UUP’s silence on future use of Petition of Concern after Alliance Party’s Integrated Education Bill passed by MLAs

The UUP has remained silent on what it would consider legitimate circumstances  in future for using a Petition of Concern to block controversial assembly votes.

By Philip Bradfield
Friday, 11th March 2022, 7:26 pm
Updated Saturday, 12th March 2022, 9:51 am

The question arose after the party refused to use the measure against a controversial Alliance Party bill this week which aimed to give more financial support to the Integrated Education Sector.

A Petition of Concern is a safeguard in the Good Friday Agreement which aimed to allow unionists or nationalists to stop each other passing discriminatory legislation.

There have been persistent complaints the mechanism has been abused for party political purposes. However in this week’s vote, the bill was opposed uniformly by all unionist parties as they all believed it would elevate Integrated Education unfairly above other sectors for funding. However UUP leader Doug Beattie refused to support the PoC as he believed it would be abusing the mechanism.

UUP Leader Doug Beattie offered no response today.

The DUP needed 30 MLAs to secure a valid PoC but were reported to be two signatures short, so the bill passed by 49 votes to 38.

The News Letter asked the UUP on Friday morning, if the PoC is not a legitimate mechanism to use when an issue is unanimously opposed by all unionists, in what circumstances might it be legitimate in future? The UUP failed to give any response.

The News Letter also asked the DUP and TUV what precedent might the UUP refusal set for similar future situations when unionists object to controversial issues en-bloc but one party refuses to use the PoC?

DUP MLA Peter Weir said it is “for other parties to justify their position on this issue”, but that his party regrets that some who voiced opposition to the bill “were not prepared to put that fully into action and ensure that it did not become law, damaging the educational prospects of thousands of children”.

He added: “The Petition of Concern is a valid mechanism of protection for a sizeable minority and encourages people to step back and seek to build a consensus.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said he is “no fan” of the PoC. “There is a sector here, however, that will be discriminated against, and was the petition of concern not meant to provide protection against discrimination?” he asked. “The sector that will be discriminated against is the 93% who do not attend integrated schools.”

He said that under the new law, when Ballymena Academy and [integrated] Slemish College are oversubscribed, only Slemish will get extra funding, despite both being “marvellous” schools.

Loyalisty activist Jamie Bryson said the silence of the UUP and “some of their utterances” around the Integrated Education Bill, raises concerns about their position on the PoC.

“The UUP, via Steve Aiken MLA, are part of the Protocol legal challenge, which seeks the restoration of the Petition of Concern on the Protocol vote,” he said.

“I think unionism collectively has a right to know that should that case in fact succeed, whether the UUP would even sign a Petition of Concern to block it, or whether they would facilitate the Protocol in a similar manner they in effect ensured passage of the Integrated Education Billy that they themselves accept was fatally flawed?”

A UUP spokesman told the News Letter earlier this week the party are “passionate democrats”.

He added: “We will use any legitimate mechanism within its fair and defined purpose.

“What we will not do is abuse democracy by an illegitimate use of the Petition of Concern.” He said the PoC was designed as a cross-community safeguard under the Belfast Agreement and its use on this occasion “failed to meet that test”.

The PoC has been abused by other parties such as the DUP to protect their ministers which has “undermined democracy and proper government” he added.

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