Sinn Féin MLAs deserted their own minister’s legal advice but one DUP abstention forced them to retract…

Still think the DUP has collapsed Stormont. It might have been better if they had (so unpractised are some Ministers despite being a ‘natural party of government’, Sam McBride takes up the story:

MLAs have voted, seemingly by mistake, to change the law in a way which would cut housing rents for every private renter by 10%, and a Sinn Fein minister is now desperately trying to undo what she allowed to happen.

That such a thing could happen sounds faintly preposterous. But this is not a work of fiction, and the ‘mistake’ may in fact have been a deliberate political ploy to help harvest votes in the looming election.

This story unfolded in a largely empty Assembly chamber just over a week ago and has consequences for the landlords and tenants of around 140,000 private homes.

Sinn Fein Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has been bringing the Private Tenancies Bill through the Assembly, aiming to update the law in multiple areas where tenants’ rights have been neglected.

With the Assembly just weeks away from dissolution, the bill is part of a glut of legislation being rushed through.

The villain of the piece? People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll who tabled an amendment to cut every private renter’s bill by 10% if the tenancy had been in place for more than six months (won’t do him any harm in May’s elections with West Belfast voters who have had thin pickings from Stormont).

However the Minister urged caution arguing that the way the amendment was written could cause the whole Bill to fall on legal grounds. But what happened afterwards was indicative of the political psychosis that haunts almost every corner of Northern Irish politics these days. Sam again:

…the speaker rang the division bell for three minutes to allow MLAs from across Parliament Buildings to come to the chamber — the next stage of a contested vote.

As is standard, he then put the question again. This time something even more curious happened — Mr Carroll was again joined by others, seemingly Sinn Fein MLAs, but the DUP this time stayed silent.

A DUP source said that the party had decided that Sinn Fein and other parties were attempting to wash their hands of the issue ahead of an election, knowing that the DUP would vote it down, and so DUP chief whip Trevor Clarke decided to “call their bluff” by instructing DUP MLAs not to vote to see what would happen.

The speaker put the question a final time, and the scene was repeated, meaning that with several ‘ayes’ and no objections, the amendment had to pass. Throughout all of this, Ms Hargey sat silent, despite just minutes earlier having set out a stark warning against what her party colleagues were supporting. It was a bizarre scene.

Mr Carroll, a lone MLA who had seen party after party lining up to object to his proposal, was stunned. In a statement, he said he was delighted but added: “Pressure will be needed from renters and the wider public to ensure the minister commits to implementing these important measures”.

There was consternation in Ms Hargey’s department, where the minister had been advised that the amendment would make the entire bill unlawful, although the basis for that opinion has not been made public.

What followed is proof of the adage, ‘where there is no policy, there’s no politics’. On Monday (as the Minister had warned), the much needed Private Tenancies Bill (since it would give protection where there had been none) was in danger of collapse since Carroll’s amendment put it out of competence.

Paul Frew’s contribution is worth quoting at length:

Lest anyone be in any doubt, there was no mistake at Consideration Stage. People knew exactly what they were doing. No one was asleep at the wheel, because everyone in the Chamber had worked on this for months.

People in this room knew exactly what they were doing, so they should own the consequences, not only because they had worked on it for months beforehand, in Committee and outside it, but because the Minister for Communities warned us, as she has done today.

The Minister said today that it is impossible to proceed as the Bill stands and that housing campaigners are really concerned.

The work of Housing Rights is commendable. When they saw the danger, they contacted us all straight away. Some Members were contacted, even before the Bill was debated, about the problems with what the Bill is now designed to do. They have worked tirelessly to try to rescue the situation, as has the Department for Communities’ officials. I give them credit for that.

The Department has been placed in a nearly impossible position because of petty party politics all centred around West Belfast. That is ultimately what we saw play out in the Chamber a couple of weeks ago. The Minister said one thing, but her party did another. She said one thing and then kept shtum, stayed quiet, when it came to the vote, while the party behind her shouted “Aye”.

What were they shouting “aye” for? For a 10% cut in rent and a freeze for three years thereafter, not exceeding the level on which rents now sit. That is what the party opposite voted for when it supported Gerry Carroll’s amendment. As I said at that stage, I understand why Gerry Carroll moved the amendment. That is his politics; it is in his political DNA.

I understand that. It is where he is in the political spectrum. It is probably where Sinn Féin is, too, in the political spectrum. They were so spooked by the one Member proposing this amendment that they got themselves in such a muddle that the Minister said one thing and the party did the other. What a shambles.

In general there seems to have been a lot of energy released into the Assembly by the collapse of the Executive (which on the face of it is potentially a good thing, or at the every least shows an appetite for democratic effort), but as we see in this episode rushing legislation through can be a bad thing too.

This looks like an effort to get something in front of the electorate before May’s election: the only real explanation for Sinn Féin’s ‘provisional’ corporate desertion of its own Minister and her considered legal advice on the matter. Ditto on the Climate Change Bill which is barely worth the paper it’s printed on.

What’s odd, politically speaking, about the panic amongst individual SF MLAs is that it affected just one multimember constituency out of eighteen. Presumably they were relying on the DUP to vote with their own minister’s advice (and that of the housing need lobby) and it would have been forgotten at once.

But, for once, the DUP did not oblige them. There’s maybe some life left in the old unionist dog yet?

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