How would John McCallister’s reform bill change Stormont?

John McCallister speaking during the debate
John McCallister speaking during the debate

As well as creating an Opposition, the bill also attempts to enhance the separation of powers by requiring collective working by the Executive (the Government) while providing an Opposition in the Legislature (the Assembly), with greater opportunity to examine the work of ministers.

An Opposition could be created either immediately after an election, following the formation of the Executive, or it can be formed when a party entitled to Executive seats decides to quit the Executive.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness would become the 'Joint First Ministers'

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness would become the 'Joint First Ministers'

Once an Opposition is formed, all MLAs not in the Executive are immediately classed as members of the Opposition.

The Opposition will be led by a leader and deputy leader, who would be chosen by Opposition MLAs and who would get the first questions to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Assembly question time, moving the Assembly slightly closer to what happens in Prime Minister’s Questions.

The Opposition would have the right to a minimum of 15 days a year for business in the Assembly, would get to chair the powerful Public Accounts Committee (as happens at Westminster) and would be represented on the Assembly’s Business Committee, which decides on the Assembly’s Order Paper each week.

Opposition parties would be entitled to financial assistance, including salaries for Opposition office holders.

A Budget Committee would be created to scrutinise the Executive’s draft budget.

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be renamed as the Office of the First Ministers.

All departments would become a single legal entity, making it impossible for ministers to sue each other in the courts.

To qualify for places in the Executive, parties would need to have 16.6 per cent of Assembly seats (in the current 108-seat Assembly, that would be 18 seats).

The Speaker would also be made more independent of party politics, being elected by secret ballot and thereafter resigning from his party.

He would cease to be a constituency MLA and the party from which he came would co-opt a replacement. The Speaker could not stand in the next Assembly election.

Aspects of the reforms which are within the scope of Westminster would be resolved by the Assembly passing a motion to call on Westminster to enact those changes.

Analysis: Nationalist view will be crucial

Listening to MLA after MLA yesterday indicating their support for the principle of Opposition, one could be forgiven for wondering why it took a backbench independent MLA to bring forward a proposal on this issue.

John McCallister’s bill is neither simple nor universally popular with the parties. But, perhaps mindful of the public’s anti-Stormont mood, few MLAs were too critical of it in public.

On paper, all the unionist parties support Opposition, as do Alliance, meaning that nationalists have always been the potential obstacle. Nationalist distrust of unionist motives runs deep and a bill such as this will always for them raise the question: Is this an attempt to return to majority rule?

Being an ultra-liberal unionist, Mr McCallister is better placed than most to assuage those concerns. The South Down MLA may lose his seat next year, but if he secures this bill he will have radically changed Stormont.