Just days after saying that it would not support a petition of concern over John McCallister’s bill to create a Stormont opposition, the SDLP has joined Sinn Fein in killing off parts of the bill.
The dramatic last-minute change of heart means that several major aspects of the bill will not proceed – but the bill itself is still likely to be passed and create some form of opposition in the next Assembly.
On Friday, an SDLP spokeswoman told the News Letter – as reported in this newspaper on Saturday – that it would not join Sinn Fein in signing a petition of concern.
The party said: “The SDLP has amendments on the bill. The party will not be signing a petition of concern.”
The party gave no indication that it would table any petitions of concern in relation to the bill.
But just after lunchtime on Tuesday, news leaked out that the SDLP had in fact signed three petitions of concern.
Two of those effectively veto sections of the bill which would ask the Secretary of State to bring forward legislation to enacts aspects of the opposition structures which are within the remit of Westminster.
It would have removed the current requirement to designate as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’ and replaced the current petition of concern system with a system of weighted majority votes to protect minorities.
It would also have made the Assembly Speaker more independent of the Executive by having him elected under a secret ballot rather than through the current system which involved private deals between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The SDLP decision to kill off that section of the bill was particularly surprising as SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had tabled an amendment to the section.
The veto decision meant that the party effectively blocked its own amendment, something which caused Alliance’s Trevor Lunn to publicly marvel at what was going on.
However, Alex Attwood told the News Letter that despite having killed off that section of the bill, his party intends to rework it and reintroduce an amended section at further consideration stage.
Mr Attwood said that his party was concerned that the changes could undermine the protections in the Good Friday Agreement .
He said that his party could not support about 10 of the 15 elements of that section but that it did support about four or five of them.
The SDLP also tabled a petition of concern to veto Mr McCallister’s proposal to make Executive departments into a single legal entity, something which would stop ministers suing each other in the courts.
Mr Attwood said his party totally opposed this – though he understood why Mr McCallister had proposed it – as the SDLP had negotiated into the 1998 Agreement that there would be genuine ministerial authority.
For its part, Sinn Fein argued that there was no need for the bill as its Fresh Start agreement with the DUP means that they can change the Assembly’s standing orders to facilitate an opposition.
Sinn Fein’s opposition to the bill is such that it is even opposing clause 20, which would rename the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister as the Office of the First Ministers – despite the fact that Martin McGuinness has called for the posts to be renamed as the ‘joint first ministers’.
Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane said that “the safeguards in the Good Friday Agreement are there for very good reasons”.