The optics are poor and it looks like “the party comes first” (updated with TUV+DUP amendments & results)

On Thursday morning the Social Development committee agreed to hold an inquiry into the issues raised in BBC NI’s Spotlight programme.

The recalled Assembly will sit in plenary on Monday at noon. After prayers the Private Members’ Business brought by Mr R Swann (UUP), Ms C Ruane (SF), Mr S Dickson (Alliance), Mrs K McKevitt (SDLP) will be the only business before adjournment.

Call for an Inquiry into Allegations of Wrongful Political Interference in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Potential Breaches of the Ministerial Code and Misleading of the Assembly and the Committee for Social Development

Proposed:

That this Assembly expresses concern at the contents of the major investigation by the BBC Spotlight programme broadcast on Wednesday 3 July 2013; notes the allegations of serious and wrongful political interference in the Housing Executive and that the Assembly and the Committee for Social Development were purposely misled by the Minister for Social Development over his decision to seek a review of the specification for the supply and fitting of double glazing; and calls for a full inquiry into the relevant Minister to establish any impropriety or irregularity as well as any breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

At one level, the result of Monday’s debate has no real impact on the inquiry which the Social Development committee has the power to set up without any nod from the full Assembly.

Monday’s session just is an opportunity for the full Assembly to air their views on the topical issues. The committee itself will dictate the scope of their inquiry and barring any legal advice there is nothing to stop them establishing as wide an inquiry as they desire.

The DUP’s decision to raise a petition of concern will not stop the inquiry and the party’s promised amendmentnot yet in the public domain but must be lodged with the Speaker by 9.30am on Monday morning – will simply weaken the potential perception that Nelson McCausland has been censured.

Yet the DUP’s failure to take their verbal punishment on the chin may harden attitudes on the Social Development committee. After Thursday morning’s lacklustre interrogation of the Nelson McCausland – beginning with the minister being allowed to talk uninterrupted for just short of an hour before ninety minutes of questions – the committee’s performance and approach to their inquiry will be closely observed. To boost confidence in the credibility and accountability of the local devolved institutions, many will be looking for reassurance that “the party comes first” is not the priority of individual committee members, but instead their primary objective should be seen to be truth.

Short of an unexpected outbreak of sunstroke on the DUP benches, without DUP support the original targeted motion would certainly fail to achieve cross-community support. While unpopular with the other parties, the DUP’s promised wider amendment should at face value still garner support from across the chamber … unless parties’ annoyance is great enough to invite tactical voting or a counter petition of concern.

A statement from DUP’s chief whip Peter Weir bats away the claims of their opponents that the use of a petition of concern is an example of “democracy being thwarted”.

[Those] are the very same people who criticise the non-binding and “meaningless” nature of other Private Members Motions regularly debated within the Assembly.

Whilst the motion tabled by four parties is selective and partial the DUP is tabling a much more comprehensive amendment to allow all relevant issues to be considered, including those ignored by the Spotlight programme.

The perception is that the DUP is using a partisan tool to leverage a non-partisan issue. A motion by the majority of parties at the Assembly (and in the Executive) is uncomfortable for the DUP and they’ve found a way to veto it and substitute a less embarrassing question for the snap poll in the chamber on Monday afternoon.

Despite the DUP’s arguments, the optics are poor and it looks like “the party comes first”.

Update – Two amendments have been lodged this morning. The business committee meets at 10am and their decision on which amendment(s) go forward to this afternoon’s plenary session should be known around 11am.

Amendment 1 proposed by Gregory Campbell, Pam Brown, Sammy Douglas, Peter Weir:

Leave out all after the first ‘Assembly’ and insert:

“welcomes the Committee for Social Development’s investigation into the BBC Spotlight programme of 3 July and the allegations made within it; notes that the inquiry will consider the conduct of the Minister for Social Development; considers that such an inquiry should also include the activities, comments broadcast and role of Mr Brian Rowntree in relation to the issues raised including the Rinmore development, the allegations made by politicians and commentators in relation to the issues raised by the programme both during and since the broadcast, the range of companies similar to Red Sky involved in alleged overcharging and the failure of the Housing Executive and previous Ministers to investigate, and the role of previous Ministers in relation to the issues raised; and calls on the Committee for Social Development to request a report from the Police into the allegations of corruption made in relation to the Housing Executive.”

Amendment 2 proposed by Jim Allister:

Leave out all after ‘glazing’ and insert:

“; and having no confidence in the Minister for Social Development calls on him to resign.”

Update on voting –

  • Amendment 1 (DUP) defeated – Ayes 34; Noes 55.
  • Amendment 2 (TUV) defeated.
  • Main motion defeated (required cross-community support) – Ayes 54; Noes 34.

Total Votes 88; Total Ayes 54 [61.4%]

Nationalist Votes 32; Nationalist Ayes 32 [100.0%]

Unionist Votes 50; Unionist Ayes 16 [32.0%]

Other Votes 6; Other Ayes 6 [100.0%]

Main Question accordingly negatived.

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.