Last night Mike Nesbitt announced he was writing to the Speaker to ask him to resign. He was joined this afternoon by Colum Eastwood. Then Caral Ni Chuilin told us she had also written to the Speaker this afternoon, after which Nesbitt released the text of his letter:
— Ulster Unionist (@uuponline) December 21, 2016
Apart from SF’s pattern of shadowing the opposition party’s opposition, what stands out in Nesbitt’s letter is his outline of the timing of events of the weekend in which he notes how the Speaker issued the summons of the Assembly last Friday by joint request of both FM and dFM.
That’s joint authority people. So, not to take away from the very real criticism the Speaker is enduring, but Sinn Fein actively approved the calling of the session, and then cancelled it by media when Martin said he was changing his mind and ‘pulling out’.
Although it appears that the deputy First Minister neglected to inform the Speaker of his sudden and unexpected ‘change of mind’, or had no means to do so without talking/negotiating with the First Minister.
The resulting car crash found the Speaker both weak and confused when faced with a clear abuse by the Executive Office of the facility and authority of the Legislative Assembly.
As Sam McBride notes that leaves him in an impossible situation:
It seemed clear that Mr Newton had lost the confidence of the chamber – including that of Sinn Fein, which just six months ago jointly voted him into office.
Whether he now remains even nominally in charge of Assembly business now rests with Sinn Fein and the opposition parties. If they so desire, between them they have the votes to remove him from office.
But as McBride also notes, whoever replaces him will be just as beholden to his party leader as Newton since he has to be picked by his party to stand again. Both in Westminster and the Dail this is a burden deliberately lifted from the Speaker/Ceann Comhairle.
Stormont could also follow the latest Dail reforms and introduce a secret ballot amongst MLAs so that whoever gets elected to the chair has both aptitude and appetite to take on the current arrogance of the Executive Office.
John Bercow was re-elected after an attempt by his own party to get rid of him, pitching himself as the backbencher’s champion:
And in Dail Eireann Sean Ó Fearghaíl is the very first Ceann Comhairle to elected by secret ballot of the members rather than (as presently is the case in Stormont) appointed by the Executive. And the first to look like he actually wants to be there.
Newton’s not the first Speaker to be compromised by his party affiliation. Mitchel McLaughlin was a much more fluent and plausible occupier of the Chair, but he also set a precedent that pro-actively undermined the authority of the house.
Stormont needs a Speaker of the popular standing, and integrity of a Bercow or an Ó Fearghaíl not another stitch-up by the government.
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