Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Northern Ireland Bill should be law by June, but not with 'Opposition'

Amendments have been tabled from Lord Empey

The Northern Ireland Bill returns to the House of Lords next week. It will end the practice of MLAs also taking seats in the Commons (or the Dail) and opens the way for more powers to be devolved to the Assembly in the future.

It also gives the Assembly the option to reduce the number of MLAs, subject to consent from Westminster.

As Baroness Randerson said when the Lords first debated the Bill in December last year: "Many now take the view that Northern Ireland has too many elected politicians."

She is the junior minister in the Wales Office, responsible for piloting the legislation through the upper house and a fan of our complicated political system.

Randerson told peers: "The d'Hondt system is very close to my heart as a Liberal Democrat because it is intrinsically connected with proportional representation.

"I think that MLAs in general understand the purpose of d'Hondt, even if they cannot actually do the intensely complex calculations."

The Lords is where the real legislative donkey work is done and the 'usual channels' have set aside two days for this Bill in committee.

However, they may not need even one day to get through the handful of tabled amendments, which are nearly all from Lord Empey.

The UUP didn't have a chance to propose any changes when the Bill was in the Commons, as they don't have any MPs – Lady Hermon left the party in 2010 and sits as an independent unionist.

So it fell to Empey to propose "Opposition status and rights for members of the Assembly" for any party with "at least one seat".

His amendment would allow these new Opposition parties speaking rights and supply days at Stormont and the chairmanship and deputy chairmanship of the Assembly's public accounts committee.

Empey is supported by Lord Lexden, a Tory peer and historian with a deep and abiding interest in Northern Ireland affairs.

During the debate in December, he said the absence of a formal Opposition at Stormont "sets Northern Ireland apart from other parts of the country and is incompatible with unionist principle".

Lexden told the Lords: "Disraeli said, in 1844, 'no government can be long secure without a formidable Opposition'.

"Is there not, perhaps, a link between the very slow progress now being made in tackling sectarian divisions and improving public services, such as education, and the absence of an Opposition that could hold the Executive rigorously to account?"

Lexden conceded that there was no consensus on the creation of an official Opposition, but claimed there was "growing evidence of increasing support for this move within Northern Ireland".

Empey's amendment will be discussed next week in the polite way the Lords considers these matters, but it stands no chance of being inserted into the Bill.

The Northern Ireland Bill is likely to pass all its parliamentary stages and be given Royal Assent well before the Queen's Speech in May.

It will finally bring to an end double-jobbing, but normalisation of Assembly politics into the usual government and Opposition model will have to wait.

DUP's Gregory Campbell walks on the wild side

GREGORY Campbell has a wide range of interests including West African lions. He tabled a question to ministers asking what the UK is doing to prevent their decline. Minister George Eustice had good news. EU member states have agreed "stricter measures should be introduced in relation to the importation of hunting trophies of lions and some other species".

And next month the prime minister hosts a conference in London on the illegal wildlife trade.

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