What are the implications of MLAs designating themselves as being part of a certain community? To what extent does it fulfil its intended purpose? What are its criticisms? What alternatives have been proposed?
In the Northern Ireland Assembly, MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) can designate themselves as either being Unionist, Nationalist or Other. Under this system, at least 30 MLAs in either the Unionist or Nationalist community who feel that a certain motion or statute will be harmful to their community can bring forth a Petition of Concern (PoC), which will force a cross-community vote on the issue, meaning there must be a majority of both Unionists and Nationalists voting for the issue in question.
The intended purpose of this was to stop, for example, Unionists passing a law to disadvantage Nationalists, or vice versa. But critics have argued it has been used to harm minorities, not protect them, particularly same-sex marriage advocates, who point out the PoC has been used five times to block same-sex marriage. Recently, when the PoC was used to block same-sex marriage even though a majority of the Assembly had voted in favour, the policy was being accused as anti-democratic.
Designated Other parties have also been particularly critical of the PoC mechanism, as a PoC cannot be brought by Others as they are not numerous enough, and in the event of a cross-community vote, a majority of Other votes is not required for the matter to pass (while a majority of Unionist and Nationalist votes are). Designated Others argue that this effectively disenfranchises Other voters, and is partisan, as it creates a relative disincentive for people to vote for Others as they lack the veto power of Unionists and Nationalists, particularly that of the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin (We Ourselves in the Irish language), who each comprise over 50% of their respective communities, giving them an effective veto over any law they oppose.
Critics advocate that the PoC mechanism is reformed, by introducing a supermajority two-thirds vote instead of the cross-community vote, and ensuring PoCs are brought forth out of genuine concern for equality, and not for the sake of political strategy and the other accusations which have been levelled. In response, the Stormont House Agreement between the Northern Ireland Executive, the British government and the Irish government has stated "changes will be made to the operation of the Petition of Concern mechanism through a protocol agreed between the parties". Due to political crisis over the murder of Kevin McGuigan and the difficulty in fulfilling the obligations of the Agreement, this has fell through, but the recent 'A Fresh Start' agreement may ensure the fulfilment of this agreement in future.