Stormont finally moves a step closer to real democracy

General view of Parliament Buildings at Stormont
General view of Parliament Buildings at Stormont

A bill to create the first Stormont Opposition since 1972 yesterday cleared its most significant hurdle to date — but there are indications that Sinn Fein is likely to oppose some of its key proposals.

Independent MLA John McCallister’s Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill passed the second stage unopposed.

But yesterday’s first opportunity for MLAs to debate the seminal piece of legislation revealed that Sinn Fein — the party always most likely to object to any move away from the current Stormont arrangements — is far from content with the bill’s proposals.

Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney praised Mr McCallister for having the “good grace and the courtesy” to consult across the chamber as he drafted the bill but expressed reservations.

He told MLAs: “In terms of the broad principles and the presentation that the member made, we have no issue with giving it approval today. We certainly want to play our full part in the scrutiny at Committee Stage. However, the member is well aware of our broad proviso: we feel that many aspects of this do not require legislation and can be brought about by changes in Standing Orders [the Assembly’s rules of procedure].”

However, Sinn Fein did not indicate that it would attempt to block the bill, and to do so it would require two other MLAs to join it in signing a petition of concern.

READ MORE: How would John McCallister’s reform bill change Stormont?
Outlining his case for fundamental reform of Stormont, Mr McCallister said that the current system had created “dysfunctionality on an industrial scale”.

The South Down MLA warned: “We have come to the point at which, in effect, we either reform the Assembly or it will fail.

“I do not say that lightly. ...we have to be about much more than just surviving.”

He rejected Sinn Fein’s proposal to set up an Opposition via Standing Orders, something which he said could easily be reversed in the future.

He told MLAs that the role of Opposition needed to be cherished not just for its role in holding ministers to account, but because “today’s Opposition is tomorrow’s Government”.

And, arguing for the removal of the controversial petition of concern system, the former Ulster Unionist deputy leader said that the veto mechanism had become “a matter of public scorn”.

He said that since the last Assembly election there had been 100 petitions of concern — a figure which is more than double the total for the previous 13 years.

Many MLAs expressed reservations about various aspects of a bill whose eight pages belies the complexities of how many of its proposals would work in practice.

The UUP’s Danny Kennedy queried several of Mr McCallister’s proposals but said that his party — which recently quit the Executive — is “totally committed to the creation of official Opposition structures at Stormont”.

He said that the changes “could help to revitalise the Assembly, offering the opportunity for effective scrutiny of the Executive, rather than the Executive being left, largely, to scrutinise itself”.

SDLP MLA Sean Rogers expressed support for some of what Mr McCallister is seeking to do, but warned that any changes will have to be consistent with the Good Friday Agreement for the SDLP to support them.

He said: “We in the SDLP believe that an opposition should be built into the structures of the Assembly, but that opposition should remain optional. We have argued that there should be no mandatory opposition and that, if one should exist, there should be guarantees.”

The TUV leader Jim Allister, who has long championed the need for the “basic democratic right to an Opposition” expressed incredulity at the MLAs arguing for a continuance of the 1998 Agreement system, telling them to “look around — the very state of this House today is proof of its failure”.

In comments laced with sarcasm, the North Antrim MLA told the chamber: “It does beggar belief, and, indeed, presents as a most telling commentary on these institutions, that we even have to have this debate, this novelty of the idea that you just might allow, in the right circumstances, within these institutions, that strange and dangerous thing called an opposition.”

Outlining Alliance’s support for the bill’s proposals, Alliance’s Trevor Lunn said: “Mr McCallister deserves congratulations as the person who finally brought this before the House, and not before time.”

No DUP MLA spoke during the debate due to the party’s quasi-boycott of Assembly business, but the party has indicated that it will support the bill.