Only way to sustain a restored Assembly is petition of concern reform, says Armstrong

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong has said the only way any restored Assembly will be sustainable is to reform the petition of concern (POC) mechanism.

The Strangford MLA said abuse of the veto had “significantly contributed” to the current political deadlock but despite previous Alliance attempts to secure reform, it was still the major issue blocking an agreement and could lead to similar problems in future.

“While recent focus has rightly been on equal marriage, reforming the POC is wider than just that. It is about any restored Assembly being sustainable in the long-term. Reform will do this by addressing issues which led to the collapse of the institutions. That includes the inability to hold Ministers, Speakers or MLAs to account for their conduct, the public frustration at the lack of impact electoral change has on outcomes of various matters, and the slow pace of legislative change.

“Alliance has long called for reform of the POC – we raised the matter with the DUP and Sinn Féin as one of our asks for taking the Justice Ministry in May 2016. Unfortunately, neither party were willing to accept our conditions. We have also called directly on the Secretary of State to change the mechanism.

“Even if the Assembly returns under its present format, the mutual vetoes currently in the hands of the DUP and Sinn Féin would seriously hamper free and open debate, as well as decision-making. This could easily lead to similar situations developing and blocking any potential progress for our society.

“Significant reform of the POC will futureproof the Assembly to deal with other social policies and equality issues, preventing any single party being able to evade scrutiny or accountability to the Assembly or to frustrate the will of the electorate in future.”

Alliance’s proposed protocol on the use of the Petition of Concern

A political agreement shall be put in place with immediate effect with respect to a protocol that limits petition of concern to:

  • Matters of national identity;
  • Matters which relate to the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland; or
  • Matters which relate to the constitutional structure and institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement

The protocol will also mean that, where a Petition of Concern is tabled, this should state the ground or grounds upon which it is being tabled and the nature of the detriment which is perceived as arising from an affirmative vote on the matter.

Adjudication of the eligibility of a petition of concern would be determined through an adjudication panel of five members. The members of this panel shall be legally qualified and be appointed by the Assembly Commission through a public appointments process. When a petition of concern is tabled, the Speaker will select one member of the panel at random for an adjudication to be provided within 24 hours. Where the initial panel member selected is not available, other names will be drawn until someone is identified.

This protocol will be placed into primary legislation by the UK Parliament as soon as possible, but no later than six months from this agreement.

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