how it can be restored to its original, and desired, status.