Following last week’s ruck, reported here by Pete concerning the apparent memory loss of four nationalist ministers when they voted for an Alliance Party’s motion to provide free care for the elderly, despite the executive agreeing unanimously not to vote for high-spending measures unless all ministers supported them. The Newsletter carried one minister’s justification that Ministers were effectively autonomous and that changes to the ministerial pledge under the St Andrews legislation had not changed that.Conor Murphy:
But speaking to the News Letter, DRD Minister Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein said he did not see that there had been any change in ministerial freedom since the last Assembly. “The minister now will still have the same autonomy as under the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. A spokesman for Sinn Fein confirmed last night that Mr Murphy’s view was also the party position. “The DUP has a lot of strength in terms of the number of MLAs they now have but there is, in effect, no change in the legal position regarding ministerial accountability,” he said. “Our view broadly is there would be no change at all in the ministerial code or pledge of office that indicates any difference. It is possible some people tried to play to the media that there was now a difference. But the only real difference is party strengths numerically in the Assembly.”
However, the DUP’s Peter Weir was fairly robust in his response:
“The new legislation also ensured the creation of a statutory ministerial code which prevents ministers from acting unilaterally on significant or controversial matters,” he said. “This code is legally binding.”
It’s a matter that Finance Minister Peter Robinson was quick to put David Hanson last November. The minister did not stint on the detail of his answer:
The hon. Member for Belfast, East also asked the Secretary of State to confirm that a decision that by virtue of section 20(3) or (4) ought to be brought to the attention of, and considered by, the Executive committee, is not validly taken without the approval of the Executive committee, and that without such approval, a Minister has no ministerial authority to take such a decision. I can confirm that subsection (6) of new section 28A requires the new code to establish a procedure to enable a Minister to check whether a decision that he proposes to take should properly fall to the Executive committee for consideration. If Ministers are in any doubt, they should avail themselves of the new procedure [emphasis added].
The hon. Member for Belfast, East also asked whether a Minister has ministerial authority to take a decision that is properly brought to the Executive committee under a provision of the ministerial code, but on which the Executive committee is unable to agree. The Bill makes clear what issues Ministers are required to bring to the Executive, and places a legal duty on them to do so. It also places a duty on the Executive to decide how to handle issues that fall within their remit, either by consensus or by cross-community vote. I am labouring these points because I know that they are important to the hon. Gentleman and his party.
The hon. Gentleman also asked the Secretary of State to indicate the status of a ministerial decision taken without ministerial authority. I can confirm that in such a case, the decision would have been taken in contravention of the code itself. As such, it would not be a legitimate decision and would be open to legal challenge. The Minister himself would also be liable to the existing procedures under the 1998 Act.
What has this to do with the four ministers’ populist solo runs last week? Well, nothing by the looks of it. But however it plays with the media, the legislation seems crystal clear on the primacy of Executive over the conduct Ministerial briefs.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty