Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson has launched a consultation on measures to improve the operation of Stormont, with a suggestion of legislation next year to implement reforms.
The consultation covers four key areas around the size of the Assembly; the length of terms for Assembly Members; double jobbing and the development of an opposition.
Launching the 10 week exercise, Paterson explained:
“I have already signalled my intention to bring forward legislation in Parliament next year to address issues such as providing greater transparency regarding political donations and providing the same security of tenure for the NI Justice Minister enjoyed by all other Executive Ministers.
“This legislation will also provide an opportunity to make other changes which could improve the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and I am keen to hear views on the future size of the Assembly, the length of its terms and how, in line with the commitments I made at the General Election, we should remove double jobbing once and for all.”
Addressing suggestions that the current Assembly term should expire instead in May 2016 Paterson continued:
“Extending the life of an elected body is unusual.
“We would only feel able to put the suggestion to Parliament if there was a clear demonstration of public benefit and widespread support. We shall listen carefully to views.”
And on suggestions that Stormont should move to having a formal opposition he concluded:
“Both the prime minister and I have made clear our desire to see the institutions evolve over time into a more normal system that incorporates a government and opposition. The consultation will enable us to start a debate over whether this is desirable and how it might be done. As we stated at the election, however, any changes will require the agreement of parties in the Assembly.”
Reaction from parties in Northern Ireland to the consultation has been luke warm at best, with a common theme of resentment at what is seen as meddling by Whitehall.
For the DUP, it’s Deputy Leader, Nigel Dodds, whilst supporting the notion of reform, proposals for which the party submitted to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC), the secretary of state’s intervention amounts to “criticisms at a distance”. He explained:
“Like the secretary of state, we recognise that any changes to the system of government require agreement of parties within the Assembly. Given that all parties made their views on such arrangements known in submissions to the AERC it is unlikely that this consultation is going to throw any new light on the subject, or bring forward any new consensus.
“The public in Northern Ireland want to see parties working together to find agreement on the way forward. That is also necessary from the government at Westminster where it is better to work with local parties rather than launch criticisms at a distance, which unfortunately the Secretary of State has engaged in recently.”
For Sinn Fein meanwhile, the consultation amounts to a near desperate attempt by Owen Paterson to make himself relevant. The party’s assembly Group leader, Raymond McCartney responded:
“Any agreements on the future operation of the Assembly will be reached by the local political parties.
“This is the second time in the past number of weeks that Mr Patterson has made clumsy attempts to make himself relevant to politics here.
“Sinn Féin will not tolerate any attempts by Mr Patterson or anyone else to undermine the power sharing and equality provisions which lie at the heart of the successful operation of the political institutions.”
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker, dubbed the proposals as being “ill-thought out”. He argued:
“Labour supports reviewing the effectiveness of the devolved structures in Northern Ireland. But getting the economy moving, tackling unemployment and creating jobs and growth are our top priorities for Northern Ireland, and they should be Owen Paterson’s too.
“The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly is just over a year in to its second full-term. We should not be complacent about that. Yet Owen Paterson gave an ill-judged and unhelpful speech in Dublin last month where he outlined his views on how the Executive had under-performed and how the Assembly wasn’t working. His criticism was largely unwarranted and unnecessary, and his proposals were mostly premature and ill-thought out.
“Rather than causing division, he should be working in partnership with the Executive and Assembly to look at how they, and the Northern Ireland Office, can work more effectively individually and collectively.”
Not everyone however was quite so concerned about the potential for reforms to be imposed on Stormont by Westminster. Welcoming the consultation Alliance MP, Naomi Long responded:
“While the result of this consultation may be the Secretary of State introducing legislation which would compel other parties to also address these matters, we would call on them to use the intervening period to, like Alliance, address them voluntarily.”
Likewise, the Secretary of State can take comfort from the Belfast Telegraph this morning which uses its editorial to support the consultation’s key proposals. The paper today says:
“A recurring criticism of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland is that relatively little gets done. A lot of time is spent arguing over issues and when the going gets difficult, they are often quietly shelved.
“Secretary of State Owen Paterson is doing a signal service to the province by bringing forward proposals which attempt to change the way politics are conducted here. His consultation paper gives a structure and timetable for discussion and, depending on the results, some of those proposals could find their way into a new Northern Ireland Bill which he intends to bring forward next year.
“This newspaper finds merit in many of his suggestions. It is sensible to fix the term of each Assembly, bringing it into line with Westminster elections. He also presents a strong case for reducing the number of MLAs. Ordinary people feel that the current administration is bloated and there is insufficient work for the 108 elected representatives at Stormont.
“Perhaps the most controversial proposal – at least for the parties – is his plans to help those parties which could form an opposition to the DUP/Sinn Fein power bloc. Under the present set-up parties like the SDLP or Ulster Unionists would lose funding and access to some information.
“Mr Paterson suggests redressing the impediments to voluntary opposition and thereby creating the potential for a more normal form of democratic governance. This is a proposal which this newspaper strongly supports.”