In another week where the Stormont Assembly has been lambasted for what are increasingly seen as outdated processes, it is timely that the first steps to allow for a Stormont opposition are being taken.
The ability of the DUP to use a Petition of Concern to veto the cross-party motion which expressed concern at the BBC Spotlight allegations follows other parties’ use of the device. While the party was entirely within its rights in tabling such a petition, it reinforced the bizarre nature of democracy at Stormont when 34 DUP votes were able to defeat the 54 votes of the other parties.
A much more fundamental anomaly, which goes to the heart of much public disquiet about Stormont, is the absence of an opposition. It is understandable why, in the fledgling post-Troubles years of the Assembly, such a move was thought necessary. But the perceived cosiness of the Stormont Executive is now beginning to undermine confidence in the entire political system. Disappointingly, after encouraging noises from former Secretary of State Owen Paterson, the Government has failed to realise that the current system is losing public confidence and has not moved to create the structures for an opposition.
While it is true that parties can at present leave the Executive and oppose it from the Assembly chamber, there are justifiable concerns that to do so would leave them at a grave disadvantage to the Executive parties with publicly-funded advisers, scores of publicly-funded press officers and extensive speaking rights in the Assembly chamber.
John McCallister’s private member’s bill would give modest rights to any parties who want to give up Executive power to offer voters an alternative. Coming as it does from the most liberal unionist in the chamber, it is evidently not an attempt at a return to unionist majority rule. Indeed Mr McCallister is explicitly clear that a powersharing executive must remain.
In the interests of opening up those who govern us to healthy scrutiny, the principles of Mr McCallister’s bill deserve support.