Examination of witness

Part of Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:21 pm ar 29 Mehefin 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Emma Little-Pengelly:

My experience of the existing provisions comes from a more practical point of view, as well as the theoretical and legal aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I had come in initially as a shadow special adviser to help prepare for the restoration of institutions back in 2007. That included working very closely with the drafters office and with machinery of Government elements within the Executive and the Departments in order to look at things such as the ministerial code, how the Executive should operate, and the guidance for Ministers and Departments in relation to what matters needed to come to the Executive. Also, it included issues such as the nomination of Ministers and the First and Deputy First Minister.

Over that period of time, from 2007, obviously we have had a number of significant issues and challenges. Very often they led to periods of negotiation. Much of those negotiations took place within the context of trying to talk about the technical details of the process in which we try to operate in Northern Ireland. It is a very challenging and difficult system to operate. It is a system where, at the very heart, arising from the Belfast/ Good Friday agreement, the key principle is consensus and inclusion. That is a very slow and difficult process for trying to come to decisions.

The key element to remember is that in Northern Ireland we do not have—and have never had for some considerable time since the Belfast agreement—a majoritarian system of government. Therefore, that principle is very much cooked into every part of the process, from the nomination of First and Deputy First Minister and what they can do, singly or acting jointly, to the way the Ministers operate in relation to the Executive. All of that is based on a process of consensus and a process of agreement. That of course means that at times we cannot get agreement, and that has been very, very difficult. Nevertheless, that is the system that we have had. It is the system that we have operated right up until very recently.

In more recent years, there has been a drive to change some of the elements of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement —in particular, around the concept of cross-community voting and consensus, and particularly around the safeguard mechanism of the petition of concern. When you look at the petition of concern, it is important to take a look, carefully, at the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I listened to the evidence very carefully today. I strongly disagree with what was put across, for example, this morning by Daniel from the Committee on the Administration of Justice, in relation to the original intent of the petition of concern mechanism. I think that the proposal that this was supposed to be a very narrow issue, as opposed to it applying to all key issues, simply does not hold up to scrutiny.

I would ask everybody to take a look back at the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The petition of concern is set out in the section referred to as Safeguards, and the Safeguards section that refers to the cross-community voting is entirely separate from the safeguard that sets out the ECHR and the equality protections. The cross-community component of that is set out in 5(d), under strand 1, and yet the ECHR and the equality severable obligations are set out in 5(c) of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement. Those are not conditional on each other; they are entirely separate. It was clear from the Belfast agreement and then the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that the cross-community consensus was to apply to all key decisions.