Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Office: Consensus grows for fewer MLAs

Stormont
Image caption Changes to the assembly at Stormont could be in place by the 2015 elections

There is growing consensus amongst political parties that the assembly and its executive departments should be reduced, the NIO has said.

The comments are contained in talks discussion papers obtained by the BBC programme The View.

However, Sinn Féin has described the papers as "a piece of pro-unionist wishful thinking".

The documents said there was "wide agreement" that the number of MLAs should be reduced from 108 to 90.

According to the papers, the parties were not yet in agreement as to when this should take place.

They suggest that said each of the 18 constituencies could have five MLAs rather than six.

The Northern Ireland Office said that if MLAs brought forward legislation shortly, the change could be in place by the 2016 Assembly election.

However, the document states that if that is not possible, changes could be in place for the 2021 election.

More effective

The DUP have suggested that the number of executive departments could be nine with the Department for Employment and Learning merged with the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment to create a new Economic Department.

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy, however, said the paper did not reflect or represent its position in relation to the assembly or the numbers of departments, but represented "pro-unionist wishful thinking within the NIO".

"These are issues for the negotiations in tandem with a range of other matters of equal, if not greater significance. If there is any growing consensus on this issue it certainly does not involve Sinn Féin," he said.

"Its publication is damaging and smacks of unhelpful game-playing when we need real and responsible engagement to reach a comprehensive, balanced and inclusive agreement."

The Alliance Party said they were in favour of reducing the number of MLAs to 90.

Ulster Unionists are open to the idea, but said reducing numbers would not necessarily make the chamber more effective.

The SDLP wants the status quo to remain and said that while they accepted that the number of departments could be reduced by one, they would like the number of MLAs to stay at 108 in line with the Good Friday Agreement.

The NIO talks paper also raises the issue of the petition of concern, a parliamentary device used in the assembly to block certain motions or legislation.

The NIO suggested that the use of petitions should be reviewed by an assembly panel that could be chaired by Secretary of Sate Theresa Villiers.

The document also refers to the establishment of an opposition and suggests that the issue could also be investigated by an assembly panel.

Investigations

The NIO talks paper also considers legacy issues and suggests a new system for dealing with the past built on ideas that emerged from last year's Haass talks.

The document outlines a single historical investigations unit that could be overseen by the Policing Board.

It also supports another Haass idea, an independent commission on information retrieval, (ICIR) which would provide private reports for the families of victims who want to know more about the fate of their loved ones.

Information provided to this commission by ex-paramilitaries or others would not be admissible in any future court cases.

The information commission is also meant to report on broad themes related to the troubles.

In the Haass document, the commission was expected to report back within three years, or explain why it could not achieve that timescale.

In the latest paper, this has firmed up. It said the ICIR should run for no longer than three years, effectively setting a definite window for this kind of information to be gathered about the Northern Ireland Troubles.

The talks document also contains proposals for setting an archive of people's accounts for the Troubles, with a date of 2016 for plans to be firmed up on this.

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