When’s a point of order not a point of order?

As Fair Deal notes below, Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie was given a telling off by the Speaker today for her remarks about Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey in a debate on Environmental Improvement Schemes in the Markets Area of Belfast last week. Ritchie said: “When I see the proposer of this motion, Mr Alex Maskey, in the context of the Markets, I think of only one thing — the events surrounding the cruel murder of Robert McCartney.” The Speaker ruled upon Ritchie’s comments saying that they were not concerned with the topic of the debate and he had received a number of complaints. The Speaker did say that although the comments weren’t ‘unparliamentary’ – thus Ritchie avoided receiving a similar fat that was given to Iris Robinson who was banned from the Chamber for a day for unparliamentary remarks about the Health Minister which she refused to withdraw – the Speaker did however advise Ritchie to read Hansard and reflect on her remarks.

Extract from the original debate is below (I am paraphrasing the Speaker’s ruling today – direct quotes could be taken from Hansard when published tomorrow). NOw the thing that strikes me is that the Speaker seems to have ruled on the basis of ‘a number of complaints’ made privately to his office. And yet, the Deputy Speaker does not, from reading the original transcript, appear to have accepted Mr Maskey’s original intervention as a Point of Order:

The Minister for Social Development: When I see the proposer of this motion, Mr Alex Maskey, in the context of the Markets, I think of only one thing — the events surrounding the cruel murder of Robert McCartney. I think of Mr Maskey’s remarks in the immediate aftermath of that event —

Mr A Maskey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

First, it is very regrettable that the Minister wants to introduce the tragic murder —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Is this a point of order?

Mr A Maskey: Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a point of order. Just let me finish.

If the Minister is in any way trying to align me with what was a brutal murder that I have repeatedly condemned, then she will very soon be listening to my lawyers. It is a shambles and a disgrace that the Minister is seeking to divert attention from the issue of an environmental scheme in a small residential area at a cost of less than £2 million, which she is partly to blame for delaying —

Mr Deputy Speaker: What is your point of order?

Mr A Maskey: My point of order is that —

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member will sit down for a moment. I must hear the point of order.

Mr A Maskey: The point of order is that the Minister, in trying to deflect what does not amount to even mild criticism of her handling of this scheme — I could go much further, and criticise the Minister for her failure to look after the Markets community — has sought to associate me with a brutal murder which I am on record as repeatedly condemning.

I am advising the Minister to choose her words very carefully, because my lawyers will be scrutinising the Hansard report. The Minister will not run off at the mouth at my expense. That is my point of order.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Carry on, Minister.

The Minister for Social Development: I think of Mr Maskey’s remarks in the immediate aftermath of that event, and his stance in relation to the violence that greeted the police conducting their follow-up investigations in the Markets. More than that, I think of Robert McCartney’s partner and his two sons, now exiled in England, and of his brave sisters who were forced from their homes and who are still denied justice. I think of the so-called republicans who saw nothing that night.

I met Mr Maskey a few months ago to discuss housing in the Markets. I will meet him again soon, and I have written to him recently — a fact that appears to have escaped him. We will talk about housing. However, when he walks into my room next month all that I will see is the image of Robert McCartney holding his two young sons.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to put on record my disgust at the Minister’s remarks. This is a debate about a motion on environmental improvement schemes for the Markets area. What the Minister said was completely out of order.

I commend Alex Maskey for moving the motion. It is the prerogative of Members to raise in the Assembly any issue that is relevant to their constituents.

If private complaints are to be given the same status as a Point of Order in the Chamber, Mr Speaker may find himself in a position where “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world Assembly?”

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