Planning Bill: Or how OFMdFM dropped the ball on their end of the Downing Street economic pact?

So let’s join the dots a little on yesterday’s crash landing of the planning bill. [Focus people, focus – Ed]. This was the bill intended to fix set up the Enterprise Zones that were so critical to the Downing Street package of cash agreed just before the G8 with David Cameron.

That was on 14th of June this year. By 24th and 25th June, OFMdFM had scrambled together two amendments which radically altered the bill the SDLP Minister for the Environment Alex Attwood had be slowly been putting together. These amendments (if they had proven legally tight) would have handed absolute power to the DUP and Sinn Fein to:

  • set Enterprise Zones exactly where they wanted them (and reap the maximum political advantage);
  • wave through almost any economic project that took their (or their political backer’s) fancy;
  • and defy the courts and by extension ordinary citizens any legal redress against OFMdFM decisions in this regard.

It’s now being publicly argued that only the DUP were backing this deal. But that’s maybe just down to Sinn Fein’s skillful knack of quitting a losing battle long before anyone notices they’re gone. But if you look at who voted in favour these two amendments, the Sinn Fein MLAs are there in force and in lock step with their DUP counterparts:

Amendment 20:

Mr Anderson, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Ms P Bradley, Mr Brady, Ms Brown, Mr Buchanan, Mr Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hazzard, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Ms McCorley, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr M McGuinness, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McKay, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr McQuillan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson.

In fact there are more DUP than Sinn Fein absentees on the following day’s amendment. In stark contrast yesterday Cathal Boylan was accompanied by only a tiny smattering of junior colleagues on the party’s Assembly benches. The big beasts of the party preferred to run for cover:

Boylan was the only one from his party to speak in this debate and that was to ask if Minister had sought or received any legal advice from the Attorney General, a question repeatedly asked by DUP MLA’s throughout the session (since it was the only legitimate line they had).

Lord Morrow then stoked the fire a little by suggesting Minister Durkan had broken the Ministerial Code in the same week as the Treacy ruling against his own party’s minister Ed Poots. That put some fire in the Derry minister’s belly:

Mr Durkan: I dispute that I am breaking the ministerial code.  I wonder whether advice was sought from the Attorney General on the amendments before they were tabled.  If not, why not?  If so — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.  The Minister must be heard.

Mr Durkan: If so, why?  When the public hear the accusation that I might be breaking the ministerial code, they will rightly ask, “What is the ministerial code?”  If someone is deemed — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Durkan: If someone is deemed not to be in breach of the code for denying someone else the right to donate blood based on their sexuality or for promoting public disorder, they are not in breach of the code but for trying to prevent bad law from coming in, I am?

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Durkan: I do not think so.  I can act only on the legal advice that I have seen.  I am certainly open to hearing other legal advice, and I have sought it from many places, but that is not one.

What legal advice, indeed? Durkan took the precaution of going to one of the five or six most prominent specialist counsels in the UK, in a very complex area of law rather than the necessarily generalist AG. If OFMdFM had sought advice on their last minute amendments, they seem not to have told their own MLAs.

Yes, it was a shameless attempt to sequester powers. And yes, in picking a fight when both the First and deputy First Ministers were away on business, Durkan has sent a strong signal he’s not to be messed with.

More importantly, Durkan has put an end what looks like an opportunist land grab cooked between Sinn Fein and the DUP to control exactly which communities and which developers get the plum economic opportunities. Or, perhaps just as importantly, which don’t.

Now who’s going to tell David Cameron that a critical part of OFMdFM’s commitment to their joint development plan has already gone up in smoke. A development plan which Sinn Fein seemed enthusiastic for in June, but which nevertheless as Micheal Martin was keen to note on Sunday made absolutely no mention of the Republic.

That’ll just be “…the growing dysfunction of institutions ever-more beholden to narrow party interests” then Micheal?

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

  • Big Boss

    I was told at the time of this vote back in June that there were many in SF that felt very uneasy with the the admenments to this bill and that those who purposed the motion were ordered to do so from the top. I think the muted repsonse yesterday show quite clearly that they didnt want this bill to pass. This raises the question just who is giving orders in Sinn Fein and is there any democratic process within the party?

  • SDLP supporter

    Good to see a young SDLP Minister and MLA having the guts to ‘out’ the DUP and Sinn Fein on this, no doubt with the help of Attwood, who is the SDLP’s best strategist.

    The whole saga is reminiscent of Sinn Fein’s dirty little deal with the UK government on the ‘On the Runs’ when Sinn Fein had to turn tail when they were exposed for the rat finks that they are.

    McGuinness has stiffed several of Sinn Fein’s better performers, like Gildernew and Murphy, but he clearly hasn’t got the nous of Adams to keep thing well under control up North. Parties like Fianna Fail won’t be slow to factor all this in as they notch up their onslaughts on Sinn Fein.

    Adams will never be Tanaiste after the next Dail election. It’ll be like Richard Mulcahy, then leader of Fine Gael, in 1948, unacceptable as Taoiseach, so they put in John A Costello and, anyway, FF and FG would rather form a ‘grand coalition’ rather than have Adams anywhere near ministerial office.

  • Mick Fealty


    I think you may be badly out on that last one. The south’s pols have a much longer experience of supping with the devil they know and increasingly I think SF’s problem is that they are becoming too easy for their opponents to predict.

    The DUP may be generating a lot of bad press but I’d venture a guess with the greater dynamism in Unionism the gap between them and SF could be wider after the next Assembly’s than it is now. In which case one or other of the bigger parties in the south may deem them suitable for junior partners in government.

    If they have any sense, they’ll stay the hell out of government for another term at least. They do opposition better than anyone on the island. But playing opposition whilst in government is not good for theirs never mind anyone else’s political health.

  • SDLP supporter


    We’ll agree to differ on that. All I know is from my contacts, mostly in Connacht, that the ‘sneaking regarder’ Fianna Fail types who used to patronise poor old inept SDLP had the scales fall from their eyes when they saw how ruthlessly McGuinness shafted Sen Gallagher in the Presidential race.

    They have long memories in FF and they’re getting their confidence back.

    And I’ll bet good money that Fine Gael will never enter into coalition with Sinn Fein.

    Anyway, what’s wrong with a ‘Grand Coalition’? If it’s good enough for the Germans, it’s good enough for the Irish. As has often been said, there really isn’t a cigarette paper between FF and FG in policy terms: they’re both centre right.

    As for oppositionalism, it’s great to be populist. But as JM Keynes said, in the long run we’re all dead and Mary Lou isn’t getting any younger. Or as Yeats more elegantly put it ‘Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart’.

  • Mick Fealty

    Nothing wrong with it, but if you merged two franchises into one, one of you is going to get very badly burned!

    Unless there’s a weirdly large asymmetry between them, I just don’t see it happening.

  • Golden Dawn, a political party in Greece where crazy state funding is allowed for such groups as claim to be representative of the people and which are little more than closed shop private clubs in all reality, and are not all political parties not exactly the same, have been denied their dues because of an as yet unproven malicious accusation that they are a criminal organisation …….

    The same accusation could very easily be made against all of the parties in the UKGBNI and one would imagine that given that it now be so easy to snoop stealthily on whoever one pleases, the security services and the forces for laws and order are busy inspecting and investigating the banking system to ensure that the billions that pontificators have to play with are not being used and abused and squandered for personal and politically incorrect gain/crooked subversive enrichment.

    And David Cameron’s answer to a direct question on whether he was a subject/object of lobbying with regard to a £500 million per annum tax loophole enjoyed by major high street companies, was very strangely worded …… “To my memory I’ve never been lobbied on this issue” …… [16:58]

    Is that a yes or a no in plain language? And George Osborne, his right hand man and Chancellor of the Exchequer, was very perplexed and unhappy looking with the rest of the very short answer which didn’t answer the question of whether the loophole was going to be closed. Dodgy Dave having a bad hair day?

  • GwenK9

    The issue of the legal advice that SF and DUP supposedly got from the Attorney General (AG) is an interesting point. While Minister Durkan has published his legal advice, the one secured by SF and DUP in support of these amendments has not been made public. Durkan’s appears to align with the dominant view, so I suspect a bit of smoke and mirrors if Peter Weir and Cathal Boylan still insist that they have advice that said the Amendments were within the law. My suggestion is that SF-DUP’s legal advice may have said that it is within the law to PASS these clauses, but it would certainly say that it would be illegal to ACT on them. If this is the case, then both MLA’s have not been entirely upfront and only a release of their advice would clarify. Indeed, Peter Weir has noted that a further vote in the Assembly would be needed to operationalise either of these late amendments and he has sought some protection in this.

    So, if the Bill had been passed by the Assembly, we would have had a lame duck law which no one could have done anything as to operationalise it would have been illegal. How absurd is that?

    Nevertheless, it may have still been of use to SF-DUP as a threat to whoever held the Environment portfolio.

    If this is the case, SF-DUP have been using the legislative process and the costs involved, entirely for party political purposes, signalling yet another blatant abuse of our democratic institutions. Can we please claim costs? And can we see the AG’s advice to clear this up?

  • Charles_Gould

    Anyone watching the APD debate in the Commons?

  • cynic2

    Not passing the bill will be economically disadvantageous and inflict a crippling blow on our ability on the party finances of the DUP and SF. All those lost opportunities to gain the support ofdevelopers!!!!

  • son of sam

    As I said on a previous thread on the same topic,there is a noticeable dearth of the usual suspects lining up to praise the Sinn Fein position on all this.Does this not speak for itself?

  • BarneyT

    I feels to me that we need a stronger sdlp and durkin does offer them some strength. Long way to go. Equally the dup feathers need to be clipped. They will be due to the segregation in unionism but that’s not how it should be. A pup revival for their politics alone rather than associations would shake things up. Sadly there’s not much capability up here. Perhaps FF need to head to the winter feeding grounds and shake the mix.

  • Charles_Gould

    Mark H Durkan is very good so far. I thought he handled his announcement very well in the face of opposition from SF/DUP.

  • Charles_Gould

    The SDLP are performing very admirably.

    As the importance of the Shared Future agenda rises up and up the Westmister agenda when it comes to NI politics, it is ever more important that the SDLP’s shared future ideas gain sway.

  • Mick Fealty

    That would be the same PUP that’s still associated with the UVF who in turn are associated with that awful shooting a few weeks back, and the repainting of paramilitary wall murals. Good luck with that little accumulator, but I genuinely doubt you will be counting your winnings any time soon Barney.

    For years senior commentators have been telling us about the imminent collapse of unionism. That’s a fundamental miscalculation of the dynamic within unionism. The competition is actually good for unionist politics (McNarry is a far more effective MLA under UKIP than he ever was in the UUP), in the way the lack of competition within northern republicans has had a weakening effect.

    The flag crisis has stressed unionism, but sub rosa it’s also realigning itself. Maybe that will change, but only through actually nationalism being good at the business of political (as opposed to electoral) competition.

  • BarneyT

    Like I say for the pup politics and not their associations. I welcome a lefter leaning outlet for unionism. If they claim to mirror the English Labour Party and value the social policies such a Labour Party should represent then I welcome them. I deliberately distinguished between their politics and associations but if they are close to the uvf they stand a better chance of bringing them to the table than any other unionist party.

  • BarneyT

    It’s all fecked anyhow Mick til we get an opposition…and genuine coalition. It might entrench us for a while but well be better for it. The current administration has gone stale…. To put it mildly

  • Delphin

    “they are close to the uvf they stand a better chance of bringing them to the table than any other unionist party.”
    Best place to bring the UVF is Maghaburry.
    I’m all for left leaning politics in the pul tribe, but the UVF are criminals and should be in jail.