The leader of Stormont’s Opposition has expressed shame at the collapse of devolved government across five of the last seven years and called for reform to prevent future suspensions.

Matthew O’Toole opened speaking on the first of three motions proposed by the SDLP on the first Opposition day in the Assembly by describing them as being aimed at preventing future suspensions.

The motions call for a commitment to reform the institutions in the Programme for Government and an ad hoc committee to consider legislation to prevent further collapses.

Stormont Assembly
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (centre), South Belfast MP Claire Hanna (left) and Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole lead their MLAs into Stormont ahead of the first official Opposition day (Rebecca Black/PA)

The first motion also calls for an apology to public sector workers for years of suspension, and another motion calls for the swift resolution to pay negotiations for those workers who staged a major strike in January.

On Monday afternoon the first motion was defeated by 47 votes to 33, with Sinn Fein and DUP MLAs voting against, and SDLP, Alliance and UUP voting for it.

No ministers were in the chamber for the proposing of the first motion and debate, which Mr O’Toole described as an “insult to the chamber”.

Opening his proposal, Mr O’Toole told MLAs: “We cannot pretend the public trust in the very idea of this Assembly and Executive have not been profoundly damaged, they have.

“In a recent survey conducted by Queen’s University, only a third of voters thought the Executive will survive until the end of this mandate. That is an extraordinary statistic.

“That level of cynicism and distrust is exactly why I asked the First and deputy First Ministers to pledge to not resign their office before the end of this mandate. That wasn’t a stunt. I was asking a question most of our citizens want to know the answer to.

“Our first motion today begins by expressing shame on behalf of this entire institution for its repeated collapses and the profoundly negative consequences they have had for ordinary citizens, workers and public services.

“To be clear, that isn’t about assigning blame, but it is about acknowledging a collective failure of the political class to deliver stable, sustainable government here.”

Referring to a call by Alliance leader Naomi Long at the weekend for Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris to get involved in the “heavy lifting” of Assembly reform, Mr O’Toole said his party “strongly disagrees”.

“A Tory Secretary of State working out his notice will not do the work for us. We need to do it ourselves, starting with these Opposition day motions,” he told MLAs.

“Let’s protect the best of the agreement and reform the veto that is undermining trust in the rest of it.

“The photo ops and the positive vibes of the last month have been welcome. We’ve seen this movie before, and rather than wait for the nasty plot turn and not so shock ending, let’s change the script. Let’s never again plunge our public services and our people into the vortex of no government and no hope.”

Responding, Sinn Fein MLA Deirdre Hargey questioned why there was “no mention of the British Tory Government and their regressive policies” in terms of “underinvestment” in public services.

She said her party is focused on delivering on public sector pay, the fiscal framework and plan for fiscal sustainability.

Nadhim Zahawi visit to Belfast
Sinn Fein MLA Deirdre Hargey (PA)

“If we’re seriously to address the underlying root causes of inequality and indeed develop world class sustainable public services, then we all must work collectively to address the funding shortfall, challenge austerity and transform our public services to meet the needs of our workers, families and communities,” she told MLAs.

“That’s what the public really want us to be doing here today and in the days ahead, and that’s where our focus is and will remain so.”

DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley questioned whether the Opposition was being “constructive”, and asked why there were no statements from party spokespeople with suggestions on how to address issues such as health service waiting lists.

“What we have is a motion on proposed changes to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the party of super majorities rather than accommodation,” he said.

Mr Buckley described the suspensions over the last 25 years as “regrettable”.

“The inescapable truth is that we live in a contested place,” he said.

“Consensus politics will be the only way we can stave off instability.

“The political arrangements in Northern Ireland must be capable of commanding the broad support of all traditions across our province.

“The motion before the House simply implies that devolution could still operate and succeed outside these parameters. That is fanciful to say the least. Cross-community consent has been essential to achieving progress in this province and it should be viewed as the solution and not the problem.”

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw indicated her party will support the first motion from the Opposition.

She said reform of the Assembly has been a long-term policy of her party, adding it first published proposals to reform the Assembly 20 years ago.

“Parties are entitled to opt out of government, but they’re not entitled to force others to opt out too,” she said.

“What is required is recognition from all of us, including the proposers, that there were flaws in the original agreement, and that there was a review mechanism built into it. That was meant to iron these issues, but rarely actually did.

“We do need to remove crude sectarian vetoes, that is objectively undeniable, but we also need to ensure that the institutions operate in a way that is befitting of the entire society they’re supposed to represent.”

UUP leader Doug Beattie said he supported reform of the Assembly, adding no party should have a veto over devolved government.

“Quick fixes will not work. You pull the threads and the whole thing could unravel so this is about sitting down and thinking this through in the long term and getting all the voices that need to be added to this,” he said.

“I’m up for that discussion. I don’t think we should be afraid of that discussion. It doesn’t mean that I am open to changing every single thing that needs to be changed within the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It is still the bedrock of government here in Northern Ireland but I’m certainly up for that discussion going forward.”

It is the first Opposition day at Stormont in recent years following the decision by the SDLP to go into Opposition.

The SDLP and UUP previously formed an official Opposition in 2016, however this came to an end in January 2017 when then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned, effectively collapsing the institutions until 2020.

The Assembly was revived in January after two years of disruption following the resignation of then first minister Paul Givan as part of the DUP’s protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.