Bill to create a Stormont Opposition passes key hurdle

MLA John McCallister pictured on the steps of Parliament Buildings at Stormont.
MLA John McCallister pictured on the steps of Parliament Buildings at Stormont.

Two separate routes to allowing Stormont to have a formal Opposition should be on the floor of the Assembly within months, after a decision by the Assembly Speaker.

Mitchel McLaughlin has given permission for South Down MLA John McCallister’s private member’s bill on Opposition to take a significant step forward, with the proposed legislation now going to be drafted by Assembly officials.

Mr McCallister’s bill has been more than two years in the making, but December’s Stormont House Agreement opened up a second route to the creation of a Stormont Opposition to the Executive.

The Agreement specified that the structures for an official Opposition should be created, but it was sketchy as to the detail of how it would operate. The Agreement said: “Arrangements will be put in place by the Assembly by March 2015 to enable those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive, but choose not to take them up, to be recognised as an official opposition and to facilitate their work.

“These measures will include: a) Provision for financial and research assistance (from within existing Assembly budgets keeping these changes cost neutral); and b) Designated speaking rights including the opportunity to ask questions and table business sufficient to permit the parties to discharge their opposition duties.”

Last month Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness outlined that Sinn Fein will drop its long-standing refusal to accept any move towards an Opposition.

Mr McCallister’s bill would also ensure a secret ballot for the position of Speaker, substantially increase the threshold at which parties would be eligible to take Executive seats, enshrine in statute the principle of collective cabinet responsibility and ensure that the chair and deputy chair of the Public Accounts Committee are from non-Executive parties.

Mr McCallister said that the Speaker’s decision was “another step towards potentially changing our institutions for the better”.

He added: “Having a bill debated and voted upon will force political parties to take a stand on reform and an Opposition.

“I am pleased that the Stormont House Agreement has shown some progress towards an Opposition, but the commitments were weak and we are already seeing disagreements between Executive parties concerning their interpretations of what was agreed. My bill proposes more far-reaching changes to the way we do government here.”