The Ulster Unionists have launched a strong defence of petitions of concern, stating that if they did not exist then the unionists could be over-ridden by Stormont’s non-unionist majority.
Reg Empey issued a statement saying that the events of last week – which saw unionists lose their outright majority in Northern Ireland’s parliament for the first time in history – showed the suggestion to scrap such petitions was ill-thought through.
On February 14, Arlene Foster was quoted as saying in a BBC interview: “I think we need to talk about, maybe after the election, getting rid of the petition of concern altogether.”
Lord Empey, chairman of the UUP, had spoken out at the time to state that what was needed was not the abolition of the petitions, but reform of how they are used.
On Wednesday, he said: “It was and is a safeguard mechanism.
“Unionist negotiators [years ago] supported this process, conscious that from time to time we may not be in a majority at Stormont as election fortunes ebb and flow over time.
“Given the events of last week, this has happened sooner than anybody expected, but how reckless of Mrs Foster to call for an end to the very process upon which she must now rely to protect the interests of the unionist community!
“This serves to illustrate the haphazard nature of her approach to these important constitutional issues. There is a total lack of any strategic overview of unionist interests and how republicanism is to be engaged and countered.”
He accused her of a “lack of foresight and judgement in calling for its removal, on the hoof, without any serious debate on the consequences for unionism”.
He added: “Imagine what would happen today if unionists could not rely upon this Petition? It would mean that our interests could be overridden by a non-unionist majority.”
Petitions of concern require the signatures of 30 MLAs. Once this is attained, it means any motion before the Assembly must have the backing of a substantial body of both unionists and nationalists to succeed.
In practice, this means that motions such as ones supporting gay marriage – a practice which is largely opposed by unionists – fail by default once the petition of concern is invoked.
And with the DUP having now just 28 MLAs (31% of the total), down from 38 MLA in last year’s larger Assembly (or 35% of that total), it cannot launch a petition of concern without support from at least two other MLAs from rival parties.
In the previous Assembly, the split between unionists, nationalists, and those in neither camp was as follows: 56 unionists (52%), 40 nationalists (37%), 12 neither (11%).
Today, it is 40 unionists (44%), 39 nationalists (43%), and 11 who are neither (12%).
All above percentages are rounded.