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:

When you look back to the operation of the petition of concern—again, I referenced, in terms of the passage of the Northern Ireland Bill, as it then was, in 1998, the fact that no concerns were raised about the scope of those particular provisions. But likewise, when the Northern Ireland Assembly was established under the First Minister and Deputy First Minister leadership of the Ulster Unionist party and the SDLP, no concerns were raised at that time about the petition of concern. It was still difficult. When you look back at the history of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the various crises that we have faced, of course it is difficult, because the ultimate aim of those provisions, and the provisions across the Northern Ireland Act, arising from the agreement, is that they are all based on consensus building.

We have heard some reference about the petition of concern being used as a veto, but in reality it is used in a way that reflects the fact that there is not yet, or no, consensus on particular issues, and those are key issues, so where a petition of concern is used, it is an indication that an issue has been pushed forward without consensus. That is why, when you look at the new provisions proposed in this Bill—the idea, for example, of a 14-day cooling-off period for a petition of concern is, I think, very welcome. Gavin will know as well as I do that—look, the sustainability procedures and processes as part of the New Decade, New Approach negotiations were something that the Democratic Unionist party pushed very, very hard. We pushed because we could see that it does not benefit the people of Northern Ireland to be in a situation of perpetual crisis, particularly if those crises are manufactured by, for example, the tactical resignation of a First or Deputy First Minister. Ultimately, we do need stability, and stability within a very difficult process to operate. I think the 14-day period, now within this proposed Bill, will allow a period for people to get together to try to find a consensus way forward. That may be through amendment if it is legislation, or it may be by some further or different agreement. But at the very heart of this is the idea that because the institutions were set up to be very inclusive, from the very beginning there was a concern that significant minorities should not be forced to be part of either an Executive or Government in Northern Ireland where they were subject to continual majority decision making.

That applied right up until the point at which Unionism was no longer the majority. We have since seen concerted moves to try to remove that safeguard for significant minorities. The concern there is that yes, it is a difficult and frustrating system, but in Northern Ireland ultimately this will only work if you have that maximum consensus. As I understand from those who negotiated the Belfast agreement, and right through to those who negotiated the St Andrews agreement that modified and built on some of those protections, that at the heart of that is the idea that significant minorities should not be excluded, and that consensus decision making is the priority over a quick and simple majority system, which would exclude those people.