Belfast Telegraph

Petitions of concern not democracy

By John McCallister

I will not be signing a petition of concern against Paul Givan's Conscience Clause Bill. This is not because I support the DUP-backed Bill, far from it; I think the Bill is, unfortunately, prejudice dressed up as a claim for equality.

Although I strongly disagree with the Equality Commission's decision to bring a case against Ashers Bakery, Paul Givan's Bill has the potential to set community relations and our society back decades.

The Bill, if enacted, would also have many unintended consequences; one of which, I believe, would be to set Northern Ireland and the UK on a road to becoming a more secular State; a State where all religions are less welcome in the political arena and not funded by Government.

As a guaranteed blocking mechanism, petitions of concern allow political parties to be reckless for electoral gain; to place party politics ahead of good governance.

Forcing MLAs to designate as unionist, nationalist, or other, ensures that, when push comes to shove, tribal politics trumps politics based on economic and social policies.

Petitions of concern also disenfranchise all Alliance and Green Party voters - in a democratic society to remove the vote from any elected representative, for any reason, is wrong and against basic democratic principles.

In my time as an MLA I have never signed a petition of concern and, at the moment, I have no intention of doing so.

I do, however, recognise that, as a society emerging from conflict, we require minority safeguards.

I hope that my Private Member's Bill to create an official opposition will gain enough support to shift the Northern Ireland Assembly from divisive designations and petitions of concern to weighted majority voting on contentious legislation that has implications for minorities.

Politics in Northern Ireland must move away from hollow grandstanding that plays to the tribal galleries and towards politics based on social and economic policies.

If we are incapable of achieving this, we will likely doom another generation to fear, division and prejudice and our economy and society to continuing underachievement.

  • John McCallister is Independent Unionist MLA for South Down

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