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Assembly: Preliminary Matters

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 1st July 1998.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I will begin the proceedings by drawing attention to a number of formal statements.

First, in respect of my own position, I received from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland a letter of appointment dated 29 June. The relevant paragraph reads as follows:

"In accordance with paragraph 3(1) of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, I hereby appoint you as the Initial Presiding Officer for the New Northern Ireland Assembly."

The letter also contains formal notification of the time and place of the first meeting of the Assembly. The relevant paragraph reads as follows:

"By virtue of paragraph 1 of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 it falls to me to decide where meetings of the Assembly shall be held, and when. I hereby direct that the first meeting of the Assembly shall take place in Block B, Castle Buildings, Stormont, commencing at 2.00 pm on Wednesday 1 July."

I will arrange for the full text of that letter to be printed in the Official Report.

Following is the letter:

"In accordance with paragraph 3(1) of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, I hereby appoint you as the Initial Presiding Officer for the New Northern Ireland Assembly. Further details of the terms of your appointment will follow shortly.

An early substantive task for the Assembly will be to consider any proposals there may be to elect an Initial Presiding Officer and a Deputy Initial Presiding Officer, on a cross-community basis. You would of course be eligible to be nominated as a candidate for election to the post of Initial Presiding Officer. If no proposal is made or no election is successful, you would of course remain in post.

Time and place of Assembly meetings

By virtue of paragraph 1 of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 it falls to me to decide where meetings of the Assembly shall be held, and when. I hereby direct that the first meeting of the Assembly shall take place in Block B, Castle Buildings, Stormont, commencing at 2.00 pm on Wednesday 1 July.

Should there be business for the Assembly to conduct on Thursday 2 July, I would be content to direct that a meeting be held on that day at the same place. Thereafter, while facilities for Members, Committees and office-holders will continue to be available, initially at Castle Buildings and then at Parliament Buildings throughout the summer, I presume there will be an interval of some weeks before the next meeting of the Assembly. I will need to write to you formally about that in due course but I hope that before then Paul Murphy or I can have a discussion with you about how my duty to direct the times and places of the Assembly’s meetings can be discharged in a way which gives the Assembly reasonable flexibility and an opportunity to influence the pattern and frequency of its own meetings.

Standing Orders

In accordance with paragraph 10(1) of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, I am responsible for determining the Standing Orders for the Assembly and I hereby notify the enclosed Standing Orders to you. They have been drawn up following consultation with the political parties and I trust that they provide a basis for the efficient conduct of the Assembly’s initial business. You will see that Annex A to the Standing Orders sets out the agenda for the Assembly’s first meeting.

Clearly, more developed Standing Orders will need to be drawn up to enable the Assembly to proceed, for example, to the appointment — by the D’Hondt procedure — of a Shadow Executive Committee and the establishment of related Assembly Committees; and I intend to determine such Standing Orders as soon as possible. In drawing these up I would value the views of members of the Assembly and I trust that arrangements can be made to enable the Government to consult a relevant Committee of the Assembly or to secure the views of the Assembly in other appropriate ways.

The work of the new Assembly in both its ‘shadow’ and substantive phases will be challenging and I hope rewarding, not only for all its members but for the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. The role of the Initial Presiding Officer will be extremely important in all of this.

I wish you every success as the Initial Presiding Officer for the New Northern Ireland Assembly. Paul Murphy or I would welcome an opportunity to meet you before the Assembly’s first meeting to discuss any issues you would like to raise with us."

I should also at this point draw attention to the statutory remit of this Assembly, which is set out in section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998:

"There shall be an Assembly called the New Northern Ireland Assembly, for the purpose of taking part in preparations to give effect to the Agreement reached at the multi-party Talks on Northern Ireland set out in Command Paper 3883."

I have also received from the Secretary of State a letter, dated 29 June, formally referring a range of specific matters to the Assembly for its consideration. Copies of that letter have been distributed to all Members, and I shall arrange for the full text to be printed with the record of these proceedings.

Following is the letter:

"The New Northern Ireland Assembly has been established, in the words of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, ‘for the purpose of taking part in preparations to give effect to the Agreement reached in the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland set out in Command Paper 3883’. This reflects paragraph 35, page 9 of the Agreement which states that ‘The Assembly will meet first for the purpose of organisation, without legislative or executive powers, to resolve its Standing Orders and working practices and make preparations for the effective functioning of the Assembly, the British/Irish Council and North/South Ministerial Council and associated implementation bodies’.

By virtue of Section 1(2) of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 I may ‘refer’ to the Assembly

During its ‘shadow’ phase the Assembly and those holding office in the Assembly will have a very important role to play in preparing to implement the various provisions of the Belfast Agreement. In that context there are a number of specific matters arising from the Agreement which I hereby refer to the Assembly.

First, the implementation of the Agreement requires the Assembly to organise itself and put in place the basic structures of the Assembly, as set out in the Agreement, through

Second, other preparations to implement the Agreement include those required to establish the British/Irish Council and North/South Council and associated implementation bodies. This will require action from the Assembly or members holding office in the Assembly, including:

Third, the Assembly will need to ‘resolve’ its Standing Orders and working practices, to apply after powers have been transferred. Agreement on Standing Orders will of course require cross-community support in the Assembly.

Fourth, there is the question of establishing the ‘consultative Civic Forum’, as set out in paragraph 34 ... of the Agreement. This specifies that ‘the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will by agreement provide administrative support for the Civic Forum and establish guidelines for the selection of representatives to the Civic Forum’. During the Assembly’s shadow phase I am anxious to consult the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (and the Assembly more widely) so that arrangements can be put in hand to secure the earliest appropriate establishment of the Civic Forum.

In referring these four matters to the Assembly under Section 1(2) of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, I reserve the right to refer these or other related matters to the Assembly in different or more detailed terms; and to refer a range of other matters, whether or not they arise specifically from the Agreement reached in the multi-party talks."

Further, I have received from the Secretary of State today a letter dated 1 July, which reads as follows:

"Further to my letter to you of 29 June, and the initial Standing Orders for the New Northern Ireland Assembly, I am writing to notify you that I have determined that the initial agenda should be extended to enable a time-limited adjournment debate, once all the other business on the initial agenda has been completed."

The purpose of that debate is to enable discussion on matters of current difficulty and importance in Northern Ireland. That will be the time when those matters may be raised. The Secretary of State has indicated that it is a time-limited debate, and I believe that all parties should have an opportunity to speak. I therefore propose to allow each party Leader, or his or her nominee, in order of party size, to speak for up to 10 minutes.

I mentioned to the party Whips yesterday that I, for so long as I am in the Chair, will have no objection to the use of Irish or any other language. However, we have no simultaneous translation facilities at present, so it would be appropriate if, out of courtesy, Members were to offer their own translation. Speeches will be reported in the language spoken. There will be no translation other than that which is offered by the Member. That applies to any alternative language, though Irish is, I expect, the one most likely to be used.

The Standing Orders provide that no mobile phones, tape recorders, brief-cases or large bags may be brought into the Chamber, including the Strangers’ Gallery. At this sitting Members may carry pagers so long as they are on vibration mode.

Finally, I propose to have a suspension of about 15 minutes after the signing of the Roll so that I can ensure that each Member has taken his or her seat in accordance with the Standing Orders.

I now invite Members to formally take their seats — in other words, to sign the Roll.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. You have indicated that there will be an Adjournment debate on important and significant matters and that the party Leaders or their nominees will be given 10 minutes to speak. Will the three individuals on the Unionist side be entitled to 10 minutes each?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I have received no approaches on that matter, but if I am still in a position to do so I shall consider any proposal as constructively as I can.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I take it that in future the three individuals will be informed. My information is that they have been told about nothing. Independent members of other bodies receive the same information as everyone else. The fact that people here are Independents does not mean that they should not be properly briefed.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

How independent Members choose to conduct themselves is a business matter, and there are various models. However, perhaps it is a little early for us to be dealing with this question.