MLAs should not have to identify as ‘unionist, nationalist or other’
Taoiseach says ’petition of concern’ giving veto to one community needs to change
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil the ‘petition of concern’ mechanism was used to block marriage equality in the North. File photograph: Paul Faith AFP/Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar wants to see changes to the Good Friday agreement ‘petition of concern’ mechanism because it has been used in a way he believes was not “ever anticipated when the Good Friday Agreement was signed”, he told the Dáil on Wednesday.
The mechanism, was used as part of the Belfast Agreement to prevent discrimination of one community by another but has been used as a veto. Through a weighted majority system, if enough MLAs from one community agree on an issue, they can exercise a veto in a Northern Assembly vote.
Mr Varadkar cited its use to block marriage equality in the North “even though vast majority of the Assembly and people want that to be legal, as it is in rest of UK and rest of Ireland”.
The Taoiseach was responding in the Dáil to Green party leader Eamon Ryan who said the way Stormont operates “is not fit for purpose”.
Amid discussions about a role for the Northern Executive and Assembly in monitoring the implementation of Brexit if a deal is agreed, the Green Party leader said its structures “should be open for re-crafting in the coming months if we can avoid a no-deal Brexit”.
He suggested a constitutional convention could be used or using the British-Irish Inter-governmental Conference as a means to consider it.
Stressing that this was “not a grab” for nationalists he said Stormont “should not just be restored back to where it has always been”.
“We should look at this as a chance to evolve the institutions.”
Mr Ryan said Green Party MLA Clare Bailey on entering the Assembly was asked to declare if she was unionist, nationalist or other.
“The consent of the likes of people who voted for my colleague Clare Bailey has found no space to contribute to the debate.
“We need a much broader sense of consent rather than just a nationalist and unionist consensus to whatever deal is done.”
The Taoiseach said everyone was keen to get the northern institutions up and running again and the Tánaiste and Northern Secretary had been working on this for months.
They were very much of the same thinking that restoration should not just be a return to “business as usual”.
Mr Varadkar pointed out that the Belfast Agreement had already evolved with the St Andrew’s Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement.
“Want to ensure they work better and that if it resumes, that the Assembly and Executive are sustainable and don’t just break down again after another three or six months if the big parties fall out with themselves”.
The petition of concern needed to be part of the discussion on change, the Taoiseach said. And it was a “very significant issue” that Assembly members are required to designate themselves as unionist, nationalist or other.
He said “people find the term ‘other’ as pejorative” because it does not described the growing centre ground that sees people as both British and Irish.
One of the real flaws in the double majority for cross-community consent was not just that it allows one party or community to have a veto.
“It totally discounts and reduces to nothing the votes of those designated as others including growing number voting Alliance and Green.”
But he stressed that “any of these reforms have to be agreed by the big as well as the small parties”.