Analysis: McCallister bill likely to become law, but not in original form

John McCallister's task of getting his bill into law became more difficult when he left the UUP
John McCallister's task of getting his bill into law became more difficult when he left the UUP

In 2011, John McCallister became the first Stormont Assembly member since 1931 to secure the passage of a private member’s bill into law.

At the time, he was a member of the Ulster Unionists and the bill – to give protection to individuals who are permanent residents of caravan parks – was an uncontroversial piece of legislation which had the support of the Executive.

But when he announced – on the front page of this newspaper in November 2012 – that he would bring forward a bill to force the issue of opposition, few observers would have bet on the South Down MLA succeeding.

That task became much harder when he quit the UUP. Now, as a solitary MLA on the back benches, the task is even harder.

Yet the odds of Mr McCallister’s bill making it into law now seem rather good.

The bill faced two major threats: either the SDLP and Sinn Fein (historically opposed to calls for an opposition) joining forces to veto it using a petition of concern, or the DUP and Sinn Fein as the two biggest parties simply voting the bill down.

The DUP has made clear that it supports the principles of the bill, while the SDLP has now made clear that it will not block the bill.

However, although the bill is now likely to make it into law, the final bill could be radically different from that proposed by Mr McCallister.

The DUP have tabled nine amendments which would significantly change the bill. The SDLP have tabled four amendments, the UUP has tabled one change and Mr McCallister is himself proposing 28 amendments.

Although Mr McCallister may not ultimately secure the radical reform of Stormont which he wanted, he has already played a part in one significant development.

On Thursday the new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood became the first nationalist political leader to call for the creation of an opposition.

In a speech in west Belfast, Mr Eastwood said: “Concerns over political stability can no longer be used to impede the logic for the establishment of an official opposition. Equally, the logic of an official opposition can never be used to impede the principle of cross-community power-sharing.

“So, let me be clear. The SDLP believes that this should be the last Assembly mandate in which there will be no opposition at Stormont.”

Morning View: An opposition at Stormont will be a key move towards normality