DUP under fire on scrapping petition of concern

Reg Empey said that the DUP has consistently abused the petition of concern system over the years

Reg Empey said that the DUP has consistently abused the petition of concern system over the years

The DUP has said that while it is unhappy about the existence of a controversial bill-blocking tool at the Assembly, it will continue to use it so long as it is there.

The party came under fire from rivals for its stance on petitions of concern throughout Wednesday, after leader Arlene Foster suggested that they could be scrapped after next month’s election.

Rivals pointed to the fact that the DUP has used such petitions more often than any other party, describing its pre-election suggestion to ditch them as “rich”.

The DUP responded that scrapping petitions of concern now appears unlikely anyway, given that Sinn Fein has firmly restated its opposition to any such move, and therefore “clearly we will not restrict the circumstances in which we reserve the right to use it”.

Petitions of concern have been controversial for years.

The latest twist is the result of remarks by Mrs Foster in a BBC interview on Tuesday, in which she was quoted as saying: “I think we need to talk about, maybe after the election, getting rid of the petition of concern altogether.”

Petitions of concern require the support of 30 MLAs. This then means a proposed law must have substantial backing from both unionists and nationalists to be carried.

This can – and has – been used to thwart the passage of legislation even when a straightforward majority of MLAs vote in favour of it.

The DUP has long suggested that the petitions could be replaced by another kind of safeguard, such as making sure bills can only pass with 65% of MLAs backing them.

During the 2011 to 2016 Assembly, there were 118 petitions of concerns used.

Investigative website The Detail analysed 115 last November, and found DUP members had signed 86 – almost three times more than second-biggest users Sinn Fein.

Responding to Mrs Foster senior UUP figure Reg Empey said what was needed was not the abolition of petitions of concern, but a reform of them.

He said Mrs Foster’s proposal was an example of her “flailing about trying to look flexible and reasonable”, after years of the DUP having “consistently abused” the petitions.

The SDLP’s Alex Attwood said: “In the last mandate the DUP signed almost three times more petitions of concern than any other party. It’s rich of them now to claim that they don’t want it.”

Alliance deputy leader Dr Stephen Farry said when his party had proposed reforming petitions last year (to make sure they are used only for Troubles or cross-community issues), Mrs Foster had “banged the table in anger and said she would not do so”.

And Sinn Fein issued a statement describing such petitions as “a necessary safeguard required to prevent the kind of discrimination and excesses we have seen from unionism”.

However, it added: “We are content to address this in any negotiations.”