Assembly ‘has power to create an Opposition’

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The Assembly has the ability to create an Official Opposition without Government legislation, the Secretary of State has said.

In an interview with the News Letter, Theresa Villiers appeared to contradict First Minister Peter Robinson’s claim that Stormont was powerless to create an Opposition without a Westminster law.

Six months ago, the News Letter revealed that the then UUP MLA John McCallister planned to introduce a Stormont private members’ bill which would attempt to allow for Opposition in the absence of a move by the Government.

Mr Robinson immediately dismissed the move as “crankery” and accused the south Down MLA of trying to get “a few square columns of publicity from people who don’t understand the process”.

However, Ms Villiers said that if the Assembly really wanted an Opposition system “to a large extent they have already got the power to do that”, pointing out that “government and opposition is in many ways determined by speaking time, parliamentary resources, etc”.

The Secretary of State said: “I think within the powers of the Assembly they could go a long way towards creating an Opposition if they wanted to. I mean, if they were to go down that path and they felt that they didn’t have appropriate powers, of course that’s something the UK Government would be interested in working with them on it.

“As I’ve said, and as my predecessor [Owen Paterson] said, we can see a case for moving to Opposition so long as any changes were consistent with the inclusive, power-sharing nature of the Belfast Agreement.”

Ms Villiers acknowledged that there was “increasing interest” in the creation of an Opposition – although she insisted that “the current system works”, but added: “I hope that one day we do see progress in that direction but it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to legislate on it without a signal from the different parties in the Executive.”