CONSULTATION INTO JOHN McCALLISTER’S PRIVATE MEMBER’S BILL
ASSEMBLY REFORM (OPPOSITION) BILL
In light of the initial challenges facing Northern Ireland in 1998, it is understandable that an Official Opposition was not an explicit part of the Agreement’s architecture. The review mechanism built into the Agreement’s Strand One provisions, however, ensured that space was envisaged for organic change and reform in the architecture and structures. This would ensure that with growing stability and normalisation, the devolved institutions could evolve in ways enabling them to be more responsive to the needs of a changing a society.
Fifteen years on from the Agreement, it is now time to take the next step in the normalisation of our political institutions through the creation of an Official Opposition. Such is the purpose of this Private Member’s Bill. If passed by the Assembly, it will provide structures for the normal, democratic convention that the Executive should be held to account by a democratic Opposition within the legislature.
This Bill does not seek in any way to contradict or undermine the principle and practice of cross-community powersharing. Northern Ireland’s diverse society requires cross-community powersharing for devolved government to represent and serve all in our community. The intention in the creation of an Official Opposition is to ensure that the principle of democratic accountability functions alongside and in conjunction with cross-community powersharing.
One of the significant disadvantages of the previous Stormont Parliament was the absence of a robust Opposition. It is important to note that, historically, majority rule and the absence of powersharing in Northern Ireland was characterised by the absence of an Opposition in the legislature. This emphasises that an Official Opposition and powersharing can be complementary rather than contradictory principles.
An Official Opposition would also be a catalyst in terms of the normalisation of politics in our society. Against the divisive notion that all politics in this region must be reduced to two opposing sectarian blocs, an Official Opposition would function as a means of focussing politics on meaningful policy debates.
The consultation seeks views on key aspects of the functioning of an Official Opposition - how it should be recognised in the workings of the Assembly; how Ministerial Question Times can become more authentic expressions of accountability through the role of an Opposition; and how the scrutiny function of Statutory Committees can be enhanced through the presence of Opposition MLAs as a significant proportion of Chairs and Deputy Chairs. It is through such means that an Official Opposition can act on behalf of the entire community in holding the Executive and individual Ministers to account, submitting their policies to a level of scrutiny inevitably absent in the existing arrangements.
If an official Opposition is to have the means of functioning effectively in terms of accountability and scrutiny, this may also require consideration of the present designation mechanism within the Assembly. While designation was a means in the original architecture of the Agreement of building cross-community consent and support for the institutions, its intent has been largely fulfilled. With cross-community consent and support now well-established, the designation mechanism too easily forces the Assembly into a consistent and routine Unionist versus Nationalist mould, with the votes of Others - both within the Assembly and in elections to the Assembly - unfairly discounted. If our society is to see politics move to a more normal expression of Government and Opposition debate, we do need to move beyond the current approach to designation.
Moving beyond the designation mechanism, however, is entirely compatible with the introduction of alternative, more flexible means of requiring cross-community support within the Assembly. As stated above, it is essential that the formation of an Executive have cross-community support. Similarly, certain key votes within the Assembly should be required to gain measurable cross-community support. What this does not require is nearly all Assembly activity being forced into a Unionist versus Nationalist mould, with Others being left on the sidelines. A more authentically parliamentary and democratic culture needs Government and Opposition debate within the context of cross-community support, through weighted majority voting, in key decisions.
This consultation is an opportunity for individuals and groups across our community to participate in the process of shaping legislation which has the potential to take forward the next stage of reform in Northern Ireland politics. The aim of this Bill is to build on the achievement of cross-community support for devolved institutions by providing a key means to normalise our politics. This requires the democratic accountability and choice which only the existence and activity of an Official Opposition can ensure.
To take part in the consultation please complete the questions below and return to John McCallister MLA either via email to email@example.com or to the constituency office at:
29a Central Promenade
Closing date for submission of responses is 30 September 2013.
The need for an Official Opposition
- Do you agree that the absence of Official Opposition hinders the Assembly’s role of scrutinising the Executive and that it lessens the Executive’s accountability to the Assembly?
- What model of Official Opposition employed in other legislatures do you think would be most appropriate to the Assembly?
- What parliamentary rights would an Official Opposition require in order to properly exercise its scrutiny and accountability roles?
- What timeframe should the Bill determine for the formal creation of an Official Opposition?
Statutory Committees and an Official Opposition
- Chairs and Deputy Chairs of Committees have a particularly important role in scrutinizing the Executive’s ministers and their policies. Do you agree that the Bill should provide a means for an Official Opposition being guaranteed a proportion of Chairs and Deputy Chairs?
- What would be the most appropriate mechanism for allocating these Chairs and Deputy Chairs to an Official Opposition?
- Do you agree that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee should always be allocated to the Official Opposition?
- Do you agree that the Chair of the Committee of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister should always be allocated to the Official Opposition?
The workings of the Assembly and an Official Opposition
- Do you agree that existing Assembly procedures should be reformed to provide an Official Opposition with recognised speaking rights and debate time in order to allow greater and more in-depth scrutiny of Executive Ministers?
- What reforms regarding speaking rights and debate time would be appropriate in light of the need to strike the right balance between the rights of an Official Opposition and the need of the Executive to progress its legislative agenda and other government business?
Research support for an Official Opposition
- Most legislatures recognise that an Official Opposition requires logistical support in order to effectively scrutinize Ministers. Do you agree that an Official Opposition in the Assembly should be similarly supported?
- What models of such support from other legislatures would be appropriate to the Assembly?
- Are there existing resources in the Assembly which could be re-allocated to in order to assist in providing such support to an Official Opposition?
- Do you agree that the current system of community designation has fulfilled its purpose of building cross-community support for, and confidence in, the devolved institutions?
- Do you agree that moving Northern Ireland politics away from sectarian blocs to a Government-Opposition focus would be facilitated by replacing the current community designation system?
- In order to ensure ongoing cross-community support and confidence, what mechanism should replace Community Designation?
- What time-frame should be considered for replacing Community Designation with an alternative mechanism?
- Should a replacement for Community Designation be considered in this Private Member’s Bill alongside provision for the creation of an Official Opposition or in a separate Bill?