Assess the view that since 2007 the Northern Ireland Assembly has been a legislative success
Many would argue that since 2007 the Northern Ireland Assembly has been a legislative success. The Assembly has the power to make laws for Northern Ireland. There are 108 MLAs, during the 4th Assembly there this included 38 DUP MLAs and 29 Sinn Fein MLAs. A proposal for legislation is referred to as a “Bill” until it is passed by the Assembly and given Royal Assent. At this stage it becomes an Act of the Assembly. Initially the assembly could only deal with non-controversial bills, but since the St Andrew’s agreement MLAs have been able to tackle issues with a greater impact on society, such as policing, which was devolved in 2010. In examining the reasons why this has been a success, a good place to start is the benefit of local laws.
The assembly gives us local laws for local issues. It is much more popular and effective producing devolved laws than it is producing them under Direct Rule. Direct Rule ministers could make any decisions they liked regarding Northern Ireland; this is not so under devolution. An example of this is the Sunbed Bill, introduced by DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots on 2010/11. This law was pushed through on the back of a major health issue namely the increase in skin cancer particularly in the north west. It aimed to give Northern Ireland its own regulation of sunbeds. This included controlling their use, including an age limit and ban of under 18s. The Health Committee, then chaired by Jim Wells DUP, received 30 written submissions and took oral evidence from 5 key stakeholders. The evidence was overwhelmingly in favour of the Bill.
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Another reason that the assembly has been a legislative success is that it has passed legislation based on cross-community support. There have been good examples of where legislation has the support of both communities in Northern Ireland. For example, the Taxi Bill that was introduced in 2007/08 by Arlene Foster DUP, who was the Minister for Environment. It regulated the taxi industry. Taxis for example must be registered and licensed. It is worth noting that in producing this legislation the Environment Committee, chaired by Patsy McGlone SDLP, produced over 70 changes to the initial bill after consulting the various interested parties, a good example of legislative scrutiny. Assembly Statutory Committees in particular have displayed a growing maturity as MLAs have become more experienced in assessing the merits of Executive legislative proposals and in putting forward viable alternatives.
A further example of the Assembly passing effective legislation is the plastic bag levy by Environment Minister Mark Durkan SDLP. This piece of legislation borrowed on legislation in Wales and the Republic of Ireland. It is introduced to try and reduce the levels of waste in N. Ireland where an estimated 250 million carrier bags were used every year. It is the holy grail of legislation in ways as it can willingly tax the public but with the premise that it benefits the environment.
Further support for the proposition can be found when we consider the wide range of sources of legislation – it is possible to introduce legislation from a number of sources. The Executive could push forward bills, MLAs can introduce their own private members’ bills and committees can have the power to initiate legislation. This committee power is the first of its type in the UK and gives the committee a great deal of power to create legislation related to their departments. The first non-executive bill was the Public Service Ombudsman Bill. This was introduced by the OFMdFM committee and aimed to create an Ombudsman (independent monitor and spokesperson) for public services in Northern Ireland. It gained Royal Assent on 19 February 2016.
We could also consider the success of Private Members Bills. It is possible for MLAs to introduce their own private members’ legislation. This can allow MLAs the chance to make legislation based on the needs and wants of the local community. A good example of this is the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill introduced by Lord Morrow (DUP).This was introduced and widely supported by the assembly. It was successful. It is quite innovative legislation and makes paying for sex illegal in Northern Ireland. It took many groups into account when piecing together this legislation including women’s groups, charities and the sex industry.
Finally, the assembly has been a legislative success with regards to key executive bills and programmes for government. The programme for government may agree to meet several legislative goals, such as the debt relief bill in 2010 from Arlene Foster’s Enterprise and Trade department. The Historical Abuse Bill has also been introduced by the OFMdFM.
On the other hand, the assembly has had many legislative failures and many would argue that it has failed to live up to its potential. After all, it has a limited nature of legislative powers. The NI assembly only has a limited amount of powers, because not all are devolved. Taxation for example is controlled by Westminster which leaves them holding the purse strings and therefore key levels of power. An example of this was the threat of water tax being introduced from Westminster, and the debate that surrounded Corporation Tax.
Many attempts to pass legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly end in gridlock. While there has been co-operation on some legislation, there is also the case that gridlock can easily paralyse the system in Northern Ireland when contentious issues lead to friction and fallout. The nature of Northern Ireland means that some of the most controversial (and necessary) issues like legislation for flags and emblems is pushed to the side as agreement is never reached. This happened with the education system. Under the Good Friday Agreement the minister had final say, so then Education Minister Martin McGuiness decided to end the 11+ and the Secretary of State passed it under direct rule after 2002 suspension. The St Andrew’s Agreement allows for grammar schools to use their own tests until an agreement has been reached, but after more than a decade no agreement is forthcoming.
Another criticism of the assembly’s legislative efforts is that the DUP and Sinn Fein unfairly dominate proceedings. All legislation must be passed by OFMdFM and this can lead to legislation getting killed before it is initiated if either of the ‘big two’ do not like it. MLAs have the possibility of raising a Petition of Concern if they believe there is an issue which is a serious concern to their community. To enact this they have to achieve the support of 30 MLAs. In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, with at least 40% of each community present and voting. It gives each community a veto to prevent decisions or legislation being made which can affect them.
A good example of the petition of concern being used is in the rejection of a Sinn Fein motion calling for same sex marriage. A DUP backed petition of concern was used to reject the motion. The DUP is the only party with enough votes to reject a proposal outright as it has over 30 Assembly seat (38 MLAs). The DUP could also use a Petition of Concern to prevent an Irish Language Act, even though Sinn Fein believe it was promised to them in the St Andrew’s Agreement. However, it is not just the DUP that use Petition of Concern. The Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Act 2015 introduces a range of changes to the benefits system. It was initially introduced in 2012 and took years of debate, including Sinn Fein attempting to use a Petition of Concern. Eventually the bill had to be forced through by Westminster – a failure for the Assembly.
It is also worth noting the overall lack of legislation, many argue that power sharing discourages the legislative process. During the full assembly 2007-2011 only 69 bills were passed. This compares to the House of Commons passing 50 bills in one year. The numbers kept falling – only 11 bills between 2011 and 2013. The previous speaker William Hay warned party chiefs about the “death of legislation.” There were only 3 Private Members’ Bills passed 2007-2011 session. When PMBs are proposed they tend to be controversial, such as Paul Givan’s (DUP) Conscience Clause and Jim Allister’s (TUV) SPAD bill. One good one that was rejected was Dawn Purvis’ (PUP) Double Jobbing Bill which was rejected by the larger parties. Furthermore, committee bills have only been used once. Many MLAs complain of little time to initiate legislation.
This gridlock approach fails to deal with the major issues and international mediators must be brought in, such as when Haass came over from America. Haass sat down with all the parties in an intense set of negotiations and discussed issues ranging from flags to parades. It was hoped a blueprint would emerge for future agreement. However, the deadlines were not met nor the negotiations fruitful. Haass has criticised Northern Ireland for not moving on in to a shared future. The failure of the talks led to recriminations and have cast a shadow over the future. This failure to work together, as evidenced by the Haass talks, has meant that the gridlock prevents passing legislation on controversial issues such as education and Irish language.
To conclude, the assembly has been somewhat of a legislative success. It has been a gradual progression with legislative powers devolving slowly. However, we should consider whether the petition of concern is still necessary. It maintains the veto of DUP and Sinn Fein, and the continued differences between parties show deadlock will remain in many areas as emphasised in the Fresh Start Agreement.