The dirtiest words in politics

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.”

"Gay sex is obnoxious" - Jim Allister

Jim Allister

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.

For example:

  • 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)

"Odious piece of legislation" - Steven Agnew

“Odious piece of legislation” – Steven Agnew


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

Basil McCrea

“We must support the LGBT community” Basil McCrea


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

Julie-Anne Corr Johnston

Julie-Anne Corr Johnston


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?

You decide.

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  • Croiteir

    Correct – they should just vote for the Bill and ignore the haters.

  • Pete

    Yeah, I looked at the Twitter reaction before viewing the programme, and everyone was saying she was brilliant, and completely took down Givan.

    However, on viewing it myself, I completely disagreed. Her argument consisted of “We are in the UK, so our policies should all be the same as Westminster’s”, which obviously doesn’t really follow as Givan and Allister outlined.

  • Croiteir

    Is she married?

  • kalista63

    Can’t remember precisely what it was but Givan or Allister hit Corr with something and the tumbleweed blew across the telly.

  • PeterBrown

    There is something to this – some sort of NI perversion of Boyles Law where criticising something leads almost inevitably to it being physically attacked even if that is not the intention of those speaking and all of us need to be aware of this whether we are talking about the LGBT community ( who tend to be targeted individually rather than where they gather) the GAA, the loyal orders or even the Alliance Party but does that mean they should all be immune from criticism whether it is justified or not?

  • PeterBrown

    If she is not married surely she is not Mrs? Does she use Mrs?

  • Gaygael

    Alex Attwood spoke at the rally against the conscience clause. He has said that SDLP members will sign a petition of concern should it come to the floor of the assembly.

  • Gaygael

    Her surname is Corr-Johnston. I’m not sure whether she uses mrs, ms, miss. I think it’s only civil to respect that.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    My initial statement was my absolute and unadulterated support for gay rights and how I felt the leadership had got this completely wrong. However when inputting my post via my mobile and in haste but not malice I forgot to include a hyphen, you have proceeded to make a massive issue from this. I feel someone who needs to call them-self “Gaygael,” has little to offer but the waving of the homophobia card or one could say trolling!!

  • Joe_Hoggs

    Just an anti Unionist jibe eh Jay?? Not much of a response to Kevin’s rebuke either.

  • Gaygael

    Gaygael is a name I have used for years.
    I haven’t called you a homophobe. I reserve that for the dup. You didn’t address her points. You instead called her a one trick pony and had a dig at her tattoos.
    I encouraged you to call her by her correct name. I posed 1/2 lines in 3 comments. A big deal would be a 10 paragraph point. I appreciate your support and apologise for any untoward insinuation.

    You hear what is reported to have happened to the guy in north belfast whose civil partner died. Homophobia is alive and well. With almost 500 reported homophobic and transphobic hate crimes or incidents in 13/14, being part of an upward trajectory over recent years, we have a problem. We need a sexual orientation strategy and an inclusive gender strategy, not a conscinece clause trying to roll back 9 years of equality.

    This is dead. The petition of concern ensures this. Well done Sinn Fein, Greens and Basil. I hope many others join them, and we get a majority if it reaches the assembly. And route this pernicious and hateful anti gay clause.

  • Jay

    Ahh come on man. Im only joking!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Quite a good article on the complexities of the Swastika on Wikipedia:

  • Catcher in the Rye

    They know there will most likely not be a vote as others will sign the Petition of Concern

    A valid Petition of Concern does not prevent a vote from taking place. Maybe you should familiarize yourself with how the process works before you criticize others for how they choose to approach it.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I pulled out a few examples of Alliance hiding.

    Here’s Naomi Long writing an article in the Belfast Telegraph attacking the Conscience Clause for being an attack on equality.

    Here’s an Alliance press statement where Naomi describes the conscience clause as a “charter for LGBT discrimination”.

    I found those two examples as the first two hits when I googled the subject.

    Don’t you think you should take care to find out what Alliance’s position is before you inaccurately misrepresent it in public ?

  • Catcher in the Rye


    Imagine roles were reversed and someone went to a bakery owned/operated by a gay person and asked for a cake depicting a stick figure hanging by a rope from a tree, with the slogan “God hates fags” below.

    Said bakery owner would be well within his rights to reject the cake order.

  • PaulT

    I think you’ll find the reason is that homosexually is mentioned and condemned in the Bible, granted only briefly a couple of times, however Lesbianism isn’t in the bible at all and hence the DUP can’t bring poor God into that debate. Unicorns are mentioned in the Bible though

  • Paddy Reilly

    Note this extract from Edwin Poots’s Facebook page:-

    “Today Sinn Fein with the support of the SDLP, Alliance, NI21, and some Ulster Unionists attempted to redefine the institution of marriage for the third time and failed for the third time.”

    So my analysis of NI politics into Fenians, Liberals and Save Ulster from Sodomy seems to have some reality.

  • PaulT

    “fortunatly the Prods have wised up”

    Just as well as the Cork myth has long since been debunked,

  • PaulT

    yes they would because it would depict violence and an offensive term, however whats the bakers rights if the message was “Homosexuality is against Christian beliefs”

  • The Firemen

    That’s a very silly argument. If we reduce the number of MLAs the DUP and SF will totally dominate. The current number of MLAs (albeit expensive) is correct given the circumstances

  • The Firemen

    An astute point and in keeping with the theme of my argument. Alex Attwood’s intervention that the SDLP would support a POC “if it was brought before the Assembly” is similarly circumspect

  • barnshee
  • Kevin Breslin

    Wasn’t the dirtiest word in politics “compromise”? (effectively the anti-petition of concern.)

  • Croiteir

    If you want a wider madate surely you would need more MLA’s