Platform: My opposition bill could radically improve Stormont

Stormont is virtually incapable of providing good governance, argues John McCallister
Stormont is virtually incapable of providing good governance, argues John McCallister

I voted for the Belfast Agreement and I have never changed my mind; I am, now, one of the few unionist politicians left who will openly admit to doing so.

I strongly support the principles of inclusivity and power sharing that the agreement was founded upon and I want the settled society we were all endeavouring to develop.

The system of government we created provided us with relative stability and inclusivity.

But the price for this was a system which is virtually incapable of providing good governance and which has frozen in time many of the worst divisions in our society.

Next year will see the first cohort of voters born after 1998. This post-Agreement generation who will decide the future have experienced neither the Troubles nor the peace process. Yet the democratic system and political parties for which they might vote for are overwhelmingly defined by the Troubles, the peace process and the constitutional question.

If we change nothing, those parties will seek their votes in order to sit in the straitjacket of the peace process, which is now the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In September 2014 Peter Robinson, the First Minister, said that Stormont was not fit for purpose. In January 2015 Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, admitted that we need an Opposition.

Both are right. Our current system of government has resulted in shared-out power and silo-dominated government. We have simply failed at developing good government based on policy positions and decision making.

My Assembly and Executive (Assembly Opposition) Bill will be debated at Stormont on Monday. I believe I have put together a well-considered package of reform which will allow for a more collective, responsible and accountable government.

At the same time, by creating an Opposition, those parties not in government will better be able to hold a reformed Executive to account, whilst giving the public a potential alternative government to vote for.

By maintaining d’Hondt, replacing petitions of concern with a minority protection mechanism and providing all parties with the potential to participate in meaningful opposition politics, the proposed changes in my bill are consistent with the principles of inclusivity and power-sharing central to the Agreement.

The bill does, however, have the potential to free us from the institutionalised divisions which have stifled meaningful progress for so long.

The public are fed up with politics and this is a dangerous position for any democracy. However, the public’s desire to see this place work is not diminished.

If our political institutions are to survive we must grab the available opportunities. Nationalists, unionists and others have nothing to fear from my bill and we should therefore not miss the chance to deliver meaningful change for the people of Northern Ireland.

John McCallister is an MLA for South Down