The person from Mars or the US congressman actually present will take a lot of heart form the level of agreement in the Great Debate on transferring Justice powers. No hint of a crisis atmosphere and hardly a sticky point has been raised so far. But are the DUP benches as full as they should be? The UUs provided a useful target of mild abuse to conceal the high level of consensus, even from them – in principle. It was DFM Martin McGuinness who moved the historic motion but where was Peter Robinson? Is he going to wind up later?McGuinness wasted far too much time attacking UUs rather than say, pledging SF support for operational policing decisions.
Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy, flanked by a mute Sir Reg, decided the best means of defence was +attack and gave us quite good knockabout. Where were the DUP MLAs missing form their own benches, the abominable no-men, whose opposition may melt away in the early spring sun? For those with long memories, Justice minister (putative) David Ford of the Alliance party was the Joe ( I buy anything ) Kavanagh of Stormont. Yesterday when Danny and friends were ordered out of the DFMs office it was not a case of a Shared Future.. or Makeover Martin but Martin of the Bogside.
Alex Maskey was relaxed about UU opposition In practice, they were among among the many on all sides who were working the policing system 24 hours a day .
Groans on either side of him greeted Alliance leader David Ford himself as he rose to his feet. He made the cardinal mistake of drawing attention to them. He chose not to address the attacks on his own presumed candidacy for office, perhaps saving that for later. But it left him with little to say that anybody wanted to hear and therefore sounding sanctimonious, to more groans.
Ian jnr made a bold bid to steady DUP nerves by trying on the mantle of statesmanship even treating us twice to his key soundbite to make this House noble instead of a House of ridicule.
But it was SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, voting for the powers but sounding as opposed to them as the UUs, who made the most substantial speech. She slated the SF for dissembling that they had won DUP agreement to devolve Justice powers at St Andrews, compounded by the governments who allowed the claim to go unchallenged. The Hillsborough agreement was “unclear, uncertain and unhelpful and – ominously-
we may be turning the clock back on parading.” On the secondary agenda of making the Assembly work better she was as sceptical as Danny Kennedy. The working groups? Going nowhere fast The FM DFM Cohesion Strategy report? She wasnt allowed to see it. Is this the right way to run a four party coalition?
A couple of procedural points. A major debate like this is severely cramped by over-tight time limits even on main speeches. No doubt standing orders were laid down to cut down on argybargy but this is far too short for a debate of this kind and restricts the number of interventions which are key to genuine debate.. On major occasions 20 minute speeches should be allowed by main speakers for each party and 10 minutes from the backbenches rather than five.
Chair Jimmy Spratt announced the third and final report of the Assemblys Executive review committee on the nuts and bolts of transferring Justice powers, a solid piece of work greatly to its credit. A harbinger of better things to come, its to be hoped. Back after lunch
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London