The petition of concern was designed to protect minority rights in the Stormont Assembly. As former SDLP leader Mark Durkan explained “the petition of concern facility was put into the agreement to safeguard communal sensitivities and specifically to protect equality and human rights considerations”.
Alliance MP Naomi Long pointed out that “the petition of concern was designed to offer protection to minorities within the assembly, where decisions of a sensitive nature risked being imposed upon them against their will.”
Unfortunately petitions of concern have been tabled that fall outside that criteria and have been more concerned with protecting party political interests and in some cases politicians themselves.
- DUP assembly members signed a petition of concern enabling them to block a motion concerning former minister Nelson McCausland on the Red Sky issue.
- Sinn Féin tried, and narrowly failed, to use a petition of concern to block Jim Allister’s special adviser (Spad) bill in the assembly.
- The DUP tabled a petition of concern in April 2014 ensuring a motion arguing for same sex marriage to be introduced in Northern Ireland.
- On welfare reform the DUP tabled a petition of concern against all but two of the amendments proposed by rival parties, while backing amendments tabled by Mervyn Storey.
As of March 2013 according to Hansard “56 petitions of concern had been submitted since the Assembly was established in 1998. Since March, and the completion of the previous paper, a further five have been submitted. Three related to the Planning Bill; one to marriage equality at the constitutional convention in the Republic of Ireland; and one to a motion calling for an inquiry into alleged political interference at the Housing Executive. So, in total, there have now been 61 petitions of concern: 34 unionist, 25 nationalist and two joint.”
Is it any wonder that the term ‘petition of concern’ is widely viewed as an abuse of democracy and widely misunderstood?
For a petition of concern to be valid a minimum of 30 MLAs must sign.
When validated proposed legislation will only pass if supported by a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting.
With 38 MLAs the DUP are free to present a petition of concern on any issue and effectively veto any amendment or private members bill.
Sinn Féin with 28 voting MLAs (Mitchel McLaughlin as speaker cannot exercise his vote) required the support of two MLAs to validate their POC against Paul Givan’s ‘conscience clause’ private members bill.
With Alliance declining to sign a POC and no support forthcoming so far from the UUP, UKIP (unlikely – Ed.), the TUV (are you having a laugh – Ed.) or independents the vital votes came from Steven Agnew (Green Party NI) and Basil McCrea (NI21) as Caitríona Ruane explained on the ‘Nolan Live’ TV show, saying that the bill was “going nowhere“.
(SDLP MLA Alex Attwood has said that if the bill was ever tabled in the assembly, his party would also take part in a petition of concern)
Steven Agnew explained why he supported his decision to support the POC on his party blog:
The so called ‘conscience clause’ is nothing but a thinly veiled by attempt to legalise discrimination against LGB people.If this Bill were to go forward, it would turn the clock back on equality laws to a time when it was socially acceptable to treat people who are gay, lesbian or bi-sexual as second class citizens. The ‘conscience clause’ is not only a retrograde step in terms of human rights, but it is also damaging for Northern Ireland’s economy and international reputation. Ensuring LGB people can access goods and services without discrimination is good for business, good for the economy and good for Northern Ireland’s reputation with investors. The petition of concern was designed to protect minorities. I am proud that I am able to defend the rights of the LGB community by playing my part in blocking this odious piece of legislation. We cannot allow this charter for discrimination to become law
Speaking to Slugger NI21 Leader Basil McCrea explained:
The so-called ‘conscience clause’ proposed by DUP MLA Paul Givan is poorly conceived and wholly unnecessary. Nowhere else in the United Kingdom does such legislation exist and there is no reason whatsoever for Northern Ireland to be any different. The Petition of concern was designed to protect minority interests and has been abused frequently to protect party political issues. On this occasion clearly there is a potential threat to the rights of the LGBT community. This is bad legislation open to misinterpretation. Legislation already exists to deal with such instances. Let the courts decide. In this instance the use of a petition of concern is entirely appropriate. This is pure electioneering by Mr. Givan and the DUP
Last night PUP councillor Julie-Anne Corr Johnston appeared on the BBC Nolan Live show to confront the proposer of the private members bill Paul Givan and TUV Leader Jim Allister who last week described gay sex as “obnoxious” and told Slugger:
Petitions of concern are themselves becoming a concern however I’m delighted that a POC will be used at the right time for the first time in a long time
Electionering, smokescreen or of genuine public concern?