Presiding Officer’s Business

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 am on 1st February 1999.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer 12:00 am, 1st February 1999

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 meetings of the Assembly shall be held and when. I have received a letter to the Assembly from the Secretary of State directing that it shall meet at Parliament Buildings, Stormont at 10.30 am on Monday 1 February until 6.00 pm on Tuesday 23 February. The Secretary of State has also indicated that she will consider a further direction in respect of this period, in particular in the light of any indications she may receive as to the wishes of the Assembly after it has begun to meet.

At the last sitting, several matters were raised with me on which I was asked to give a ruling and on which I offered to conduct investigation. The first, raised by Mr O’Connor, a Member for East Antrim, was about entry to the Chamber by Members during the conduct of a vote. On a related point, Mr Ian Paisley Jnr asked about the authority to have the doors locked.

I have investigated these matters. ‘Erskine May’ cites the precedent of Members being specifically identified in connection with entering a Division Lobby after the order has been given to lock the doors. I believe that this precedent is relevant. I therefore rule as follows.

Dr Ian Paisley and Mr Paisley Jnr entered the Chamber, according to the timed video tape, fully 60 seconds after the order for the doors to be closed had been given, and after a number of Members had voted. Both this and the leaving of the Chamber by any Member prior to the Doorkeepers’ reopening the Doors is improper.

Under Initial Standing Order 2(1), it is within the Speaker’s powers to instruct that the doors be secured during a Division. To do otherwise would be to disadvantage Members whose names occur early in the alphabetical list.

It is not permissible to vote from the Galleries, nor will it be permissible to vote in the Division Lobbies until the Assembly decides, under Standing Orders, that they can be used for that purpose, at which time they will become the proper places to vote. In this situation, however, it is quite clear that the Members entered the Division Lobby after the doors had been closed.

In view of the fact that Dr Paisley was aware of the procedure of the closing of the doors, as is clear from his intervention, recorded on videotape and timed at 5.15 pm, at the sitting on 15 December 1998, and since other Members who held the rules were unable to have their votes recorded on a previous occasion, I rule that the record be amended to disallow the votes of Dr Paisley and Mr Paisley Jnr on that occasion.

Mr McCartney raised the issue of getting advice from the Deputy Clerk. In particular, he enquired about whether it would be advisable to leave the Chamber. Having investigated the exchanges, I am content that the Deputy Clerk acted properly on that occasion.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Following the marvellous achievement of Ulster at Lansdowne Road at the weekend, is it in order for me to ask whether arrangements have been made for the Assembly to receive this great rugby team so that we may all rejoice in their achievement of becoming European champions?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I agree with Mr Kennedy, and I understand that some matters are in hand. But I am not sure that this is a point of order.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I ask you to reflect further on the meaning and intention of Standing Order 2(1), which you quoted in an earlier ruling. It is clear that your role is to interpret and enforce Standing Orders, but you do not have the power to make new Standing Orders. Quite properly, that power is withheld from you. No Standing Order suggests that the Doors should be closed or locked, and you have enforced existing Standing Orders in such a way as to attempt to extend them. I would like you to look at this matter again because it goes far beyond what the Standing Orders entitle the Initial Presiding Officer to do.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

On almost every occasion when requested by Members to review a matter I have done so. I will do so again on this occasion. However, I should draw the Assembly’s attention to two matters.

First, I have repeatedly said that the Initial Standing Orders are not adequate for the conduct of the Assembly’s business and that, therefore, I should take other matters into account. Those matters include the draft Standing Orders, the discussions on them, and ‘Erskine May’. I have made that clear on a number of occasions.

Secondly, on the issue of fastening the doors — not locking them — I have not given instructions that they must be locked, although that is the procedure in other places when Members do not accept that the doors should simply be closed. If the doors were not closed our procedure would be improper because advantage would be given to Members whose names came later in alphabetical order, and that could lead to discrimination.

I will look again at the matter, and if I have made a judgement which has gone beyond what is appropriate I will draw that to the attention of the Assembly.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. Will you please provide Members with a list of what you believe is proper and what is not proper. It is extremely difficult for Members to operate properly when they do not know exactly what, in your terms, is proper and what is not proper. According to Standing Order 2(2), you have no right to disallow our votes or to remove us from the Chamber. You have no right to tell us when we may or may not enter the Chamber. For those reasons, we need a list of what, in your mind, is proper and what is improper.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I have already given that list. The matter to which I refer is clearly dealt with in ‘Erskine May’, and that was followed in the ruling given.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Will you give the precise paragraph in ‘Erskine May’ which says that doors have to be locked.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I am not clear about the purpose of the point of order since, as I have already said, my instruction was not that the doors be locked but merely that they be closed. However, I am content to state the section of ‘Erskine May’ on which I based the ruling on what happens when Members are named as having entered the Division Lobbies after the doors have been locked and the procedure to be followed when it makes no difference to the outcome of the vote. I think that the reference is on page 354. I will advise Members if that is incorrect.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

Do you not accept that on all these matters ‘Erskine May’ is not specific but general?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

The Member must consult ‘Erskine May’. On this matter it is not general but highly specific.

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

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I do not understand. In ‘Erskine May’ there is a clear statement about the locking of doors. Anyone who understands what happens in the Mother of Parliaments knows that the Chamber is never locked against Members at voting time. Sometimes the Lobby doors are locked, but not the Chamber.

You have been taking guidance from ‘Erskine May’. It covers the locking of doors, but you have said that you asked for the doors to be shut, not locked. Therefore your ruling, based on ‘Erskine May’, is not applicable in these circumstances.

How can you make a new Standing Order about voting? You must rule on the basis of the Standing Orders made by the Secretary of State. She alone has the power to make Standing Orders at this time. Your ruling on the issue of voting has not interpreted a Standing Order; it has made a new Standing Order — something that you have no power to do.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

The Member is suggesting that it is appropriate for Members to vote at any time and in any manner they choose. That is not proper.

The timed videotape shows that the two Members entered the Chamber after the other Members had begun to vote. At the last sitting it was suggested that the Members had been in the Division Lobby at the time. From my investigations it is clear that that is not the case.

I must give rulings to keep things in order. From the first sitting of the Assembly I have made it clear that the Initial Standing Orders are not sufficient for the proper maintenance of order, and there has been no dissent. I made it clear that I would refer to ‘Erskine May’, and there was no dissent. I said that I would call for the doors to be fastened, and there was no dissent. Indeed, Dr Paisley rose at 5.15 pm on 15 December to point out that the doors were locked. In fact, they were simply closed. However, he was right in saying that they should have been opened after the vote was taken. He was correct, but he made no objection to the fact that they were closed at that stage. I assume that if that had been a matter for legitimate objection, objection would have been made. Of course, there are aspects of ‘Erskine May’ that are not applicable — this being a different type of Assembly.

I do not claim always to get it right, but Members must be aware that it is not possible for every matter to be conducted properly on the basis of the Initial Standing Orders. I have taken a reasonable number of objections and points of order on this matter, and I should now proceed to the third item on the Order Paper.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 10:45 am, 1st February 1999

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. You have referred to matters raised by Mr McCartney on 18 January regarding statements made, or alleged to have been made, to him by the Deputy Clerk. You said that you had looked into the matter and were satisfied that the Deputy Clerk had behaved correctly. Can you give Members more information about this? Mr McCartney’s comments on that occasion, and his report of the conversation that he had with the Deputy Clerk, do give rise to some serious considerations if they are accurate. Please explain more fully the basis upon which you are satisfied that the Deputy Clerk behaved properly.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I have looked into the matter in respect of Mr McCartney’s comments and have received from the Deputy Clerk a written account of what was said. I have also received a letter from the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party and have responded to it.

From my enquiries I believe that matters were conducted properly. There was a clear dispute: some Members claimed that the Deputy Clerk should have said more, while others feared that he might have said too much. Such was the dilemma that the Deputy Clerk found himself in, and, from what I have ascertained, I am satisfied that the matter was conducted properly.

However, if Members feel that there are matters which have not been drawn to my attention, but ought to be, they should advise me accordingly. If other material comes to hand I will treat it seriously.

Photo of Mr Denis Haughey Mr Denis Haughey Social Democratic and Labour Party

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. I do not think it satisfactory to leave the previous debate as it stands. Mr Robinson and Mr Paisley implied or stated that your authority is limited to an interpretation of the present Standing Orders. Standing Order 2(1) states

"The Presiding Officer’s ruling shall be final on all questions of procedure and order."

That clearly indicates that, with regard to practical arrangements for the business of the House, your authority goes beyond these Standing Orders.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

The Member puts it very clearly and, I think, properly. It is impossible to conduct matters solely on the basis of an interpretation of the rather thin Initial Standing Orders. The Assembly is aware of that. I drew this to Members’ attention on the first day and have drawn it to their attention on virtually every other day since. There has been no dissent until now, when Members find themselves on the wrong side of a ruling.

The purpose of Standing Order 2(1) is to address the inadequacies in the current Initial Standing Orders.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Further to the point of order raised by the right hon Member for Upper Bann (Mr Trimble), I wish to make it clear that I do not withdraw in any way the remarks that I made in relation to the information which I received from the Deputy Clerk.

I wish to underline the fact that those remarks were intended not to indicate any imputation against the Deputy Clerk, but merely to establish that the Deputy Clerk was privy, as you were, to information about the intention of some parties to move the closure. Your reaction to that knowledge, which I believe you had, is the issue that is to be the subject of the first debate today. The matter which Mr Trimble raised can be more than adequately dealt with then.

The point that I was making, as will be clear to Members familiar with the rules of evidence, is that it seemed that the Deputy Clerk was privy to something that was going to occur and, by implication, that you were privy to it.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I refer to what I said earlier. If Members have matters which they wish to take further I will investigate them and take appropriate action.

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

Mr Initial Presiding Officer, further to the point of order raised by Mr Haughey, that Standing Order relates to a ruling on the Standing Orders. For you to make up procedure under no auspices whatsoever is ridiculous. You can only rule on the basis of what is in the Standing Orders.

You said earlier how terrible it would be if we were all to vote on the call of our names. That happens in the European Parliament when a President is elected. Members stay out of the Chamber until their names are called. Surely the Assembly should be capable of following the procedure of the great European experiment, which Members opposite laud to the highest heaven.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I was not aware that Dr Paisley was now advocating the European way.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Further to my earlier point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Mr McCartney’s comments give rise to some serious matters in view of his statement that he does not in any way withdraw the comments that he made on 18 January.

In every such deliberative body it is normal practice for parties, from time to time, to advise the Speaker’s office, in confidence, of things that they may propose to do during the proceedings.

Mr McCartney’s comments of 18 January, repeated today, imply that that confidence was broken by someone in your office. As Mr McCartney stands over those comments, it is important that we establish whether the necessary confidentiality has been breached.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Mr Initial Presiding Officer, may I respond to that point of order?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

If it is a question of raising a point of order, that is another matter. The matter has been aired, and if any further material is brought, I will look into it.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Whether there is some pathetic play with words about what a response meant it is neither here nor there. I never suggested at any time that the Deputy Clerk breached any confidence. However, he was clearly placed in a difficult position because he was being asked a question which would have meant his breaching a confidence if he responded positively. He did not respond positively but it was quite clear by inference — and that is all that I have ever said — that he was aware of information to which I have already referred.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. On 18 January Mr McCartney said

"the Clerk told me that ... it might not be opportune to leave the House."

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

As I said earlier, sometimes matters are not necessarily undisputed. If there is other material, Members should bring it forward.