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Northern Ireland reforms ‘ethnic veto’ to help get its legislature back to work

It’s a sign that Sinn Fein and the Unionists are losing ground to middle-of-the-road parties

After more than 1,000 days in abeyance, Northern Ireland’s governing institutions are working again. After talks facilitated by the governments for the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, the two main parties appointed their governing representatives: First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, along with the rest of the government.

The deal that brought Sinn Fein and the DUP back to governing outlines institutional reforms meant to streamline decision-making between the power-sharing partners. One of the most significant reforms is a political process called the petition of concern, which was a major difficulty during the talks. All parties agreed it should be reformed; none could agree on what form those changes should take.

Perhaps most important: The changes are a sign that Northern Ireland’s citizens are beginning to relinquish their commitment to sectarian barriers, as we’ll discuss below.

The petition of concern provides a kind of ethnic veto

Here’s the governing system set up by the Good Friday agreement. During elections, most candidates campaign on platforms that are designed to appeal to either Nationalist or Unionist voters. Unionist describes someone who favors continuing Northern Ireland’s participation in the U.K.; Nationalist refers to someone who favors leaving the U.K. and joining the Republic of Ireland. Once elected, members of the legislative assembly must officially designate themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or other. The petition of concern is a legislative mechanism that requires any new legislation to be supported by a majority of Unionist and Nationalist assembly members to move forward.

The petition was designed as a kind of ethnic veto, so that each community could ensure its vital interests were protected. Such vetoes are common in power-sharing arrangements and serve an important function in keeping the parties committed to governing together. Originally, any group of 30 assembly members (out of a total of 90 legislators) could present a petition of concern about any clause or issue at any stage in any legislative proposal, even individual clauses and amendments to bills.

Members used petitions of concern to block a lot of legislation

Although initially designed to protect vital interests, the petition process soon began to be used as a blocking device against many kinds of legislation. The number of petitions of concern grew rapidly over time: In the first legislative period between 1998 and 2003, only seven were filed, whereas 118 were brought forward in the legislative period between 2011 and 2016.

Our research has shown that this increase included use of petitions on issues not necessarily related to the two communities’ cultures, including contentious votes on marriage equality and welfare reform. The petitions were also used to thwart investigations into complaints about assembly members’ personal conduct across a range of issues during this time.

Once a petition has been signed by 30 assembly members, a different voting procedure comes into effect. Rather than a vote by a simple majority, the bill in question will require 40 percent of both Nationalists and Unionists to be present to pass. (Others can sign petitions but are not counted in petition votes.)

Three factors explain the growth in petitions of concern. First, petition resolutions allowed parties to veto any issue at any time. Second, the process didn’t ask one side to justify a petition resolution or explain how the proposed legislation might infringe on a community’s rights. Finally, after 2007, one party — the DUP — elected more than 30 assembly members, meaning that it could, on its own, trigger use of the petition process. In the first legislative period, the DUP went from co-sponsoring only one petition resolution — with its Unionist counterparts, the Ulster Unionist Party — to signing over 70 such motions on 21 issues in the 2011-16 period, most without the support of other parties.

By the time the assembly collapsed in 2017, at least one political observer called the petition of concern “the dirtiest word in politics,” arguing that its use was anti-democratic; many others argued that it should be abolished altogether.

What changes are coming?

The deal that ended the government holdout, the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, adjusts the petition of concern rules, outlining a number of small changes. While a petition still requires 30 signatures, it will require the support of at least two parties to enact, ensuring no single party can dominate its use (as was previously the case with the DUP).

Other changes include: It can no longer be used to stop consideration of assembly members’ behavior; its use must be accompanied by a justifying statement; and there will be a waiting period during which the petition’s compatibility with equality requirements — a codified legislative agreement in which an proposed law is referred to a committee that ensures it is compatible with human rights — will be assessed.

These changes should address the more contentious ways in which the veto has been used. Political parties will have to cooperate to enact it and to justify their use. This may keep them to their pledge to file a petition “only in exceptional circumstances and only as a last resort.” However, there is still a looming problem. Public support is growing for the other parties, which do not identify with either community. These parties have no access to the voting rules at the heart of the petition of concern, raising questions of equity over its use. It is seen as especially problematic when the petition has been used to block legislation untethered to Unionist and Nationalist identities, such as the veto on marriage equality.

More change is likely

The deal between the parties suggests that the changes are only preliminary —meant to get the power-sharing government underway again — and acknowledges that most parties supported “wider reform.” These minimal changes are likely to disappoint the other parties, including the Alliance Party, which surged in popularity in 2019 in local council, European and U.K. elections. The Alliance, together with other nonsectarian parties like the Greens and the People Before Profit party, have been skeptical of the petition, suggesting that other voices count less than Unionists and Nationalists on cross-community votes.

Perhaps more important, changes to the petition of concern signal the waning dominance of Sinn Fein and the DUP and the rise of nonaligned parties. The two big parties have suffered serious electoral losses. Their commitment to traditional dividing lines is costing them support among soft Unionists and Nationalists, who increasingly care more about the issues and less about ethnic identities. Using the petition, a blunt instrument to protect ethnonational identities, will clearly be more controversial going forward. The other parties will clearly be monitoring use of the petition of concern and will publicize any potential abuse of the mechanism to further undermine the DUP and Sinn Fein.

We don’t yet know whether the changes will speed up the legislative process or result in a more selective use of the petition of concern to protect real minority interests. But the DUP and Sinn Fein are under pressure — and may continue to lose seats if voters blame them for continued paralysis or overenthusiastic use of the ethnic veto.


Allison McCulloch is an associate professor of political science at Brandon University in Canada.

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Photo: Dr Drew Mikhael Dr Drew Mikhael
Drew Mikhael is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Ethnic Conflict at Queen’s University Belfast on the Exclusion Amid Inclusion project.