Could reform of the petition of concern hold the key to surprise success in the Stormont talks?

Following up on Mick’s post on Colum Eastwood, let’s hear it for his SDLP deputy Nichola Mallon who’s called for the reform of the notorious blocking instrument of the petition of concern.  It had been supposedly been agreed in the abortive Fresh Start agreement of November 2015 that it should be used only “in exceptional circumstances,”  stating – importantly –  “the  grounds upon which it is being tabled and the nature of the detriment”.   After which nothing happened.

The investigative website The Detail  reported in September 2016 that:

In the Assembly term 2011-16, petitions were used 115 times on 31 separate proposed bills and motions including those on marriage equality,  and welfare reform,  as well as on three occasions when politicians faced reprimands. This compared with just six in 2007/2008, the year devolution was restored.

The majority [84%] of the vetoes related to just 14 pieces of proposed legislation which involved the blocking of multiple amendments.

The DUP used the powers the most, with its members signing 86 petitions of concern, while the second highest use was by the SDLP and Sinn Féin whose members each signed 29 petitions of concern.

For the 2011 mandate, the DUP won 39 seats and SF 28. The DUP often   blocked solo, having  won 9 seats more than the blocking threshold of 30.  SF needing two votes from other parties, was joined by the SDLP about a dozen times. A few petitions crossed sectarian lines.

After the 2016 election only the DUP with 38  – 10 ahead of SF – again won enough seats to meet the blocking threshold  on their own. But in 2017 when unionists lost their bloc majority, neither party quite reached it, the DUP with 28 seats and SF with 27.  (The threshold of 30 remained even though the number of Assembly seats was reduced by 18). Theoretically this gives the minority parties a small collective advantage, provided a few don’t peel off to make up  the 30 which in practice was what regularly  happened, often if not always on communal lines.

So today a modest initiative could be taken by the minority parties in a situation where they have a little leverage if they can achieve a degree of solidarity against the main parties.  Yes  we know the record of  past failure and the reasons for it .  When after the 2016 election the UUs and the SDLP went separately into opposition their failure to make preparations to coalesce even ad hoc was embarrassingly exposed.

Now that they have a role in the talks, can they do better this time over petitions of concern and tell us which of the negotiating positions of the main parties they would join in blocking and which they would support, once  it’s confirmed  what these are?

Reforming the petitions system is everyone’s handy  version of a great idea.  If  passed  it could indeed constitute a psychological  breakthrough with wider significance.  But the turkeys of the DUP and SF would have to see good reasons for voting for Christmas. They’d have to calculate that it would be more to their advantage to give up biting to avoid getting bitten.  And supposing the block was lifted, which of these sticking points would pass  by simple majority, never mind by the cross community vote required once the block is applied  :   a free standing Irish Language Act, an NI Bill of Rights, a  resolution to approve the funding of inquests, same sex marriage. Only the last one I reckon.

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