No appetite for Stormont reform, Arlene Foster claims
Arlene Foster has claimed there is no public appetite for fundamental reform of Stormont powersharing structures that would see changes to the parallel consent model.
The Assembly mechanism that requires the support of a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists before changes can be agreed has recently become a source of dispute in the Brexit impasse.
The DUP has insisted Stormont consent for post-Brexit arrangements must be on the basis of parallel consent, not the straight majority envisaged in the latest Withdrawal Deal.
Ms Foster had previously voiced a desire to get rid of the petition of concern mechanism, if other parties agreed to the change.
At her party conference in Belfast, she told PA Media that it was now not the time for such a move. But she denied her stance was related to Brexit.
Ms Foster instead argued that removing the mechanism could only come as part of a wider restructuring of the architecture of powersharing.
She insisted the public would rather just see the Assembly restored as soon as possible, after almost three years in cold storage, rather than “navel gazing” and embarking on a lengthy re-negotiation of the devolved system of governance.
Asked if she still wanted to scrap the petition of concern, Ms Foster said: “I think what we’re doing now is in the context of where we are at this present moment in time – we have no Assembly at the moment, we need to have that Assembly back up and running, we need to have a pathway to get that Assembly back up and running again.
“If you try to change a whole remit of the architecture of powersharing, then where are you going to stop in relation to all of this?
“If you’re going to pick and choose the bits that you’re going to actually change in relation to powersharing, that’s not going to work, you’re going to have to have a complete renegotiation of what happened 21 years ago (Good Friday/Belfast Agreement).
“Frankly, I don’t think that’s what people want.
“They want to see us actually back in the Assembly, delivering for them in terms of hospitals, education, roads, schools, all of the things that they want to see us deliver on.
“So instead of actually navel gazing on things like that, they have a very basic understanding that to move forward a) there has to be powersharing, and, b) it has to be something unionism and nationalism can subscribe to.”
The DUP leader questioned political rivals who claimed the “original intention” of the petition of concern had become skewed.
“If you look back at the Belfast Agreement, the petition of concern is there, it is not prescribed as to how it should be used.
“I mean, some people like to say, ‘oh, let’s get back to the original intention of the petition of concern’. But if you look at the Belfast agreement, there’s actually no original intention.
“It was just there to protect minorities; it was there so that people would move forward in a way that you would have the majority of unionists and the majority of nationals.
“Others want to use it for a very more specific issues.”