Options for Petition of Concern reform

Back in February – when we were in a different world politically – I looked at the possibility of reforming the petition of concern and whether retaining the mechanism was beneficial for nationalists.

The unionist majority in the Assembly disappeared faster than many predicted. From 52% of the 108 outgoing MLAs to 44% of those elected in March. An 8% drop in less than a year and perhaps an indication that the electoral register is catching up with longer term demographic change.

Earlier this year I carried out a (totally unscientific!) poll asking what the best option is for reforming the PoC. Just 6% were in favour of keeping the present 30 signature PoC . Regardless of the margins of error in this snapshot there are very few voices in politics at the moment speaking out in favour of the present PoC.

With minorities being detrimentally affected by the Petition it clearly has to be reformed or replaced.

I’ve taken a quick look at how some of the proposed alternatives might play out in regard to current issues of contention.


(1) Increase the Petition of Concern to 40

Currently the two main blocs in the chamber amount to Nationalists 39 and Unionists 40.

For unionists to trigger this within the unionist designation it would require the signatures of DUP MLAs, UUP MLAs, Jim Allister & Claire Sugden.

Nationalists would be one signature short. They could muster up support from the Greens or Gerry Carroll though this would be dependent on the issue.

Increasing the PoC to 40 and making it harder to trigger a cross community vote would dramatically increase the number of issues being voted on by simple majority.

The PoC would not be triggered on Marriage Equality so this would be introduced into law with SF/SDLP/Greens/Alliance alone able to secure 49 votes – a clear majority. The DUP and TUV would not reach a PoC of 40 because even with full UUP support (which they wouldn’t get) they could only get to 39. Claire Sugden supports a change to the law too.

Reforming the law pertaining to abortion would not happen on current party positions. Between them the SDLP, DUP and Jim Allister have 41 votes that would trigger this level of PoC and there may be some Ulster Unionists that would desire to add to that.

How many would wish to see a change to the law for example re FFA ?

A majority. There are 39 from the Alliance, Green Party, Sinn Féin, PBP and Claire Sugden in favour. In addition there are 7 Ulster Unionists that have expressed support, bringing the total to 46 (out of 90).

A majority of members would be in support of an Irish Language Act. In theory the bloc of 40 unionists should be able to block this. However If a Unionist MLA were to be appointed Speaker then the Unionist bloc would be reduced to 39 and there would no other MLAs to approach to block an Act being introduced.

A reformed Assembly of course can then introduce its own political reform. Under a PoC40 any proposal to re-name First and deputy First Ministers as Joint First Ministers should also be passed without being vetoed.

(2) Increase the Petition of Concern to 35

Can Marriage Equality be blocked under this option? Already we know that the DUP and TUV can provide 29 names – 6 short. They then need the support of 6 out of the 10 UUP members. With Andy Allen, Steve Aiken, Mike Nesbitt, Doug Beattie and John Stewart already in support of equal marriage the DUP would not be able to lodge a successful veto. A PoC of 35 would see the veto over equal marriage ended once and for all.

There would be no reform to abortion law for FFA under this option unless the SDLP changed their party position, in which case the law would be changed with an approximate 58 – 32 vote in favour.

An Irish language Act could be blocked with DUP and UUP signatures.

(3) Weighted majority (60%)

Under this option there would be no unionist or nationalist designations. However there would still need to be a trigger mechanism for a weighted majority vote which could be 30 signatures.

The 60% does almost certainly requires some cross-community voting anyway with the blocs sitting at the following in terms of seat share :
Unionism 44.4%
Nationalism 43.4%
Others 12.2%

In some respects the 60% qualified majority system is quite similar to the current Petition of Concern system. So for example under the present PoC system Sinn Féin cannot trigger the veto without SDLP support (on most occasions). Similarly if the SDLP wish to back Sinn Féin on a veto in the 60%QM system that same blocking mechanism will work because the strength of nationalism (and vice versa for unionism) can deny the rest of the chamber a 60% majority.

It would however do away with any need for members to designate as nationalist or unionist even though an informal bloc veto would still exist.

A 65% weighted majority would be too high in my view as it is not outside the realms of possibility that a party would secure 35% of the seats at a future election and therefore would be able to block a weighted majority as a single party every time it was triggered.

A 55% weighted majority shifts focus to the centre parties with 50 seats being needed to pass legislation that has been referred. Some examples include :

DUP/UUP/ALL/TUV/Sugden = 50

(4) Simple majority

A simple majority would be 45 in practice and its important to remember that a Speaker has to be taken away from their party’s total when appointed. Regardless of that what this shows is that Alliance will hold the balance of power when motions divide along unionist and nationalist lines. The ‘Belfast City Council’ option :

SF/SDLP/ALL : 47 votes
DUP/UUP/ALL : 48 votes

Under this system there could be majorities for the introduction of the following :

Equal Marriage
Irish Language Act
Implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant
Allowing abortion in cases of FFA
Support for motions / legislation relating to an EU special deal / special status
Strengthening of North South Parliamentary Association
Renaming of FMdFM to Joint First Ministers
Stronger laws on flags and emblems
Potential strengthening of agencies accountable to London such as the NCA

There is plenty to debate especially in an Assembly where there are changing political demographics. Even Jim Allister and the TUV seem to be moving towards a weighted majority option. This is unsurprising given that unionism looks set to be a shrinking bloc over the next number of years and therefore the present system will benefit them more than returning to majority rule.

Whether reform is radical or modest it is required.

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