Just how independent is the Assembly of the Executive?

This might strike some as pure anorak fare. It begins slowly as Mark Durkan tries to get to the bottom of Peter Robinson’s controversial point of order last week. He doesn’t get much change from Speaker Willie Hay though.

Yet Durkan points out at least four counts grounds for supposing important Assembly protocol was breached:

  • There was no mention of standing order in Mr Robinson’s question, therefore it was not actually a valid point of order.
  • It should not have been taken before questions asked, as a previous speaker had ruled back in July 2000 that that was the proper format.
  • The rule is that one Minister should not question another Minister.
  • The Speaker consulted with the Head of the Civil Service, when the proper person to have spoken to was the Clerk.

This last is particularly interesting because it has important implications for the independence of the Legislative Assembly. All Speaker Hay would say was that he had properly sought to protect the house. But from what exactly?

There are still important questions abiding from the conduct of Executive business last week. The SDLP leader has now lodged serious questions about the capacity of the Assembly to be seen to act as a proper means of independently scrutinising the conduct of government business.

If the Assembly cannot protect the right of its members to scrutinise the actions of a minister, in this case Margaret Ritchie, without it getting completely bent out of shape, then perhaps the ‘Blue Book’ needs some urgent revision?

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  • joeCanuck

    It’s perfectly obvious that they are all, including the Speaker, still on a learning curve with respect to House procedural matters.
    So slips can be expected and will decrease as time goes on.

    Let him that is without error cast the first brickbat (with apologies to any to take offence).

  • me

    Is Mark Durkan saying that the invalid point of order and subsequent breaking up of the house ‘influenced’ how other members viewed what Ritchie had said. He definitely said ‘influenced’.

    Would this fit in with the stich up theory?

    Would the stich up go beyond the confines of the DUP/SF axis ??

    Or am I reading this wrongly?

  • DC

    Did Robinson not say he was questioning the Minister as an individual, so where does the ministerial portfolio end and individual representation begin.

    Can it just be cleared up by citing a few words or surely Robinson’s thrusts were done in an Executive capacity, given his collective responsibility concerns.

    Anyway, the whole premise of the DUP was that procedures weren’t being followed only for them now to be found wanting in terms of Assembly protocol and lack of decorum with the intent to destabilise opinion using irrelevant grounds and Civil Service name-dropping.

  • sms

    The SDLP have been going on for 3 or 4 days about the substance of Margaret Ritchies decision being lost in the wrangling over procedure, yet here we have the Leader of her party clouding the substantive issue even further. This is tiddlywinks’s politics

  • Mick Fealty

    Joe,

    I absolutely agree. And it is an important caveat.

    But Governments can grind hard when they move to action. Probity within the business between the Executive and the Assembly is crucial to establishing and maintaining authenticity and authority within its actions.

    If the Assembly cannot lay Ministers open to scrutiny then how are the electorate to know whether they have done what they said they would? In theory, Ministers should come with some trepidation into the Chamber. But will all but ten members inside the ‘ruling elite’, it may be little wonder that it is treated with such apparent disdain.

    Last week’s crisis shows anything (albeit by default), it is politicians rather than the media who can lay open the actions to the public gaze.

  • DC

    SMS do you reckon?

    To extrapolate your position further into other potential future ministerial statements, are we to expect further outbursts from the floor using points of order which are in effect actually pointless and thus groundless.

    Certainly it would be very hard to imagine Peter Robinson himself putting up with such an outburst levied at him in similar fashion at the end of one of his speeches on a decivise matter.

  • Mick Fealty

    sms,

    So you would prefer to have the Assembly relegated to the position of the Seanad in the Republic?

  • Damien Okado-Gough

    Mark Durkan answered perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions of the Speaker and should have been answered in full.

    The Speaker’s flat refusal to answer and his subsequent burying of the issues raised, by ‘moving on’, were a bumbling and ham-fisted fudge.

  • BonarLaw

    The Speaker indulged Durkan too long- he ruled last week and should have refused to reopen the issue.

    BTW I agree with those above who find it odd that the SDLP are adding to the confusion around what their minister did. Surely the line that works in all communities is the one that states loudly and clearly that the SDLP minister was trying to stop tax pounds going to the UDA. Having a (pointless) pop at the Speaker makes no sense.

  • Did Robinson not say he was questioning the Minister as an individual, so where does the ministerial portfolio end and individual representation begin.

    Especially as Robinson used a line of questioning that he could only have pursued given information that was only available to Ministers!

    Fordy and few of the other Stoops also pushed Willie on this yesterday and he basically seemed to try and justify a bad decision after the fact; he should have taken the criticism on the chin, admitted he made a mistake and moved on, rather than setting a bad precedent.

    Also, he shouldn’t have revealed confidential civil service advice in the chamber and he shouldn’t have attributed it to an individual civil servant by name – let alone on who had just had an altercation in a corridor with Margaret Ritchie. That’s just poor judgement and it should be admitted to and apologised for rather than being allowed to become a precedent.

  • Nevin

    “Mark Durkan answered perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions …”

    I think you’ve lost the run of yourself, Damien. Shouldn’t you be playing with the big boys? 😉

  • wild turkey

    ‘Now this might strike some as pure anorak fare.’

    Well Mick, maybe yes…maybe no.

    Does anyone know how many of the 108 MLAs are solicitors,barristers and/or have a law degree or related qualification?

    If the proportion in the assembly is higher than that of the general population I’d wager assembly debates will be replete with numerous exercises in political handjobbery.

    Another Willie wrote in Henry the Sixth

    “Small things make base men proud”. – (Act IV, Scene I).

    and
    “The first thing we do…” everybody knows the rest. – (Act IV, Scene II).

  • Lamaria

    Wild Turkey, as far as i know there are a rather small number of the 108 MLAs with a solicitor / barrister background compared proportionately to other legislatures.

    I know of four: Alex Attwood, Alban Maginness, Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds

  • BonarLaw

    Weir was a baby barrister in his time; Atwood prefers not to be asked about his period as a solictor…

  • Bretagne

    “Mark Durkan perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions …”

    They may have been legitimate and resonable, but they were asked very badly indeed – which added to the muddle – in fact if it wasn’t for Mick’s commentary, I am sure I would have completely missed one of the questions, as MD tends to ask multiple compound questions at a time.

    I think yesterday was not the time to ask them, but disagree that the Speaker should have the right to “move on” as per BonarLaw post.

    Suppose Willie Hay is ill or absent, and Francie Molloy was in the chair. He then accepts a non-point of order and suspends the house, after a statement from an SF minister, that he/she knows no-one who could have hurt anyone, after yet another dastardly deed…

    The place would be in uproar – the ability of the speaker should be to facilitate debate within the rules and not make new rules up – another dodgy precedent, and example of where other parties have not stopped the DUP’s attempt to steamroll the assembly.

  • Hogan from County Tyrone

    Durkan is in a different intellectual league from Hay and everyone knows it.

    Hay should be able to tip the balance back more in his favour by using his £X,000s budget and employ a decent clerk to provide activity where his brain should normally reside.

    Unfortunately Hay opted to lift his ball and go home rather than answer the argument.

    I hope the stoops pursue it in writing.

    Sad day for Parliamentary democracy!

  • DC

    “Also, he shouldn’t have revealed confidential civil service advice in the chamber and he shouldn’t have attributed it to an individual civil servant by name – let alone on who had just had an altercation in a corridor with Margaret Ritchie. That’s just poor judgement and it should be admitted to and apologised for rather than being allowed to become a precedent.”

    Seems like a case of the bully-boy mob coming into power; but of course done legally even if it they aren’t behaving themselves in the chamber. Dessie Stewart and Peter Robinson, all the same its hard to differientate between them as they both seem keem to flaunt certain rules.

  • provide activity where his brain should normally reside.

    I obviously don’t agree with everything Willie has done over the past fortnight, but that is deeply unfair.

  • Let the head spinning recommence.

  • Different Drummer

    Mick

    I take your point about public scrutiny of officials but you also know the to publicly challenge someone in a meeting with the words ‘Point of Order!’ is also the tactic of the disrupter and rabble rousers. I’m sure the redoubtable Mr R. has used it many a time to disrupt and interrupt those he does not agree with.

    Durkin is right – no standing order was quoted to support the challenge on that basis. But it was a challenge none-the-less. Durkin is simply establishing the fact that it was an *invalid* challenge.

  • Hogan from County Tyrone

    Sammy i’ll retract if you can point out anything that Hay did over the past fortnight that you DO agree with?

    Seems to me he screwed it up from the start?

    Why did he suspend the sitting in the first place? “To protect this house…. yada yada yada” nonsense, from what? the assembly has privilege!

    Why did he take advice from Chief pen-pusher hamilton? Seems to me that if the supposedly independent chair is taking advice from an advisor to the executive the lines of seperation in our government arrangements are getting completely blurred. This was the question that Durkan would have gutted him on and he sh!t himself and moved on quickly. Robinson/Hamilton nobbled him.

    Why did he allow Robinson’s ‘point of order’? What point of order? (as Durkan rightly highlighted)

    Why didn’t he follow the rules of the house as pointed out by Durkan in allowing someone to interject in a ministerial statement?

  • Fermanagh Young Unionist

    Mick, no mention of Tommy Gallaghers comments?

  • Billy Pilgrim

    DC

    “Did Robinson not say he was questioning the Minister as an individual, so where does the ministerial portfolio end and individual representation begin.”

    Good point DC. It struck me as absolutely ridiculous that Robinson claimed he was raising the question “as an individual member, not as an executive minister”. The inescapable fact is that Robinson IS NOT an individual member and he IS an executive minister – even when it’s inconvenient.

    This would seem to be a good time to establish the principle that once you take the pledge of office and plonk your arse in a ministerial chair – and therefore avail of all the resources, the power and the privileged information to which ministers are privy – you can’t simply remove your ministerial hat and pretend to be just another MLA when it suits you. You enjoy the power and you accept the responsibility.

    I just can’t understand why Robinson raised this issue himself and didn’t get one of the DUP backbenchers to do it instead – after all, with Willie “The Goalkeeper” Hay in the speakers’ chair, there wouldn’t have been any difficulty in making sure someone like Sammy got a chance to do what he does best and wave his willy at the opposition.

    I just don’t get why Mr Robinson – he of the legendary strategic prowess, in the light of whose genius we all cower – would have left himself so thoroughly open?

    Mind you, he seems to have been losing the run of himself lately. (Did you see him on Hearts and Minds? Jeezus….)

    Maybe Mr Robinson isn’t all he’s cracked up to be.
    (Pun only partially intended….)

  • Frank Sinistra
  • Alex Swan

    Peter Robinson’s conduct was more questionable than Ritchie’s, unfortunately it seems to be going over Speaker Hay’s head!

  • Comrade Stalin

    joeCanuck:

    It’s perfectly obvious that they are all, including the Speaker, still on a learning curve with respect to House procedural matters.
    So slips can be expected and will decrease as time goes on.

    I don’t remember Alderdice slipping up in such apparently-obvious partisan ways. And he had even less practice at being Speaker than Hay did.

  • Sammy i’ll retract if you can point out anything that Hay did over the past fortnight that you DO agree with?

    I think he actually chairs the Assembly pretty well. It’s the legal aspect of it that he still occasionally gets wrong, but he’s getting better, and he actually seems to listen to criticism and take it seriously.

    Why did he take advice from Chief pen-pusher hamilton?

    And then why did he reveal the details in the Assembly. Don’t get me wrong, I agree entirely with this.

    I’d just say in Willie’s defence, he still strikes me as someone who is willing to take criticism and amend his behaviour as a result.

    no mention of Tommy Gallaghers comments?

    I think Tommy was being unfair; but I can also see exactly why the events of the past week or so led Tommy to believe he was being victimised. To deal with his specific point – Danny Kennedy got away with one loose question and got slapped down pretty hard by Hay when he tried it again and so (I think) did one of the other UUs; David Ford’s question was actually related to the original question – which was so broad that it would allow nearly any reasonable follow-up question about anything that had happened in the previous 7 days. I think the decision to stop CTI funding and decisions reached about it at last week’s Executive kind of count as major decisions reached in the previous week.

    So I don’t think Tommy was being treated unfairly, but Hay needs to reflect on why one of the Assembly’s more level-headed and reasonable members felt that he was being picked on.

    This would seem to be a good time to establish the principle that once you take the pledge of office and plonk your arse in a ministerial chair – and therefore avail of all the resources, the power and the privileged information to which ministers are privy – you can’t simply remove your ministerial hat and pretend to be just another MLA when it suits you. You enjoy the power and you accept the responsibility.

    I knew that after all these years, Billy P was bound to make a point on Slugger with which I agreed entirely some day!

    there wouldn’t have been any difficulty in making sure someone like Sammy got a chance to do what he does best

    A. There wasn’t time to brief anyone outside the Executive.
    C. This was more about Robinson’s ego that DUP policy.
    B. Specifically with regard to Sammy, he may not have been the most on-message person on this issue; he had been straight down the line with the good guys on loyalist funding until he mysteriously went silent in early October.

  • Mick Fealty

    I would go along with that Sammy. Hay has good presence and takes no prisoners. Compared with the last two Ceann Comhairle’s in the Dail, he’s a masterly.

    I was simply making a point earlier that the rights of the Assembly to hold the Executive to account is crucial, not least because it is the essential link between the voting public and the government.

    Speaker Hay should perhaps allow himself to err on the side jealousy in protecting the Assembly from the Executive.

    As an aside, this case Pete has blogged today is perhaps a test as to whether an Assembly vote actually stands for anything much.

    If the Agriculture Minister is not bound by that motion, then it might lead one to ask: is it much more than an electoral college? Albeit one that gets paid to talk a lot!

  • The Dubliner

    “Just how independent is the Assembly of the Executive?” – Mick Fealty

    Just how independent is the Executive in matters that it nominally has responsibility for? That’s the important question to arise from last week’s shenanigans. It is transparent (despite the attempt at obfuscation) that the Executive is intended to be merely a puppet administration and that Ms Ritchie was not supposed to oppose the will of the puppeteers and uphold the will of the public by opposing the decision of the puppeteers to continue the policy of appeasing organised criminal gangs, e.g. the UDA. The NIO mandarins thought they had done enough to knobble her (and the democratic process) by ambushing her with bogus legal advice at the last minute and, amazingly, resorting to attempting to physically retrain her from entering the Assembly to make her decision after it became apparent that they hadn’t done enough to frustrate her after all, and all done with the servile collusion of both the DUP and PSF. Perhaps Robinson’s rage is simply because an uppity catholic woman beat the system? Anyway, it’s clear what the real issue is, but not so clear that folks actually want to address it, preferring to lose focus of the picture by the expedient of examining the pixels, one at a time.

  • 0b101010

    Well done Durkan for bringing some very important points to the fore. If he could do similar in future without stumbling and cribbing his way through he would no doubt make more of an impression.

    Hay should be ashamed for bluntly ignoring the question about relaying advice from the Civil Service in a place it doesn’t belong. This is an incredibly serious problem for the separation of the assembly from the executive and shouldn’t be brushed aside like it doesn’t matter.

  • Damien Okado-Gough

    Nevin,

    It had been a long day *ahem*. And thanks for linking the DUP/UPRG photo. Nice touch, very apt. :O)

    Bretagne,

    A fair point. Durkan badly mumbled his valid points and that certainly diminished their potential, but that has always been Durkan’s foible. He’d be doing a himself a big favour by being more brief and concise when he speaks.

    That said, we might see some more interesting stuff regarding the speaker in the future, if this spat is anything to go by. Hay handled it very badly.

  • Different Drummer

    M. Fealty thinks M. Hay is saving Stormont Democracy.

    WOW!