Opposition bill could help restore confidence

Posted By: September 25, 2015

Alex Kane. Irish News (Belfast).Friday, September 26. 2015 

While the headlines this week have been dominated by talks, the paramilitary assessment panel and Jamie Bryson, something very important slipped in under the radar: the first reading of John McCallister’s assembly and executive reform (assembly opposition) bill. And this is important, because it is the first time that the assembly will be able to consider and vote on substantive proposals to “make the executive less divided and more efficient while, at the same time, introducing a formal opposition to the assembly.”

In March 2012, when McCallister was fighting Mike Nesbitt for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party, opposition was the main plank of his campaign. He wanted the party to leave the executive and prepare and promote its own policies, but the party decided – by an overwhelming majority – to reject that approach. Yet as McCallister’s bill reaches the assembly the UUP is out of the executive and insists that it “sits in opposition”. So it will be interesting to see how the party reacts when the debate on the bill begins in a few weeks time.

It will also be interesting to see how the other parties react to the bill, bearing in mind that there was fairly broad consensus on the area of institutional reform in the Stormont House Agreement – including provision for a formal, funded opposition, collective agreement on a programme for government and improvements in the relationship between ministers and between the executive and the assembly.

After the 2011 election the five main parties were, thanks to the vagaries of the D’Hondt system, able to claim at least one executive seat. If they don’t take those seats they just become a backbench party, because there are no structures for opposition.

The Stormont House Agreement suggested that: “Arrangements will be put in place by the assembly by March 2015 to enable those parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the executive, but choose not to take them up, to be recognised as an official opposition and to facilitate their work.” 

The problem, of course, is that if the parties continue to take those seats (and I think it’s a pretty safe bet that they will after the next election – including the UUP) then there’s still no provision for opposition.

McCallister gets round this problem by stipulating that, “political parties must gain 16.6 per cent (18/108 MLAs) of assembly seats before they are automatically entitled to enter the Executive and gain a ministerial position.” As it stands, that would have meant that the UUP, SDLP and Alliance would not now be in the executive. Instead, they would have been able to work together within the opposition structures – including a leader and deputy leader of the opposition – holding the executive to proper account and “improving the potential for an alternative government being presented to the public” at elections.

The bill makes provision for the recognition of ‘technical groups’, comprising at least six MLAs “from different parties or independents that are not in government. This will confer the additional rights of access to the business committee and the nomination of the leader or deputy leadership of the opposition, in the absence of a qualifying political party, with a view to enhancing the roles of the small parties and independents and their ability to hold the executive to account.”

The bill also contains proposals to introduce credible collective responsibility and accountability at executive level; replace the present and very divisive OFMDFM with ‘The Office of the First Ministers’ (they can’t act separately, anyway); replace petitions of concern with a “minority protection mechanism based on a weighted majority vote triggered by the signatures of 30 MLAs from three different groupings”; and ensure the speaker “is elected by assembly members by a weighted majority in a secret ballot and subsequently replaced in their constituency by co-option with a view to placing the speaker above party and constituency politics by ensuring he or she exclusively represents in the interests of the legislative arm of government – the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

As McCallister notes: “17 years after the Belfast Agreement it is now recognised that our institutions are not fit for purpose, yet despite a lot of hot air, nothing has been done. My bill will force all parties to show the colour of their money and either vote for reform – restoring some public trust – or they can choose to stand still and continue with the dysfunctional system which has delivered so little to so many.”

If the parties can sort out the other problems at the talks process – and that remains to be seen – it would make sense to follow through by supporting McCallister’s bill. 

Voters are entitled to have confidence in the integrity and stability of their government: and they are also entitled to know that the government can be held to account and replaced with a genuine alternative. This bill is a huge step in the right direction – towards democracy and towards progress.