Belfast Telegraph

'Petition of concern' is shaken up, but no Irish Language Act

Outline: The Governments’ deal
Outline: The Governments’ deal

By Steven Alexander

A new deal to restore the Stormont Executive will mean no single party will be able to wield a veto, and there will be no standalone Irish Language Act.

However, there will be an Irish Language Commissioner and new sections added to Northern Ireland Act 1998 - the law that gives legal force to the Good Friday Agreement - to accommodate Irish.

The 62-page outline deal to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland published by the UK and Irish Governments last night is entitled New Decade, New Approach.

Part 1 outlines a series of priorities for a restored Executive.

Part 2 is called the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Agreement.

One of the major stumbling blocks to restoring the Executive has been the controversial voting mechanism called the petition of concern. It was originally designed to protect minorities, but had been used as a veto on issues such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

The new deal states that there will be "meaningful reform of the petition of concern bringing it closer to its original role, as conceived of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and as a means of building consensus. It will not be a veto for any one party".

Measures will be taken "so that a petition of concern will not be available where the question before the Assembly relates to a Member's conduct as a Minister or MLA and that, in respect of both Executive and Private Member's Bills, the petition of concern will apply only after Second Stage".

The threshold for a petition of concern will remain at 30 MLAs, but one will only be triggered by members from two or more parties.

A valid petition would trigger a 14-day period of consideration.

After this, if 30 MLAs confirm support for it, the Assembly can determine the matter in accordance with the cross-community consent procedure.

In order to prevent future Stormont collapses, the agreement "creates new bodies, including a Party Leaders' Forum and Executive Sub-Committee on Brexit to improve collaboration and partnership and improve the sustainability of the institutions".

The deal states that "if a period of political tension arises in future which risks a breakdown of the institutions the agreement provides for a longer 24-week period before an Assembly election must be called".

During this period ministers would remain in office in a caretaker capacity to allow for greater continuity of decision-making, it adds.

And in the case of a First Minister/Deputy First Minister resignation, the Assembly and its Committees will continue to exercise their responsibilities until the Assembly is dissolved.

The deal also includes a new Office for Identity and Cultural Expression to "promote cultural diversity and inclusion across all identities and cultures". The document said the Irish Language Commissioner will be appointed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister "as a key element of providing, under statute, official recognition of the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland"

The Irish Commissioner will:

  • Prepare best practice standards for the use of the Irish language by public authorities - these are to be agreed by the First and deputy First Ministers.
  • Provide support to public authorities in relation with those standards.
  • Monitor how public authorities meet those standards.
  • Investigate complaints "where a public authority has failed to have due regard to those standards".

A second commissioner with similar functions will be appointed "to enhance and develop the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots-Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland".

The deal would also enable a party to enter the Official Opposition up to two years following the formation of the Executive.

The first priority listed for a new government is to transform the health service with a long-term funding strategy.

It commits the Executive to:

  • Immediately settle the ongoing pay dispute.
  • Introduce a new action plan on waiting times.
  • Deliver reforms on health and social care.

It states that: "No one waiting over a year at 30 September 2019 for outpatient or inpatient assessment/treatment will still be on a waiting list by March 2021.

Commitments to other public services include resolving the current teachers' industrial dispute and addressing resourcing pressures in schools. The Executive would also be committed to deliver a new framework to support young people with special educational needs and increase police numbers to 7,500.

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