On the importance of following careful (and safe) procedure in the Legislative Assembly

Re the Speaker’s latest ‘letter’, I anticipate that – either at the start of proceedings, on Monday, or during the ‘no confidence’ debate – the decision to allow Mrs Foster to speak on 19 December, will be challenged, again – but probably even more forcefully.

As has been said (more generally), when you are explaining, you are losing. The parties haven’t (and won’t) question his decision to recall the Assembly. It is the capacity in which

The parties haven’t (and won’t) question his decision to recall the Assembly.

It is the capacity in which Mrs Foster was – ultimately – seeking/allowed to address the Chamber that warrants rigorous scrutiny – and is (in my view) fully deserving of the criticism it received at the time.

At a guess, it was seen as the best ‘optic’ to project the DUP position – they would have anticipated a ‘walkout’, which they would seek to exploit.

The Speaker – and his officials* – ought to have been ‘way more alert’ – and here’s why…..

If the veracity of the ‘Sunday evening e-mail’ was in question, that should have been raised with the (then) dFM at the earliest possible opportunity.

Notwithstanding that, in the early part of the morning of the 19th, parties (other than the DUP) sought to make/made representations to the Speaker (probably the Whips) – because it was generally known, by then, that Mrs Foster wouldn’t be speaking ‘jointly’.

These concerns then manifested themselves in repeated Points of Order at the initial part of the proceedings (which were then suspended).

Then there is the requirement (convention/precedent/practice) for copies of intended ‘Statements’ to be placed in the Business Office – half an hour – in advance of such statements being made (essentially to provide Members with an opportunity to study and formulate questions to be ‘put’ at the conclusion of any statement).

This practice wasn’t fully observed – and actually resulted in the Speaker ‘ruling’ that proceedings would be suspended to give Members the opportunity to study it.

So, even if the Speaker was reluctant to rely on an e-mail of doubtful origin, then the subsequent representations of Whips/Members – prior to the emergence of the Statement – should have caused the Speaker to take time to consider – very carefully – how he intended to proceed.

If, as seems the case, the Statement placed in the Business Office, included a declaration that it had not been cleared by dFM, then that, too, ought have ‘weighed’ in the Speaker’s mind.

Indeed, it would not have been unreasonable for him – with the benefit of all of the above – to have asked that Mrs Foster be contacted to indicate that he had, at least, reservations about proceeding with the sitting.

Therefore, the fact that he asserts in his letter that he (or his officials??) had no contact with the DUP may well beg the question that he’d already been told – by the DUP – not to seek to make that contact**.

Contact with all the parties and the Executive – informal or otherwise – is routine (and good practice) and is critical to the orderly running of business in the Chamber.

Be all of that as it may, the Speaker – if he had confidence in his authority – had another opportunity to assert proper authority. That opportunity presented itself when Mrs Foster began to speak.

Immediately on hearing her declare that she was not addressing the Chamber with the agreement/approval of dFM – AND – that she referred to the Speaker as having ‘endorsed’ a ‘break in practice’, the Speaker could/should have called “Order” on Mrs Foster, invited her to take her seat and then gone on to deny that he had endorsed any such break in practice and that it was now patently evident that Mrs Foster was attempting to make a private statement.

Since there is no provision, under Standing Orders, for that to happen, the Speaker ought to have immediately suspended proceedings.

By so doing he would have been acknowledged/applauded for maintaining the integrity of the Assembly – but at the (probably ultimate) price of leaving himself no future in the DUP [see **above].

* Over the last 3 years, largely as a consequence of the Voluntary Exit Scheme, the Assembly has ‘lost’ a number of middle to high-ranking officials, with unmatched levels of procedural experience. So the ‘inexperience’ of officials, and indeed the Speaker, may have been a contributory factor.

** Was he done up like a kipper, maybe because he was seen as expendable as a result of the ‘Charter controversy’?

The text above is from an informed member of the public and is published here in good faith in an attempt to throw some clear light rather than heat on the complex and specialist matters of procedure which lie at the heart of a functioning Assembly.

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