Northern Ireland news

Long insists political agreement on Stormont changes preferable to legal bid

Naomi Long, Alliance leader (PA)
David Young, PA

Alliance would prefer political agreement on changing Stormont's voting structures rather than having to challenge them in the courts, Naomi Long has insisted.

However, the Alliance leader again warned that her party is willing to test the legality of the powersharing arrangements if changes are not delivered through negotiation.

Mrs Long used her party conference address on Saturday to warn of potential legal action if the UK and Irish governments fail to deliver reform of the Stormont institutions to release them from the unionist/nationalist “straitjacket” created by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Last year, the cross-community party proposed changes to voting systems within both the Stormont Assembly chamber and at the Executive table to ensure votes cast by MLAs who consider themselves neither unionist nor nationalist are given the same weight as others.

Alliance has also proposed ending the ability of any Stormont party to veto the formation of a ministerial executive.

On Sunday, Mrs Long confirmed the party had sought legal advice on whether the existing arrangements are human rights compliant.

“We have sought legal advice on this particular point a number of times, we are now in the process of considering whether or not it is something that we want to challenge,” she told BBC NI's Sunday Politics programme.

“It's not the route that we would want to take.

“We would rather do this by persuasion and agreement because it is a political agreement that we're seeking. We will continue to explore that with the two governments.”

The DUP is currently exercising its veto in protest at Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol – meaning the Assembly cannot conduct business and a ministerial executive cannot function.

Sinn Fein previously used its veto to collapse the executive in 2017.

Mrs Long said the two main Stormont parties would not agree to changing the current system.

“The main two parties are not going to support it because it gives them an inherent veto,” she said.

“And as with the kind of Orwell's Animal Farm, I guess we're all equal, but some are more equal than others and they're not going to want to give up that power.

“But, look, we have other options that we're exploring. I said very clearly yesterday I don't believe that our votes counting for less than other people is actually legal and we're willing to explore that route to challenge what is I think a fundamental inequality at the heart of our government.”

The Alliance Party, which aligns as neither unionist nor nationalist, has been boosted by a series of successful recent elections. In last May's Assembly poll, it emerged as the third largest party with 17 seats – more than doubling its representation in the devolved legislature.

Mrs Long told conference delegates at the Stormont Hotel on Saturday that powersharing was at risk of “death by a thousand collapses”.

The former justice minister said it was time to implement her party's reform proposals.

The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement saw the creation of a system that required the biggest political bloc of unionists to share power with the biggest bloc of nationalists in a mandatory coalition.

Currently, an administration cannot be formed unless the biggest unionist party and the biggest nationalist party agree to participate in it.

Alliance wants to change this mandatory coalition system, thus removing the ability of any big party to prevent an executive being established.

The party also wants to reform the community designation system at Stormont, which effectively hands blocs of unionists or nationalists a veto in contentious votes in both the Assembly and Executive.

The controversial method means parties, such as Alliance, that designate as neither cannot influence votes where the results are determined by how many unionists and nationalists support or reject a proposal.

Alliance insists this system is no longer fit for purpose, as an increasing number of MLAs in the Assembly are designated as “others” and are unable to have a say in contentious decisions.

It favours an alternative method whereby controversial votes require a weighted majority to pass.

Mrs Long insisted it has always been envisaged that the Good Friday Agreement arrangements could be adjusted as politics developed in Northern Ireland.

“If I was sitting here as a member of any other party and saying that my vote counted for less than other people's nobody would accept that,” she said on Sunday.

“So why should it be acceptable for Alliance and for our voters?”

Northern Ireland news