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?