Peers call for Northern Ireland Assembly opposition

Parliment Buildings, Stormont
Parliment Buildings, Stormont

Peers today called for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be given the power to introduce an official opposition.

Former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey said the move would be “one small step on the road” to more normal political arrangements.

Government spokeswoman Baroness Randerson agreed to “reflect” on the demand before returning it at a later date.

But she insisted that nothing would be “imposed” on the Assembly from outside without its agreement.

In committee stage debate on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, Lord Empey said the Act implementing the Belfast Agreement had introduced a “rather complicated form of mandatory coalition government”.

He supported that and did not want to alter those devolved arrangements but the “missing link” was that nobody who was not in the Executive had any “status in terms of the Assembly’s proceedings”.

Lord Empey said his amendment would give the Assembly the option, if it wished, to apply to the Northern Ireland Secretary for an opposition with speaking rights, supply day debates and chairmanship of the public accounts committee.

“This would be one small step on the road to a more normal political set of arrangements.

“I don’t believe the time is right or appropriate for any significant change in how the Executive is constructed.

“But I do think we can make one small step to give those who do not occupy positions in government, the opportunity to hold that government to account,” Lord Empey told the Lords.

The move won cross party backing. But Labour’s Lord McAvoy said his party could not support the amendment, insisting: “Devolution is devolution. It can and should be dealt with at Stormont.”

Lady Randerson acknowledged that an effective and responsible opposition performed a valuable role in keeping a government “on its toes” and exposing abuses.

The Government had consulted on having an opposition in 2012 but concluded “there wasn’t sufficiently broad support among the parties to justify proceeding with legislation that would in any way change the legislative structure” deriving from the agreement.

But she added: “The Government will reflect on what has been said and return to this on report (stage of the Bill’s proceedings).”

Lady Randerson said: “This is really a decision that must be taken within the Assembly.

“But it’s also the case that the UK Government can ... facilitate and encourage. Certainly the Government wouldn’t in any way seek to impose anything from outside.

“The principle of power-sharing is absolutely fundamental. Any arrangements must be made with cross community support ...”

In the light of Lady Randerson’s comments and offer to listen to the views of interested parties, Lord Empey agreed to withdraw his amendment.

The Bill introduces a range of reforms including a limited increase in the transparency of donations to political parties, and preventing ‘’double jobbing’’ by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly also sitting as MPs.