Question master Jim Allister? And should David McClarty be more like him?

Jim Allister interview screen grabThe TUV’s sole MLA Jim Allister has been getting a reputation for running a one-man opposition/scrutiny function up at Stormont. Martina Purdy summed up well the exchange in the Assembly chamber on 13 September between TUV leader Jim Allister, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Carál Ní Chuilín, and Assembly Speaker William Hay:

When Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin told the chamber, whimsically, that she and Mr Allister were “firm friends,” he accused her of misleading the house.

Mr Allister had just challenged the minister about the “appalling failure of financial management in relation to Irish language bodies”. He complained they had not published accounts between 2007 and 2011. These bodies he said were “useless and non-productive” and wondered whether she thought this kind of financial management undermined public confidence.

The Sinn Fein minister responded to his anger with humour. She suggested she had detected a statement rather than a question, before adding: “If the member wants to write to me I’m happy to answer his question. He actually writes a lot to me every day. Jim and I have become firm friends.

Mr Allister appealed to the speaker asking if it was in order for “a minister to mislead the house.” The TUV leader protested that he consistently writes to the permanent secretary of the department and not the minister.

But the speaker called order and took the minister’s part.

How often has Jim Allister written to the permanent secretary at DCAL?

Just twice! One in August, and another in September.

So what has earned the MLA his pen pal reputation? It’s probably the 24 questions he has tabled for the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure to answer, either in the three weekly Oral Answers to Questions in the Assembly, or in the Weekly Answers booklet.

In fact, Jim Allister – the self-styled one-man opposition who last week put out a press release calling on the UUP and SDLP to join him in opposition – nearly has more questions than a box of Trivial Pursuit.

Written NI Assembly Qs - per MLA

Individually he has asked more questions than the whole of the Alliance Party, and if you consider the number of questions per MLA that parties ask, he’s an order of magnitude ahead of the rest. (Disclaimer – I’m using figures supplied by the TUV that detail questions up to the morning of Wednesday 21/9, but having sanity checked them, I see no reason to doubt their accuracy.)

As well as being the most inquisitive, this is also likely to make him the most expensive MLA in terms of departmental time answering questions.

Even just looking through Hansard at the sessions featuring oral questions for Minister Carál Ní Chuilín (or ‘Cullen’ as the TUV tend to refer to her) and looking at the Weekly Answers Booklets you can pick out the themes that occupy Jim Allister’s cross-examination of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. (I’ve only included a small number of the minister’s answers.)

Special Advisors and Mary McArdle

The exchange above wasn’t the first time Jim Allister asked a non-question. Back on 7 June he ‘asked’:

Mr Allister: Having alienated much of the non-terrorist-supporting community by the malevolent appointment of a convicted murderer as her special adviser, why does the Minister now want to alienate further swathes of —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Can we have a question that is relevant?

Mr Allister: — the population of Northern Ireland by the promotion of a language that she uses as a political tool?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I did not detect a question, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

While business moved on to the next question, Jim Allister has returned to the theme of the appointment of Mary McArdle as Special Advisor on many occasions in questions that have received written answers.

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, in light of the hurt caused to the Travers family by the appointment as a Special Adviser of a person duly convicted of the murder of Mary Travers, whether she will revoke the appointment and apologise. (AQO 44/11-15)

The written questions listed below have also been asked posed and answered, though frankly they are not achieving much.

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how much her Department has spent on Special Advisers since May 2007, broken down by (i) salary; (ii) pension contributions; (iii) expenses; (iv) office costs; and (v) other costs. (AQW 962/11-15)

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she will terminate the employment of her Special Adviser in view of her refusal to co-operate with the Historical Enquiries Team’s investigation into the murder of Mary Travers. (AQW 1183/11-15)

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she or her Party selected Mary McArdle as her Special Adviser. (AQW 1420/11-15)

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (i) how many candidates were considered for the post of Ministerial Special Adviser; (ii) what account was taken of any potential imbalance in religious background or gender in the pool from which she selected her Special Adviser; (iii) how wide was the trawl for candidates and how did she ensure that it was ‘broadly based’ as required by the Code of Practice on the Appointment of Special Advisers; and (iv) to publish the job description and person specification drawn up before the Special Adviser was appointed. (AQW 1476/11-15)

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, pursuant to AQW 1420/11-15, why she claimed in a BBC Spotlight programme that “the party appointed myself and Mary McArdle to these positions” when the DFP Code of Practice on the Appointment of Special Advisers places the onus for the selection of a Special Adviser on the Minister and states that Ministers should make the selection on justifiable grounds, that Ministers have a personal responsibility and that Ministers should ensure that they consider a number of candidates. (AQW 1643/11-15)

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, pursuant to AQW 1476/11-15, the answer to which failed to provide the information requested, to now provide details of (i) how many candidates were considered for the post of Ministerial Special Adviser; (ii) what account was taken of any potential imbalance in religious background or gender in the pool from which she selected her Special Adviser; (iii) how wide was the trawl for candidates and how did she ensure that it was ‘broadly based’ as required by the Code of Practice on the Appointment of Special Advisers; and (iv) to publish the job description and person specification drawn up before the Special Adviser was appointed. (AQW 1652/11-15)

Ministerial Driver

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (i) to detail the arrangements relating to the recruitment, status and payment of her ministerial driver; (ii) whether the arrangements differ from those that were in place prior to 1 April 2011; and (iii) if so, how the arrangements differ. (AQW 825/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín (The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure): In January 2011 the Executive agreed to transfer arrangements for the provision of ministerial cars and drivers along with associated budgets to the relevant departments. Prior to this DFP was responsible for providing ministerial transport to my predecessor. My Department has no involvement in the recruitment or other employment arrangements for my driver as he is not a civil service employee.

Consultants

A lot of departments have received questions from Jim Allister about the usage and cost of external consultants.

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the cost to her Department of engaging external consultants in each financial year since May 2007. (AQW 157/11-15)

The answer amounts to: 2007-08 = £3,449,172; 2008-09 = £172,832; 2009-10 = £77,529; 2010-11 = £55,537 (provisional)

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, pursuant to AQW 157/11-15, to detail (i) the subject matters on which the consultants were engaged; (ii) the consultants engaged; and (iii) the costs incurred on each project. (AQW 698/11-15)

Funding of DCAL arms-length bodies and community background of their staff

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how much funding her Department has allocated to Waterways Ireland in each year since 1998. (AQW 729/11-15)

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how many staff are employed by Waterways Ireland in (i) Northern Ireland; and (ii) the Republic of Ireland. (AQW 1205/11-15)

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for a breakdown of the community background of staff employed by Waterways Ireland. (AQW 1218/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: The total number of people working in Waterways Ireland is 386. There is no legal requirement for Waterways Ireland to gather community background information for the 289 staff working in Southern Ireland and as such this information is not available. There are 97 staff working for Waterways Ireland in the North. Of these five are employees of a recruitment agency and Waterways Ireland does not, therefore, have community information in relation to these. Of the remaining 92 the community background is Protestant 29; Catholic 59 and Others 4.

Mr Allister asked e Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how many staff are employed by Foras Na Gaeilge in (i) Northern Ireland; and (ii) the Republic of Ireland. (AQW 1274/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: There are seven members of staff employed by Foras na Gaeilge in its Belfast Office and 48 permanent and 11 temporary staff in its offices in Dublin, Gaoth Dobhair and Ráth Cairn in the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how much funding her Department has allocated to (i) the Ulster-Scots Agency; and (ii) Foras Na Gaeilge, in each year since 1998. (AQW 1204/11-15)

Mr Allister asked e Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure how many staff are employed by the Ulster-Scots Agency in (i) Northern Ireland; and (ii) the Republic of Ireland. (AQW 1352/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: There are 13 permanent members of staff and 2 temporary members employed by the Ulster-Scots Agency in its Belfast Office. The Agency also employs 2 full time members of staff in its Raphoe Office in Donegal.

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure for a breakdown of the community background of staff employed by (i) the Ulster-Scots Agency; and (ii) Foras Na Gaeilge. (AQW 1353/11-15)

Ms Ní Chuilín: There is no legal requirement for either Foras na Gaeilge or the Ulster-Scots Agency to gather community background information for the staff working in their offices based in the South and as such this information is not available. The breakdown of community background for the staff working in the Belfast offices of both Agencies is shown in the table below:

Foras na Gaeilge = 6 Catholic, 1 Protestant, 0 Other, 7 Permanent staff

Ulster-Scots Agency = 2 Catholic, 12 Protestant, 1 Other, 15 Permanent staff

Fishing

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (i) for her assessment of (a) the state of trout and salmon stocks in the River Maine system; (b) the adequacy of the safeguards which currently exist for the migratory run of salmon and trout; and (c) how the stock levels compare to the levels ten years ago; (ii) how many bailiffs are employed on the River Maine system; (iii) whether the bailiffs operate on a call-out system or on the basis of routine river inspections; and (iv) to compare the number of bailiffs currently employed to the number employed ten years ago and their modus operandi.

Irish language gets a mention too …

On 28 June he ask the DCAL minister who she wanted “to waste valuable resources on promoting a language that will disadvantage young people in seeking employment in these hard economic times, instead of better equipping them to be more proficient in English?”

Football NI/RoI players

Mr Allister asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether she has made, or intends to make, any represenatations to the relevant authorities about people born in Northern Ireland playing football for the Republic of Ireland. (AQW 576/11-15)

Is Jim Allister value for money? Certainly his arrival in the Assembly has upped the level of scrutiny. Whether the scrutiny is shiny a torch in the direction I’d most like it to is far from certain.

But from his vantage point at the back of the chamber, his position in committees (Committee for Employment and Learning and Committee on Procedures) and standing in front of a microphone in the Great Hall, he is certainly flashing a light into some areas that parties participating in the Executive are more shy to look.

Maybe the question should be – with a mere five written questions posed since May – why can’t David McClarty be more like Jim Allister?

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.