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Varadkar says need for MLAs to declare as nationalist, unionist or other should be removed

He added he believes the GFA should be reformed to change the controversial petition of concern.

Image: Niall Carson via PA Images

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said he believes the Good Friday Agreement should be reformed to change the controversial petition of concern.

The Fine Gael leader told the Irish parliament that the mechanism has been used in a way that was not anticipated when the accord – also known as the Belfast Agreement – was signed.

He said it has been used to block marriage equality, despite the vast majority of Assembly members and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland backing same-sex marriage.

The Taoiseach also said the requirement for MLAs to declare themselves as nationalist, unionist or other should also be removed.

“I think people find the term ‘other’ pejorative because it doesn’t describe that growing identity in Northern Ireland, that centre ground of people who see themselves as being both British and Irish,” he added.

The petition of concern essentially allows a bloc of Assembly members from either the nationalist or the unionist community a veto on certain decisions, even if they represent a minority in the chamber.

The Taoiseach was responding to a question from Green Party leader Eamon Ryan who said his colleague Clare Bailey was “forced” to declare whether she was unionist, nationalist or other when taking her seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“I can’t remember what she was forced to put down when she was asked that question, probably internationalist, feminist, ecologist, activist,” Ryan added.

“But that divide in the system, not just in the declaration for members of the Assembly, but also in terms of the mandatory coalition arrangements, the petition of concern, all these structures should be open to recrafting in the coming months and year,” he said.

Stormont should not just be restored back to where it has always been, we should look at this as a chance to evolve the institutions.

“One of the most difficult things in the last 1,000 days when there hasn’t been a Stormont sitting is that the concerns of the likes of people who vote for my colleague Clare Bailey has found no space to stand up and contribute to the debate.

“We need a much broader sense of what the consent is here, rather than national or unionist consent to whatever deal is about to be done.”

It was confirmed that Bailey declared herself as feminist.

Ryan told the Dáil that the arrangement and institutions in Stormont are “not fit for purpose”.

“We need to be thinking in advance of whatever (Brexit) deal is done to how we contribute to the evolution of the Good Friday Agreement and the multiple consents that’s needed,” he added.

Varadkar said that the Good Friday Agreement has evolved a number of times through the St Andrew’s Agreement and Stormont House Agreement.

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

“That is something that has developed as a flaw and one that I am very aware of.”

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