If Sinn Féin are serious about rights and equality, they must prioritise Petition of Concern reform

By Eoin Tennyson

In last year’s election cycles, Sinn Féin ran a campaign based on “equality, respect and integrity”, called for the “implementation of previous agreements” and promised “no return to the status quo”. Marriage equality featured alongside Irish language legislation as a cornerstone of the party’s campaign. The rhetoric was enthusiastically endorsed by almost 225,000 voters. In the negotiations that followed, it proved to be just that: rhetoric.

February’s so-called “draft deal” revealed that Sinn Féin were in fact willing to accept the status quo plus an Irish Language Act. That is, they were happy to re-enter the Executive without reform of the controversial petition of concern, despite clear commitments made by parties to do so in the Stormont House and the Fresh Start agreements.

The petition of concern mechanism was initially designed as part of the Good Friday Agreement with a view to protecting minority rights by requiring “cross-community support” on key decisions. In theory, a petition would prevent either an Irish nationalist or British unionist majority in the Assembly from legislating to their own preferences at the expense of the other traditional community.

Since then, it has been repeatedly abused to protect party political interests, deny basic human rights and to derail “bread and butter” politics. The DUP infamously enacted a petition of concern to block marriage equality while Sinn Féin tried (and failed) to use the instrument against legislation preventing individuals with serious convictions from becoming highly-paid special advisers at Stormont.

A return to the Executive under the pretences of February’s accommodation would have brought more of the same. While no single party currently has the required number of MLAs to trigger a petition on their own, the DUP could easily recruit Jim Allister and a conservative Ulster Unionist to veto marriage equality again. It’s even more likely that the mechanism would be tabled against any prospective change to our cruel and archaic abortion laws. Curiously, despite this reality, Sinn Féin seemed poised to go back into government.

The conversation around the pace of social change is not unique to Northern Ireland. The topic has sparked colourful debate in parliaments around the world. Yet, only our institutions have been unable to withstand the debate; and it is only in Northern Ireland that these issues are allowed to be sheltered from standard democratic processes. There is no cogent argument for the petition of concern’s continued applicability to areas with no relevance to our past or societal divisions.

Besides, rectifying the petition of concern could be central to breaking our ongoing political deadlock and finally delivering a sustainable devolved government. A fresh round of talks focused on adapting the notorious instrument – chaired by an independent mediator and inclusive of all parties – could lead to an outcome respectful the parties’ differing views on substantive social and cultural issues whilst opening the door for progress on these matters in a restored Assembly.

Back in 2016, the Alliance Party made petition of concern reform a precondition for participating in government, stipulating that its use must be restricted to the core areas for which it was intended. These calls for change fell on deaf ears, flatly rejected by both Sinn Féin and the DUP, who proceeded to enter into a dysfunctional and predictably ill-fated Executive on their own.

Sinn Féin must learn from the mistakes of the past. If they are serious about delivering on their rights and equality agenda, they must prioritise long overdue reform of the petition of concern in any future talks.