This morning the dFM withheld his consent for the First Minister to make a statement on behalf of the joint office of the Executive (the artist formerly known as OFMdFM).
As Mike Nesbitt raised in a point of order just after the start, this changed the terms on which the Assembly had been summoned. Extraordinarily, the Speaker at first refused to accept Nesbitt’s point of order and then was forced to take a 20-minute adjournment.
Restart brought a flurry of points of order seeking clarification on how the session should proceed: including a very explicit question from Stephen Farry asking whether the minister was making the statement on her own behalf?
The tradition is that there are no follow-up questions to a personal statement to the house (see Adams’ statement to the Dail), but the Speaker refused to say how the session was to proceed. In the absence of clarity from Newton, there was a walk-out in the chamber.
It’s not the first time the Speaker has limited the rights of the house, so this sort of ruling by omission appears to have become a permanently available wrench in the Speaker’s toolbox. Yet, it hardly accords with the principles laid out on the Assembly website:
Members must be confident of the impartiality of the Speaker and this is achieved through the operation of a number of conventions. He does not participate or vote in any debates in the Assembly, he does not become involved in party politics, nor does he comment on Northern Ireland political matters or on issues of Government policy.
The Speaker could have met the legitimate inquiries from members of the Legislative Assembly by suspending Standing Orders, and explaining why. Instead, he has chosen to ignore those queries and then went on to treat the FM’s statement as official, letting MLAs ask questions.
The FM was heard in revered silence by MLAs and only took questions from her own MLAs. The house was adjourned at 12 and restarts at 1 to debate an opposition motion to have the FM excluded from office.
Passing it requires cross-community consent (meaning it won’t need a Petition of Consent). So, without the DUP’s participation, it will fall.
Effectively we’ve seen the government fall apart over a simple heating scheme. Not to mention the ferocious heat of Stephen Nolan’s blow torch.
Still, grab a sandwich quick, and bring the popcorn…