Belfast Telegraph

Watch: SDLP propose suspending petition of concern in bid to restore Stormont

  • Colum Eastwood said politicians "must act" after murder of Lyra McKee
  • SDLP says it has legislation "ready to go" to bring "equality" to NI
  • DUP says it has not changed policy on equal marriage
  • Sinn Fein says it will not restore Stormont without Irish language act and action on "rights"
Mark Edwards

By Mark Edwards

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has proposed the suspension of the petition of concern mechanism in a bid to restore Stormont.

The Foyle MLA said the proposal would "create space to get politicians back to work" and that the death of Lyra McKee "must be a turning point" in Northern Ireland politics.

Ms McKee died after being shot in the head by a suspected dissident republican during disturbances in the Creggan area of Londonderry last Thursday night.

Her funeral took place on Wednesday.

Mr Eastwood said: "We must listen to the public and act.

“There is a simple truth to be faced - politics here has failed. That truth means it is our responsibility as political leaders to fix it. We have been casual with our peace and we have forgotten our primary purpose.

“Today, the SDLP is proposing the suspension of the petition of concern (POC) mechanism for the remainder of this Assembly in order to legislate for rights and for all of our futures through the democratic mandate handed to us by the people of Northern Ireland.

"We are also proposing that while the temporary suspension takes place, a meaningful review of the POC is conducted with experts to find agreement on how to protect rights and stop any future abuse of the mechanism."

The petition of concern means that any vote taken by the Assembly can be made dependent on cross-community support if a petition of concern is presented to the Assembly speaker.

In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if supported by a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present at voting.

The mechanism was designed as a way to safeguard minority rights in the power-sharing Assembly.

This means, provided enough MLAs from a given community agree, a community can exercise a veto over the Assembly's decisions.

Colum Eastwood (centre) with SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon and party members leaving the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Eastwood added: "The SDLP has the legislation ready to bring progress and equality - we can begin to enact it on the Assembly's very first day back.

“This proposal threatens no one. It is about creating the space to get parties back into Stormont to take decisions affecting all of our lives. It is clear there is an Assembly majority to resolve the outstanding issues if we remove the veto.

"We need to bring our people back together, we need to bring our government back together.

"This is a time for leadership, for courage and for compromise.”

Disagreements over Irish language legislation, same-sex marriage and legacy issues led to the collapse of talks to restore Stormont in the past, leaving Northern Ireland without a functioning government for more than two years.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said her party's policy on same-sex marriage has not changed.

In a tweet responding to a Belfast Telegraph story about Sinn Fein calling for an Irish language act, Mrs Foster said: "I respect that Irish is important to those who cherish the language.

"But schools & hospitals matter to everyone. Stormont should be restored immediately to deal with key reforms. A parallel all-party talks process can deal with those issues SF wish to raise."

Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

A DUP spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph: "The Assembly should be restored immediately so Ministers can get decisions made.  These are the kind of discussions which could take place in a talks process running in parallel with a restored Assembly. 

"It should be noted that since March 2017, no single party has enough MLAs to independently trigger a Petition of Concern. 

"Indeed, in the 2011-16 mandate whether on welfare reform, education or local government legislation some of those most critical of the PoC were its most frequent users."

A Sinn Fein spokesman said: "Unpicking key provisions of the Good Friday Agreement is shortsighted, and temporarily suspending the petition of concern does not achieve a long-term solution.

"The British Irish Intergovernmental Conference should be urgently convened so that both governments working together begin addressing the need to end the discrimination and denial of rights- rights that are available everywhere else on these island.

"In that changed context, Sinn Fein stands ready to re-establish the power-sharing institutions."

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