Belfast Telegraph

Still no signs of Executive having a proper Opposition

By Tony Grew

The Queen's Speech, which sets out the Government's legislative programme for the next session, was read to both Houses of Parliament last week.

Her Majesty, accompanied by Prince Philip, Prince Charles and, for the first time, by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, got through her speech in nine minutes.

Several important constitutional Bills were missing, including plans for a register of lobbyists and the controversial Recall of MPs Bill, which I discussed last week.

(No doubt the prime minister's staff, keen readers of the Belfast Telegraph, noted my criticism of the Bill and thought better of it.)

One piece of legislation that was included was the new Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The details have been published and there are some modest proposals on the way for the province, if it becomes law:

• The Assembly will be elected for five-year terms, instead of four years, with the next held in 2016

• There will also be an end to double-jobbing. MLAs will not be eligible to sit in the House of Commons, or in the Dail

• An MP will be able to stand for the Assembly and, if elected, will have to choose where to sit.

But it appears it will be perfectly possible to sit in the House of Lords, or in the Irish Senate, and keep your seat at Stormont.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers is right to characterise the legislation as "technical reforms to improve how politics and the Assembly function".

MLAs will be able to reduce the size of the Assembly. The Scottish Parliament, with three times the population, has 129 MSPs.

But the Executive, unlike Westminster, or the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, does not have a proper Opposition.

For all the tinkering round the edges, real reform of the Assembly is not delivered by this Bill.

Lonely voices, such as TUV leader Jim Allister, former SDLP minister Brid Rodgers and dissident unionist MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister, have called for an end to the current "all must have prizes" structure. Mr Allister even compared the arrangement to North Korea.

The similarities between Stormont and the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang aside, the big players here, Sinn Fein and the DUP, regard the return of normal politics to Northern Ireland as a long-term aspiration.

Last week's Queen's Speech was likely to be the last to contain proper proposals this side of 2015. By the time Her Majesty visits her Palace of Westminster again next May, the coalition parties will be in election mode.

It seems Northern Ireland will have to wait a while longer before real democracy can flourish.

Belfast Telegraph


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