Presiding Officer’s Business

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 5th October 1998.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

By virtue of paragraph 1 of the schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, it falls to the Secretary of State to determine where and when meetings of the Assembly shall be held. I have received from the Minister of State, Mr Murphy, a letter advising me that

"The Secretary of State directs that the Assembly shall meet at Parliament Buildings, Stormont at 10.30 on Monday 5 October until 6.00 pm on Friday 30 October."

It is also the responsibility of the Secretary of State, under paragraph 10 of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, to determine the Standing Orders of the Assembly during the shadow period. The Minister of State, Mr Murphy, has further written advising me that the Secretary of State has considered and agrees to the proposal from the Committee on Standing Orders, set out in the letter of the Joint Chairman, Mr Cobain, to the Minister, dated 17 September 1998, that the number of seats on each Assembly Committee should be increased by one. The Secretary of State has therefore determined that paragraphs 15(2) and 16(2) of the Initial Standing Orders are amended to read as follows:

"15(2) Committees shall consist of not less than 10 and not more than 19 members and shall be such that, as far as is practicable, there is a fair reflection of the parties participating in the Assembly and that each party with at least two Members shall have at least one seat on each Committee."

"16(2) The Committee shall consist of the Initial Presiding Officer (who shall be Chairperson), the Deputy Presiding Officer and not less than eight and not more than 17 Members appointed by the Initial Presiding Officer, following consultation with the leaders of the parties of the Assembly, and shall be such that, so far as is practicable, there is a fair reflection of the parties participating in the Assembly and that each party with at least two Members, shall have at least one place."

Members should note that at this stage the rest of the Initial Standing Orders remain unchanged.

I have previously observed that the Initial Standing Orders give only limited guidance on the conduct of our business, both inside and outside the Chamber. In such a period of transition that may be inevitable, but it can lead to misunderstandings. In particular, the way in which the Initial Presiding Officer should conduct himself is rather ill-defined. I have two remarks about how I intend to interpret my role during my time in office.

I have decided to adopt the definition that was given in Speaker Lenthall’s description of his duties:

"I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here."

For that reason I have not given, and do not intend to give, any interviews or comment on matters pertaining to the content of our business here. Therefore I am adopting the conventions that are often referred to as Speaker’s Rules.

Having dealt with conduct, I shall now turn to rulings. The Committee on Standing Orders, under the joint chairmanship of Mr Fred Cobain and Mr Denis Haughey, was mandated by the Assembly to develop a comprehensive set of orders for the guidance and regulation of our work. Although those will not become our Standing Orders until they have been adopted by the Assembly and approved by the Secretary of State, I intend to use any agreement that is reached by the Committee on Standing Orders as guidance in interpreting the Initial Standing Orders. Of course, where there is a conflict, the Initial Standing Orders must prevail.

It may also be helpful if I clarify the role of some of the items which are being sent out to Members. Four sheets of paper went out to Members last Thursday by special delivery — the Order Paper for the upcoming Assembly sitting, the business diary for the following two weeks, the schedule of forthcoming business and the all-party notices. The Order Paper and the business diary speak for themselves. The forthcoming business paper lists only those upcoming matters which have been agreed to be tabled. If nothing has been listed under forthcoming business it should not be assumed that no business will take place on that day; it means simply that no business has yet been agreed for that day.

It is important that Members understand that the all-party notices are not only a way of communicating administrative arrangements from the Secretariat to Members. Members may also use them to communicate with each other. For example, a Member may sponsor a meeting in a Committee room, which is open to all Assembly Members. That could be included by advising the Second Clerk of the details in advance.

These four papers will continue to be sent to Members by special delivery on Thursday evenings.

Later this week, we hope to have available a first version of the Assembly Members’ Handbook. This will be in the form of a loose-leaf binder so that the information contained in it can be updated regularly. Feedback on all this material, including problems with arrangements for delivery, would be most helpful.

At the last sitting of the Assembly a Shadow Assembly Commission was elected, and it has met on three occasions. To enable Members to follow the Commission’s deliberations, I have, with the agreement of its members, arranged for a copy of the minutes of each of its meetings to be placed in the Library. It is intended that this practice will be continued. When the Commission judges that there are substantive issues which ought to be brought before the Assembly, a statement will be made in the Chamber.

Following the terrible events in Omagh, the Secretary of State appointed Mr John McConnell to assist, on behalf of the Government, in the process of rebuilding lives and property so terribly damaged. The Assembly’s concerns demonstrated in the debate at its last sitting have been noted, and Mr McConnell has produced a brief note for the Assembly on progress to date. He has forwarded this to me, and I have placed a copy of it in the Library.