The failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree on the big issues is giving Alliance more leverage than they could have ever dreamt of .

Listening to Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics, little Alliance seems to have the joint leaders on a hook. It appears that the main sticking point for David Ford was Foster and McGuinness’s refusal to accept reform of the blocking mechanism of the petition of concern. Ford has been campaigning for reform for a long time, most recently over the DUP’s use of it to block an abortion amendment  and earlier its use against the Welfare Reform Bill by SF, the SDLP and the Greens a year ago.

But the Fresh Start agreement  (Annex F3) between the DUP and Sinn Fein promised that:

 Petitions of Concern should only be tabled in exceptional circumstances…  and where a Petition of Concern is tabled, this should state the ground or grounds upon which it is being tabled and the nature of the detriment which is perceived as arising from an affirmative vote on the matter.

Did FM and DFM not offer Ford assurances along these lines? Why were they not enough?  Foster and McGuinness are keeping their counsel  so far.  Although the leaders are sounding confident about filling Justice by next Wednesday’s doomsday deadline, the idea of offering it to the newly elected independent unionist Claire Sudgen smacks of desperation for them both and a humiliation for Sinn Fein. If Alliance finally refuses,  the fundamental lack of trust between the DUP and SF is brutally exposed if they don’t fill it themselves.  Ironically according to Ford, Alliance would have “eighth pick” and win another department under D’Hondt after all, now that the UUs and the SDLP are in opposition.

A DUP- SF job share for Justice could be the salvation for the Executive if it signalled joint determination to tackle the toxic legacy issues  at last. Out of the nettle deadlock could yet be plucked the sweet smelling rose of new agreement.  Big call you think?  Swallowing Alliance terms would be a good second best.

Opposition solidarity does not exist over the idea of a voluntary coalition.   In Inside Politics the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood was against scrapping the designations, exhibiting the traditional nationalist fear of conceding pro-unionist majority rule by accident.  It seems Alliance is not in a position to take all the tricks.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Brendan Heading


    A few things. The Fresh Start agreement specifies “exceptional circumstances”. This isn’t much use, as parties can simply define any circumstances they choose to be “exceptional”. You would be right if you were to argue that this is outside of the spirit that was likely intended, but bear in mind that the abuse of the Petition of Concern in the first place is itself outside of the intended spirit – under the mechanism, blocking marriage equality and attempting to prevent legislation on special advisors, among other things, have variously been defined as harmful to a minority.

    Second, the rest of the context in F3 is important:

    (ii) that in order to minimise the incidence of the use of Petitions of Concern, Private Members’ motions tabled by members of the signatory parties should be so phrased that they do not bind the Assembly or the Executive by requiring a vote upon the matter under consideration;

    (iii) to this end such business should be conducted in the form of ‘take note’ debates;

    translation : “parties will not use a petition of concern provided steps are taken to make the motion completely toothless”

    (iv) in cases where a tabled Private Members’ motion does not comply with the
    conditions set out at provisions outlined within paragraph 4(ii), other signatory
    parties will be permitted under the terms of this protocol to table a Petition of
    Concern on the matter under discussion;

    translation : “if the motion isn’t toothless, parties retain the right to deploy the PoC”

    (v) where a Petition of Concern is tabled, this should state the ground or grounds upon which it is being tabled and the nature of the detriment which is perceived as arising from an affirmative vote on the matter; and

    translation : “we will provide an excuse along with every PoC we table”

    This is not reform of the mechanism – it is an informal truce, where in exchange for avoiding vexatious motions (specifically marriage equality) they agree not to go nuclear. Since only the DUP and Sinn Féin are signatories to Fresh Start, it does not prevent either party from using the PoC to block any motion made by any other party that they like.

    I don’t know what Alliance asked for specifically, but I’d imagine it included something significantly more binding, although from my reading of the Northern Ireland Act reform of the PoC requires primary legislation at Westminster. It is clear that both SF and the DUP rejected any notion of reform, along with a number of other things.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Also I could be wrong here but the petition wasn’t used for the abortion amendments

  • Brian Walker

    Correct, Lionel. Apologies for my faulty memory. The DUP got them referred to a working group in committee, a different blocking move. A petition was used against limited abortion in 2013

  • Brian Walker

    Brendan, While I take off my hat to your scholarship here and in your original post, your “translations” are a bit cynical surely. There are indeed plenty of get outs but the broad intention urged on the main parties by the two governments was to cut down on the use of petitions and explain more clearly the detriment objected to in the proposal being blocked. Not indeed wholesale reform but a benchmark against which future petitions can be judged..

  • AMORR86

    Do you mean the POC concerning abortion in 2013 submitted by Sinn Fein and Alliance or are you thinking of another one?

  • fralycis

    In response to your title of this piece, Alliance’s perceived ‘leverage’ will count for nothing when in fact, everyone knows that OFMDFM/Executive Office will now decide who (if anyone else) enters ‘their executive’. They will exercise their mandate to no end.
    ‘More leverage than [Alliance] could have dreamt of’? One thing is certain, DUP/SF will not come with begging bowls to Alliance and won’t for one minute contemplate losing this game of cheap political point scoring.

  • Skibo

    Not impressed with Simon Hamiltons’ attitude to a possible Irish language act. With this and Arlenes’ response on a SF justice minister, I have to ask myself are SF right to get so tight with the DUP?

  • Lionel Hutz

    I’m not sure how alliance are seen to have leverage here. This little dance is very different from the waltz of 2010 and 2011. Sinn Fein and DUP are talking as though they don’t need alliance. Now maybe that’s a sham. But in previous times they put enormous public pressure on alliance to “save” the executive and part of me thinks that Marlene have a plan b here. It seems likely to me that DUP will take justice with SF getting first pick elsewhere. That would be a major coup for both parties. It’s the smart choice. They’d be able to say they are indeed working together. And DUP would get justice and SInn Fein get finance.

    If they were smart, that’s what they would do. They’d take back control of the narrative

  • mjh

    Are the DUP so keen to keep SF out of Justice that they would practically give the government of NI to SF? Effectively the party that controls Finance has immense (and often controlling) power over all other departments.

    If the DUP were willing to concede Justice to SF (possible with a DUP junior minister) they would not only get the first choice of department under d’Hondt, but the second and fourth as well.

    But would SF actually want Justice at the cost of allowing the DUP to effectively shape the rest of the government?

  • chrisjones2

    They have no choice

  • chrisjones2

    One thing an opposition can do is bring such bills forward again and again and force them to use the Petition to block them

  • Skibo
  • Brendan Heading

    Not necessarily, bills are selected by the Speaker and the Business Committee. Guess who controls both ?

  • Brendan Heading

    Brian, I think after 10 years of the DUP and SF controlling the government a little bit of cynicism is to be expected 🙂

    I was exaggerating slightly, but in your article above you asked “Why were [the Fresh Start assurances] not enough?”. I hope the answer makes sense; Fresh Start proposes no serious or binding reform. It’s an agreement not to use the PoC in exchange for parties not bringing the kinds of motions that previously triggered the use of the PoC.

    Alliance have tabled a motion to bring forward a bill to enact marriage equality (I think the SDLP have too – and perhaps others). As things currently stand under the Fresh Start provisions, this bill will be blocked by the PoC. This is, quite correctly, unacceptable to Alliance and it is what makes PoC reform a dealbreaker.

  • Brendan Heading

    No, things are not the same as 2010. Back then the DUP/SF executive was only three years old and had been going through a very tough time. The two parties held extensive talks with Alliance and Alliance managed to secure a number of concessions.

    It is different now as the parties have been re-endorsed, twice since 2010, at the ballot box. There were no attempts to seriously negotiate with Alliance. I think, in the immediate aftermath of the election, the DUP and SF got together and agreed how they wanted to carve up Justice. For the purposes of optics they had to be seen to be offering the job to Alliance. They want an Executive where they both have a free hand and no irritating interference.

  • Brendan Heading

    Effectively the party that controls Finance has immense (and often controlling) power over all other departments.

    I think this is overstated. The DUP through the Executive can overrule any decision made by any minister. SF may hold Finance but they won’t be able to do anything with it without the DUP’s agreement.

    There is no way justice is going to SF. It will probably go to the DUP, but probably a constructivist such as Simon Hamilton, rather than someone like Nelson McCausland. In exchange, someone like Conor Murphy will get Finance.

  • Granni Trixie

    Could happen sooner than you expect. .

  • Lionel Hutz

    I agree. The power of finance is over stated. Just to show this by example, if alliance or sdlp or u up took finance, does anyone believe they would have had control over anything. Power resides in the OFMDFM. Who takes which ministry just decides who stands for which photo opportunities

  • Lionel Hutz

    That was sinn fein and alliance using it. Petitions of concern aren’t bad if alliance sign up to them.

  • Skibo

    I stand corrected on who used it. Should have read the publication fully but in fairness it was used to prevent a DUP amendment to make the work of Marie Stopes Clinic illegal. Wonder how SDLP voted on it?