Irish PM says flawed Northern Ireland assembly veto should be overhauled


DUBLIN (Reuters) – A veto mechanism in Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament that was intended to prevent discrimination toward one community over another should be overhauled in talks to restore the local assembly, Ireland’s Prime Minister said on Wednesday.

The British province’s power-sharing executive collapsed over 2-1/2 years ago and the assembly remains suspended, with Northern Ireland currently largely administered from London. On-off talks to restore self-rule which resumed in May after a hiatus of more than a year have made little progress.

The potential role of the assembly in how Northern Ireland is treated after Brexit emerged as one of the sticking points in Wednesday’s last-ditch talks between the European Union and Britain to seal an amicable divorce from the bloc.

Initial proposals by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month would have handed pro-British unionist politicians, led by Johnson’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a veto over any regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Contentious votes require the approval of a majority of both Irish nationalist and pro-British members of parliament if a mechanism in Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal known as the ‘petition of concern’ is triggered by one-third of lawmakers.

The socially conservative DUP have used this to block the introduction of same-sex marriage and wider access to abortion in Northern Ireland, which Irish premier Leo Varadkar focused on when describing the mechanism as “flawed”.

“Restoration of the Northern Ireland assembly and Northern Ireland executive shouldn’t be restoration of business as usual,” Varadkar told Ireland’s parliament.

“Among changes I think need to be part of our consideration is changes to the petition of concern, which has been used in a way that I don’t think was ever anticipated when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, for example to block marriage equality, even though the vast majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly and people in Northern Ireland wanted that to be legal.

“One of the real flaws in double majorities in a system of cross-community consent is not just that it allows one community or even one party within that community to have a veto, it totally discounts and reduces to nothing the votes of those who are designated as ‘others’,” Varadkar said.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Catherine Evans)