Concerning Petitions of Northern Ireland

A “Petition of Concern” in Northern Ireland, is a measure designed to protect the interests of “one community”. As with most Laws of Northern Ireland it concerns itself with a Sectarian past that does no-one any favours in a modern society.

In Stormont, elected representatives can declare themselves as being “Nationalist”, “Unionist” or, perversely “Other”. It seems that should you not wish to be seen as being defined by your parent’s religion, you are “Othered”, which is extremely troubling.

However, the main communities of “Catholic Nationalists” and “Unionist Protestants” do still make the bulk of how residents see themselves and there is another article to be written on such a subject. The point here, is that situation is not going away, yet. The vestiges of religion and blaming the other side for all the Province’s ills still remain and will for generations.

In order to “protect” the interests of one of these two special groups, the Stormont Assembly created the “Petition of Concern” system. A rather silly system where 30 MLAs can sign a motion leading to two new requirements being introduced during voting on the passing of a bill.

The bill will only be passed under a PoC where it receives 60% majority AND 40% of EACH Nationalist and Unionist Bloc present at voting.  In reality, a PoC makes the passage of a Bill impossible. Worse, the “Others”, the genuine minorities of Northern Ireland are afforded no protection whatsoever, as any PoC raised by Others, still requires Unionist and Nationalist backing.

Currently, the First Minister, Arlene Foster, seems to have indicated that all voting on Equal Marriage proposals will be subjected to PoCs at the hands of the DUP. She seemingly suggested this was linked to online abuse received on the issue. Again, there is a whole article to be written on this specific issue, to deny someone their Human Rights because you have been insulted by someone, would seem to suggest the DUP and Foster, who as FM is supposed to represent Northern Ireland, is unfit for High Office. In effect, the DUP will kill the bill until such time as they are forced to change their mind. The EU has failed, and I’m not sure Westminster has bothered, though a Supreme Court Appeal by equality campaigners may change that.

So, where do we go from here?

I’m not entirely sure a Petition of Concern system is required at all. The assembly is roughly divided in two, and now there is also an opposition, who incidentally, seem far more able to work together than the most recent iteration of the Head DUP puppet & McGuinness.

If it is decided that minorities need under-represented, and the two main “communities” need to keep fighting attempts to integrate, then the PoC system needs rejuvenation.

It was supposed to be used when one Community was going to be drastically affected by a Bill to the favour of another. Now it is simply another political tool. Foster said as much in her comments (“…why would I give away such a tool”) when talking of delivering manifesto pledges. Perhaps because it is an abuse of the system?

If we accept then, that the system is going to be kept, but want to rid it of abuse, there is one simple solution. Remove the sectarian element. In my experience those who “Other” themselves have a broader World view, and judge things more fairly on the evidence. In contrast to the prisms which are employed by Sectarian politicians.

So lets remove them from the equation. If MLAs really think a bill is going to be detrimental to a Community, or even just as a political tool, get the 30 signatures, and then exclude ALL sectarian MLAs from the vote.

Allow those people who see the best way forward for Northern Ireland to be inclusive with no religious division to be the arbiters of fairness. Approach a problem from the angle of no vested interests.

It would, for a little while, stem the inappropriate and potentially illegal use of a poor system. I write “for a little while”, as I am sure it would not be long before members of all the Non-Others seek to “Other” themselves to gain control of the system again. Some may succeed in some areas.

Its time to keep religion out of politics, and its time to keep rights of individuals in.