On the first day the Assembly meets after an election, MLAs sign the Register and designate themselves as ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’. This is to facilitate cross-community voting on certain key decisions, such as the election of the Speaker, approval of the budget and changes to the rules of the Assembly, called Standing Orders.  Such decisions must be supported by a certain percentage of MLAs from both sides of the community. If a group of 30 MLAs signs a Petition of Concern regarding any motion for debate by the Assembly, then the vote on that motion will require cross-community support. 

Cross-community support for an Assembly decision can be achieved in two ways:

parallel consent requires Aye votes from 50% of MLAs in the Chamber, plus 50% of unionists and 50% of nationalists; 

weighted majority requires the support of 60% of all those in the Chamber plus 40% of unionists and 40% of nationalists. These voting arrangements are intended to protect the minority from domination by the majority.

MLAs who do not wish to designate as ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’ are considered to be ‘others’. The Alliance Party, Green Party and People before Profit Alliance do not designate as unionists or nationalists. They object to a system of voting which does not take their views into account on sensitive issues.

The use of the 'petition of concern' has, at times, been very controversial. If a party has enough MLAs, they can use the mechanism to block a decision supported by a majority of MLAs.

Question: Why do you think these special voting arrangements were included as part of the 1998 Agreement?

Research: Identify two occasions when the Petition of Concern mechanism was used. In each case, who signed the petition and why?