Changing the conversation

As a critical feature of democracy, the public’s ability to shape debate within the Northern Ireland Assembly has been given a boost by the announcement that an official online petition facility is to be established. 

Research conducted by The Hansard Society between 2004 and 2012 found that the public are generally more likely to add their signature to a petition than they are to engage in any other form of democratic activity other than voting. That research has driven, alongside a general consensus, a need for greater connection between popular public opinion and law-makers. In February the Northern Ireland Committee on Procedures published the Review of Public Petitions Procedures.

In England, Scotland and Wales e-petitioning has long been a function used by the public to influence political debate and press for action from the government to varying levels of success. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently the only devolved legislature, and the only legislature in the UK and Ireland, that relies solely on paper submissions of public petitions. In its current format, petitioning in Northern Ireland requires a physical document to be sponsored by an MLA. That MLA will deliver the document to be read out by the Speaker but there is no emphasis on the Assembly to take up a discussion. Recently, some of the high profile petitions that have been discussed in the Assembly include the Save Exploris campaign which attained more than 11,000 signatures and the 22,100 signatures for the Campaign for Meningitis B Vaccine.

Each of the different regions of the UK have different thresholds and procedures for e-petitions. Westminster, for example, requires a petition to get 10,000 signatures before the Government will respond. If it reaches 100,000 signatures then it will be considered for debate in Parliament. In Wales, an online petition requires 10 signatures before any action is taken by the Assembly and both the Republic of Ireland and Scotland require just a single signatory.

Alongside a detailed criteria for e-petitions in Northern Ireland to be admissible, many of which were common to that currently existing in other legislatures, the review recommended criteria specific to Northern Ireland. These included a timeframe of one year for e-petitions to remain on the website (or the length of time until the end of the current mandate), ensuring that the petitioner is at least 18 years of age and must be on the Northern Ireland Electoral Register. The review also recommended that a threshold of 100 signatures be set before any action is taken.

The format for which an e-petition will be processed upon implementation in September is:

 

 

To date 30 petitions have been successful in achieving debate in the House of Commons. These include:

  • Make the production, sale and use of cannabis legal. (236,995 signatures)

  • Introduce a tax on sugary drinks in the UK to improve our children’s health. (155,516 signatures)

  • Block Donald J Trump from UK entry. (586,933 signatures)

  • Give the Meningitis B vaccine to ALL children, not just newborn babies. (823,346 signatures)

  • Stop spending a fixed 0.7 per cent slice of national wealth on Foreign Aid. (235,325 signatures)

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