A major revamp of Stormont — including plans to slash the number of our MLAs and create an opposition — could be included in a Bill set to go before Parliament.
Secretary of State Owen Paterson has been criticised after putting details of his shake-up plan for the Northern Ireland Assembly out to public consultation.
The NIO document will allow the public to have their say on a number of key issues under consideration on the shape, size and future of the Assembly.
The most controversial section suggests moving away from the current mandatory coalition towards “a more normal system that incorporates a Government and opposition”.
Mr Paterson said: “The consultation will enable us to start a debate over whether this is desirable and how it might be done. As we stated at the election, however, any changes will require the agreement of parties in the Assembly.
Sinn Fein — which is against the creation of an opposition, saying it is contrary to the Good Friday Agreement — was among the political parties to criticise Mr Paterson, saying he was attempting to interfere for the second time in as many weeks.
Sinn Fein Assembly group leader Raymond McCartney said: “Any agreements on the future operation of the Assembly will be reached by the local political parties.
“This is the second time in the past number of weeks that Mr Paterson has made clumsy attempts to make himself relevant to politics here.
“Sinn Fein will not tolerate any attempts by Mr Paterson or anyone else to undermine the power- sharing and equality provisions which lie at the heart of the successful operation of the political institutions.”
Nigel Dodds of the DUP accused Mr Paterson of “launching criticism from a distance”.
He pointed out that the DUP had long argued for a reduction in the size of the Assembly, but said all parties had already submitted their views on possible reforms to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC).
“It is unlikely that this consultation is going to throw any new light on the subject, or bring forward any new consensus,” he said.
“The public in Northern Ireland want to see parties working together to find agreement on the way forward.
“That is also necessary from the Government at Westminster where it is better to work with local parties rather than launch criticisms at a distance.”
Replies to the consultation may be included in a new Northern Ireland Bill which the Secretary of State plans to bring before Westminster next year.
Regardless of the consultation, Mr Paterson signalled his intention to bring forward legislation to provide the same security of tenure for the Justice Minister as enjoyed by other Executive ministers, as well as legislation to give greater transparency on political donations.
Northern Ireland is the only area of the UK or Ireland where the names of major donors to political parties cannot be published, though they are revealed to the Electoral Commission.
It was traditionally held that political donors could be subject to attack, but the commission argues that this risk has sufficiently receded.
What Owen Paterson is asking you...
1. What should be future size of the Assembly
2. Do you believe there should be a combination of Parliamentary and Assembly elections in 2015 or should they be decoupled?
3. Do you think the current Assembly should be extended from 2015 to 2016?
4. Should the Assembly move to fixed five-year terms?
5. Do you believe that our|representatives should be prohibited from holding the office of MP and the office of MLA at the same time?
6. Should MLAs also be prohibited from being members of the House of Lords?
7. Is it better to use primary legislation to ban such practices (double-jobbing) outright at the earliest opportunity or to take a power to do so later to allow space for agreement to be reached?
8. Do you think the Assembly would operate more effectively with a system which provides for a Government and an effective opposition? If so, how can this be achieved?
By Liam Clarke
Owen Paterson senses a popular mood for leaner, less expensive Government in Stormont.
Nigel Dodds of the DUP points out that the local parties are already discussing such issues. He asks pointedly what more Mr Paterson hopes to achieve with another consultation and accuses the Secretary of State of “criticising from afar” instead of working with parties.
He has a point — but a public consultation can give voters as well as the parties a voice. And that could be useful to politicians.
Our LucidTalk poll earlier in the year showed strong support for power-sharing continuing; few relish the alternatives. Yet, there was cynicism about Stormont’s performance and its huge size. The Executive’s approval rating was not much better than that of the recently collapsed Greek government.
The poll also showed less people, both Catholics and Protestants, intending to vote in the next election.
These are worrying trends and Mr Paterson may bring pressure to bear on politicians by giving the public a voice.
The consultation certainly provides an opportunity for everyone — politically aligned or not — to register an opinion before October 23 with the possibility of influencing legislation.
Don’t say you weren’t asked.
Since the Troubles, it has been judged too dangerous to publish the names of donors to political parties and that provision is still in place. Most parties agree that this should eventually change as the security situation improves, but the question is when? Last year Sinn Fein was the wealthiest party with £1.2m in income and the DUP came second with donations worth £615,000. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where political donations are not transparent.
Size of the Assembly
We have proportionately far more full-time politicians than any other regional assembly or parliament in the UK or Ireland. In the Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll, published in June, only 14% of people felt we should retain the current 108 MLAs. The NIO paper suggests five MLAs per constituency instead of six. That would give a total of 90 — and 80 if the number of constituencies is cut. Sinn Fein is more cautious about reducing numbers than the DUP which wants a maximum of 80.
Timing of elections
This Assembly term is due to run out after four years in 2015, the date of the next Westminster election. Some ministers would like to extend it to 2016 to allow it to complete its work. Mr Paterson’s paper asks if this should happen or if it should be held at the same time as Westminster elections. Westminster terms may be extended to five years after 2015 and he asks if we should follow suit. The cheapest option would be to move to five-year terms and hold elections the same day.
Some MLAs, like Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell, are also Westminster MPs. All parties are committed to abolishing dual mandates and Sinn Fein and Alliance have already done so. The paper asks if being an MLA as well as an MP, or a member of the Lords should be outlawed “at the earliest opportunity” or if time should be allowed to reach agreement. There will be opposition to Westminster taking this decision out of Stormont’s hands.
Only four out of Stormont’s 108 MLAs are not members of a Governing party. If a party went into opposition voluntarily it would lose funds and access to some Government information. The unionist parties and Alliance all favour a voluntary coalition with weighted majorities to stop either community dominating. Sinn Fein sees opposition as opening the door to unionist majority rule and is against it. The SDLP has ruled out entering opposition itself. Agreement is unlikely.