“He wouldn’t let it lie..”

I did say “this one could rumble on..” In the Assembly this morning, after appearing to rule that an accusation by the NI First Minister of an MLA attempting to mislead was not unparliamentary – “I will not rule its use as unparliamentary on this occasion” – the Speaker, the DUP’s William Hay, called on the SDLP’s Mark Durkan to withdraw an “accusation that the First Minister was misleading the House.” Which he did. Sort of.. Mark Devenport suggests at the end of the clip that the issue is arcane. Perhaps.. But it is relatively straight-forward to illustrate what the argument is about – see below the fold.

The best way to illustrate the issue is to compare what the Northern Ireland First Minister, the DUP’s Peter Robinson, has stated in the Assembly in the order in which he said it – as noted previously.

The first statement Peter Robinson made in relation to his NI Executive colleague, the Social Development Minister, the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie, was

I will tell the Member why there is a delay. The Minister from her party told Executive colleagues that she already had appropriate power and that legislation was not required. Therefore, the legislative draftsmen were not alerted because the Minister argued that there was no need for additional legislation because she had the power to make fuel-poverty payments. I am happy for anyone to challenge that assertion; that position is clearly on record. [added emphasis]

When challenged on that statement he then said

The First Minister: That statement is totally inaccurate. Until the Executive was back in action, the Minister for Social Development argued that she had the legal competence to take the necessary steps. [added emphasis]

When challenged for a second time in the same debate, after an Executive paper dated 2 October 2008 was referenced as stating

“DSD does not have legislative authority to make such payments and therefore Executive approval will be sought to take forward the necessary legislation in the Assembly through use of the accelerated passage procedure.”

The First Minister’s position became

As far as the general accusation is concerned, I stand by the position that I indicated earlier: when the Executive dealt with the issue of fuel poverty at their first meeting back, the Minister was questioned at the Executive table as to her legal competence, and she was still arguing that she may have that legal cover and she was still trying to clarify the position.

And today, during the latest debate, his position became –

The First Minister: I am grateful to the Member. He is right, and, in fact that point was raised on 18 occasions during debates on the earlier Stages of the Bill. The erroneous argument was made that the Bill required accelerated passage because the Executive had not met for 154 days. In support of that argument, the leader of Mr O’Loan’s party relayed to the House leaked information that had been provided to him by some dishonourable person whom he has not named. [Interruption.]

I am sure that everyone agrees that someone who leaks a confidential Government document is, unquestionably, dishonourable. I am sure that the Member will accept that the document dated 2 October 2008 may not have signalled the end of the issue and that his Minister came to her Executive colleagues and said that her officials were pursuing with the Departmental Solicitor’s Office and officials from other Departments whether another Department had the power to make the payments. There is a fistful of correspondence that demonstrates that right up to December 2008 the matter had not been closed. Therefore, the challenge has been answered, and I hope that there will not only be a withdrawal but an apology from the leader of the SDLP. [added emphasis]

Btw, those ‘other avenues’ would appear to be the NI Assembly Committee on Standards and Privileges.