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Northern Ireland's political parties remain divided on ways to improve political structures

By Victoria O'Hara

Politicians are split over what changes need to be implemented to Stormont to improve the political system.

Five possible steps that could improve the workings of Stormont were featured in the Belfast Telegraph at the weekend.

They were:

  • Change to petitions of concern.
  • Reduction in number of MLAs.
  • Reduction in the number of government departments.
  • Weakening the Silo system.
  • An official opposition.

The UUP and Alliance have said all five areas need to be examined.

The SDLP, however, says it needs to be "persuaded" on some other proposed changes–including an official opposition.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said petitions of concern were being used in an "anti-democratic" way.

Any 30 MLAs can raise one of these petitions about a measure being voted on. The result is that the measure will fail unless it gets a majority of nationalist and a majority of unionists voting separately to support it.

"Petitions of concern were designed in 1998 to ensure sectarianism could not be brought into the chamber," Mr Nesbitt said.

"But they have been used for other things. Parties use them to protect their own ministers.

"It is being used in an anti-democratic way."

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson also said there were areas that were in "urgent need of reform".

"It is not to suggest they (petition of concern) should be thrown out; they do have value and they are there to protect minorities, but the problem is they are not doing that."

Mr Nesbitt also agreed that the political system was "bloated".

"I think the 1998 Agreement was designed to bring everyone into politics and away from violence," he said.

"Now we are ready to move to a more effective structure and the government departments should drop from 12 to eight. Merge the Department of Education and Learning, and Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment with potentially some of Department of Culture Arts and Leisure functions," he suggested.

Mr Dickson also agreed that Northern Ireland was currently "overgoverned".

"There does have to be a reduction in departments," he said.

But he added that setting up an official opposition would be "much more problematic".

"There is no simplistic answer. It is something we need to evolve to. I think there will be substantial opposition from the nationalists and Sinn Fein."

However, the SDLP's Alban Maginness said it would not be in favour of any "radical change" in the numbers of MLAs and government departments.

Instead, it would consider a "reconfigure of functions" in individual departments.

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