There’s a couple of things worth stating at the outset of what I’m about to say. Firstly, Willie Hay has long been seen on ‘all sides of the house’ as a decent and honorable man. Two, these are early days for the Assembly and the Executive, not least for the second which finds itself directed by a much stronger alliance between the two major parties than was the case last time out. But last week’s events, as pointed out by Mark Durkan, raise serious questions about the capacity of Assembly to scrutinise that potentially much stronger government. In breaking an Assembly in session in response to a questionable point of order from the Minister for Finance, Mr Hay stated that he was seeking advice in order to protect the Assembly. From what he did not state, but in taking that query from one minister whilst another was speaking, he breached several rules of the Blue Book, which sets out the protocols of the house.
In fact one of the Speaker’s primary roles is to protect the Assembly from undue interference from the Executive. In all devolved matters the Executive is the government. This is more important than it sounds, because it is the Assembly’s job to represent the people in watching exactly what government is up to on their behalf.
This is already problematic in Northern Ireland, since the Assembly contains no Opposition. Nevertheless the Assembly, both in plenary and committee, is the only means of running the necessary checks and balances on the conduct of that government, before it passes legislation.
As I have said on a previous thread, people should not forget that governments can grind particularly hard when they move to action. Probity within the relationship between the Executive and the Assembly is ultimately crucial to establishing and maintaining the authenticity and authority of the Executive and its actions.
But there is already a sense that Ministers are treating the Assembly as a bit of a joke, by ignoring motions passed there and going ahead and doing their own departmental thing.
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. In fact, some of them have come close to treating it with contempt.
Which brings us back to last week’s events. Mr Robinson’s point of order was knocked back after nearly 40 minutes of a hiatus. In that time, Mr Hay consulted with the head of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland, and is reported to have gone into a huddle with members of his own party.
There is good reason why he should have done neither such thing: one, the need to rigourously re-inforce a clear red line between the legislature and the government; the need for the Speaker to be seen to keep himself above party loyalties.
Whomever you blame for last week’s debacle, the fault lay somewhere within the Executive for not getting its business properly sorted out before entering the Chamber. In such circumstances the Speaker is the Assembly’s last line of defence. The best that can be said, is that the defences fully failed at this first time of asking.
Mr Hay, for all that he is an honourable man, needs to admit a certain coldness into his relations with party colleagues. It will be an immeasurable aid to him the next time the interests of the Executive so obviously clash with the interests of the Assembly he has been charged, ultimately by the whole electorate, to protect.