The early stages of yesterday’s mammoth welfare reform debate focused on an extraordinary mass-veto of attempts to change the Welfare Reform Bill.
The DUP tabled almost 50 petitions of concern against all but two amendments tabled by non-DUP members.
Those petitions — which only the DUP can lodge without another party’s support, because of its numerical strength — forced a cross-community vote meaning that the DUP, with a majority of unionist MLAs, could stop each of the proposals.
Despite that action, the debate on each of the amendments still went ahead.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew condemned the widespread use of the controversial mechanism, likening the DUP’s actions to those of states such as North Korea, which circumvent the normal democratic processes.
Mr Agnew, who tabled more amendments than any other MLA, told the Assembly that “49 petitions of concern are binding the hands and feet of this Assembly”.
The UUP’s Roy Beggs, who also tabled several amendments which were blocked by the DUP, said: “How the DUP can be threatened by ensuring the right advice is available at the right stage, safeguarding the rights of victims of the Troubles, and giving our independent advice centres a statutory footing is inexplicable.”
But DUP leader Peter Robinson spoke at length about the issue, telling his Executive partners in the SDLP and UUP that they must “stick to the deal” agreed to implement welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.
Mr Robinson reiterated his warning that the Assembly would have collapsed without December’s Stormont House Agreement between the five Executive parties.
The DUP leader claimed SDLP and Ulster Unionist amendments, tabled during the resumption of the legislative process yesterday after a two-year delay, were attempts to undermine the terms of the pre-Christmas deal.
Mr Robinson said: “The truth of it is this – if people genuinely want to move forward in Northern Ireland then it is important that this legislation goes through, it’s important that parties uphold the agreements that all of us reached…”
UUP Assembly member Roy Beggs branded the DUP’s use of the petition of concern as “shameful”.
“They have displayed the undemocratic nature of their attitudes as MLAs and the undemocratic nature of their party, which of course has the word democracy in their name,” he said.
“Of course the other country which springs to mind with the word democratic in their name at one time was the Democratic Republic of East Germany, which of course was a totalitarian state. And it would appear that the DUP are much more akin with that attitude than normal western society.”
The SDLP’s Alex Attwood accused the DUP of trying to run a “coach and horses” through the amendments. He insisted his party was attempting to make some necessary improvements to the legislation.
“Never before in the life of the Chamber has there been such a swingeing attempt through petitions of concern to shut down what might be good law for the people of this part of the world,” he said.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness claimed some SDLP Assembly members were defying their party leader Alasdair McDonnell by tabling the amendments in the Chamber.
“The SDLP dissidents are clearly now in charge of the party and are prepared to risk the collapse of the Stormont House Agreement – and thereby the power-sharing institutions themselves – for the sake of party political grandstanding,” he said.
Alliance’s Stewart Dickson criticised Sinn Fein and the SDLP for delaying the bill until now. He said: “There is nothing that has been agreed in recent weeks on welfare reform that could not have happened two years ago.”
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