RHI scandal could threaten the DUP’s Stormont veto

Posted By: February 01, 2017

The DUP may struggle in the new mandate to automatically get 30 signatures for a petition of concern

John Manley. Irish News,  Belfast. Wednesday, February 1, 201, Related stories

A POOR performance at next month’s assembly poll could signal the end of the DUP’s automatic veto over Stormont votes.

A reduction in the number of MLAs for the next mandate means the assembly’s largest party may struggle to find the necessary signatures for a petition of concern.

Originally conceived as a method of preventing majority rule at Stormont, a petition of concern requires the signatures of at least 30 MLAs to ensure an assembly vote must have ‘cross community support.’

Critics have called for the system to be reformed due to the widespread deployment of petitions of concern in circumstances where many observers felt their use was inappropriate. The Fresh Start agreement of 2015 included provision for new guidelines on petitions of concern, but to date, no changes have been forthcoming.

However, cuts in the number of MLAs in the next mandate could leave the DUP short of the necessary signature threshold. Even though the number of Stormont representatives is being reduced from 108 to 90, the number of signatures required to veto a vote remains at 30.

Political commentator and Ulster University lecturer David McCann said if the DUP’s share of the vote remained the same on March 2, the party could expect to return “around 32 MLAs”.

He noted the widespread speculation about the DUP being damaged electorally by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal but said to date this was only anecdotal.

“Obviously the RHI has the potential to dent support for the DUP in marginal constituencies across the north, and that could see them lose a few seats,” he said.

Mr. McCann said it was possible the DUP could emerge with “27 or 28 seats”.

“Even though this is minor in the grand scheme of things and in all likelihood the DUP will remain the largest party, it would mean they would not automatically meet the symbolic petition of concern threshold,” he said.

“In the event of that happening they would be forced to forge alliances with other parties, most likely the UUP, and in the current political climate that wouldn’t be straightforward.”

In the mandate since last May’s assembly election, a petition of concern was deployed only once when the DUP blocked a no-confidence vote in speaker Robin Newton last month.

In the previous mandate, the veto was used on 115 occasions.

The DUP employed a petition of concern 86 times between 2011-2016, while the SDLP and Sinn Féin used the veto on 29 occasions.

Examples of where the DUP used the veto included thwarting same-sex marriage and the blocking of a bill for rates relief for sports clubs.