Given my clear personal interest in this matter, I have sought the agreement of the parties to the appointment of an alternative Chairperson for this item of business only. It is for the Assembly to decide when to appoint a Presiding Officer and a Deputy Presiding Officer, although such a proposal would have to follow a motion being tabled and appearing on the Order Paper at least one day in advance of a plenary session. That has not yet happened, nor has the Secretary of State appointed a Deputy Presiding Officer.
In the interests of fairness, and for the protection of the Assembly’s interests, it would be inappropriate for me to preside over this item of business and, therefore, someone else should preside.
After discussions, I believe that Ms Jane Morrice is the most acceptable Member to preside during the debate on item 3, and I beg leave of the Assembly to ask her to take the Chair at that time.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Can you assure us that the alternative Presiding Officer will have the powers that you currently possess to regulate the Assembly’s business?
If the Assembly gives leave for Ms Morrice to take the Chair for the debate on this motion, she will have the authority to conduct the business for that business alone. At the end of the debate on the motion, whatever the outcome, the Initial Presiding Officer will return to the Chair. The Assembly can then decide on how it will conduct matters in relation to the election of an alternative Presiding Officer.
I trust that those proposals are clear to Members. Ms Morrice will, by leave, preside over the debate on the motion.
I will set out the rules where those that were established in the Initial Standing Orders reported to the Assembly on 26 October 1998 are inadequate by reference to parliamentary practices that are described in ‘Erskine May’. This temporary chairmanship is made in the absence of a Deputy Initial Presiding Officer, and will lapse upon the return of the Initial Presiding Officer to the Chair. During the debate, I suggest, Ms Morrice be referred to as Madam Chair. At the end of the debate, and following any Division, the Temporary Chairperson will vacate the Chair.
Under Initial Standing Order 13(5), the Initial Presiding Officer shall continue in office, irrespective of the outcome of the debate. However, should the censure motion be agreed, the Initial Presiding Officer would continue to preside over the Assembly’s business until another Member is elected under Initial Standing Order 13 or until he resigns and the Secretary of State makes another appointment.
I invite Ms Morrice to take the Chair.
I beg to move the following motion:
This Assembly has no confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer.
Madam Acting Initial Presiding Officer, I welcome you to the Chair, however short your sojourn may be. The matter that we are about to debate is very serious — one that concerns a critical aspect of the working of any democratic parliamentary assembly: do Members have confidence in their Presiding Officer? It is important that we set the scene against which the debate took place, the central issue and the Speaker’s handling of it, which is what has given rise to this motion of no confidence.
During the lead up to the preparation of the report by the First Minister Designate and the Deputy First Minister Designate there was considerable speculation about its content. The business managers of the House, who meet in the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer (CAPO), give advice to the Presiding Officer, upon which he makes determinations. Over a number of weeks consideration was given to how this debate would be conducted. A conclusion was reached in the CAPO meeting of the 11 January 1999. I want to put on to the record extracts from the minutes of that meeting, which show what was agreed. Under the heading "Timing" they say
"Mr P Robinson proposed the debate on the Report by the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) should be conducted on 18, 19 and if required 20 January, the remaining business to be completed on 20 January."
That clearly demonstrates what was proposed.
"The Initial Presiding Officer suggested the debate should be conducted from 10.30 am to 6.00 pm on 18 and 19 January and potentially Wednesday if required. The debate can be extended by a short period on 19 January if that would complete the debate."
Mr Robinson is informing the House that the timing of this debate came from the lips of the Initial Presiding Officer. He said that we could have this debate over two days and, if necessary, a third. It was his decision, made in view of the importance of the subject matter and of the number of Members who wished to participate.
The whole point about CAPO is that it is a Committee to advise the Presiding Officer who takes decisions on these matters. His decision is recorded in the minutes. Furthermore, it is then his responsibility, under law, for the Initial Presiding Officer to publish a business diary, giving to Members in advance, information about what the business of the House will be.
The business diary for that week clearly shows a plenary session for Monday 18 January 1999 and Tuesday 19 January 1999, and a plenary session for Wednesday 20 January 1999, if required. There was no doubt that there was to be a full two-day debate and, if required, a third day on Wednesday 20 January 1999.
The Order Paper was issued on the day of the debate. It set out Monday 18 January 1999, Tuesday 19 January 1999 and Wednesday 20 January 1999 as sitting days. There could be no doubt in the mind of the Initial Presiding Officer about what was reasonable and right in terms of the length of time for the debate. The Business Committee — or CAPO, as it is called — took cognizance of the fact that this was a crucial debate on a very important subject — and this was recognised by all of the parties — and, therefore, that it needed the additional day or two.
All parties were represented at the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, and not one Member objected to a two- or three-day debate. Nor did any Member move that the debate be shortened in any way. There was no indication that the period allocated for this debate was too long, and the decisions that were taken clearly come from the advice given to the Initial Presiding Officer by all of the parties.
The debate, quite obviously, took fairly predictable lines. It was a normal Assembly debate — not even the references to hijackers and aeroplanes were particularly unusual. However, I listened to the revisionists trying to explain why it was proper to curtail the debate. Some of them said it was petering out: that is absolute nonsense. When the curtailing motion was brought forward, at least a dozen Members had yet to speak. Some Members arrogantly suggested that it be curtailed after they had spoken, since from then — for them — everything was downhill, and nothing further needed to be said. However, the reality was that there was plenty of steam left in the debate.
Then some of the revisionists suggested that there had been repetition. One of them had the audacity to quote my colleague Jim Wells who raised matters that nobody else had. There is nothing wrong with repetition, providing that it is not the same person repeating himself, and that seems to have been forgotten. There was no repetition; under the Standing Orders, it is the Initial Presiding Officer’s responsibility to draw to a Member’s attention the fact that he is repeating his remarks tediously and ask him to resume his seat, but there is nothing to stop one Member from covering the same points that another has dealt with.
It was also suggested that the debate was not the one that was expected. I am not sure what some Members did expect, but the subject matter was clear, and it had not changed. There may have been some delay in terms of one element of the overall report, but that would have been something more rather than less to debate. The debate had not reached the halfway stage when the Ulster Unionist Chief Whip rose to move the closure motion.
Mr Robinson stated that the debate had not reached the halfway stage, but in his earlier remarks he said that there were at least 12 speakers to be called. I understand that 30 Members had already been called, so can he please explain by what quirk of mathematics he thinks the debate was less than halfway through?
For the benefit of this intellectual colossus, my statement was based upon what I knew to be the position with regard to the number of DUP Members still to speak. I would not presume to guess the number that other parties would have been putting forward, but it would have been remarkable if the DUP had been allowed to have 12 speakers without any other party making some comments. It is clear that if some Members do not like what is being said, they stop it being said. That is some democracy for this House to enjoy!
I want to examine the decision that was taken, and, incidentally, I do not fault the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party for rising to attempt a closure motion. The Standing Orders provide for that — within certain limitations — and in terms of those, what he did was fairly acceptable. However, as far as the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer was concerned, he was breaking his word, because at that meeting it had been indicated that there would be a two- or three-day debate.
Madam Acting Initial Presiding Officer, the Standing Order should be put on record:
"After a motion has been proposed and provided that each of the parties present has had a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the debate, any member who has not already spoken to it, or to any amendment which has been moved, may move that the question be now put."
But there is a protection in the latter part of paragraph 11(1):
"and unless it shall appear to the Presiding Officer that such motion is an abuse of these Standing Orders, the question that the question be now put shall be put forthwith, and decided without amendment or debate."
The wording of the Standing Order is not accidental. It was not the original thought of the Secretary of State or her advisors; it comes directly from the House of Commons. It is the language of Westminster. When the Initial Presiding Officer, rightly and properly says that he uses ‘Erskine May’ as a guide, then we have the right to look at ‘Erskine May’ to see what guidance he would have found, had he looked there for advice.
There are two main tomes of knowledge in respect of practice and procedure in the House of Commons. One — the most respected — is ‘Erskine May’. The other — perhaps lesser known — is Griffith and Ryle: ‘Parliament: Functions, Practice & Procedures’. On the subject of closure Griffith and Ryle states
"The conditions attaching to the granting of the closure are important. Nothing is formally laid down, but the Chair, in whose sole, personal discretion it lies ……does seek to act within certain broad guidelines, based on previous practice and experience."
I want Members to listen to this:
"Here, practice and practical considerations are important."
And for those who do not know what the moment of interruption is, in terms of parliamentary language, it is usually at 10 o’clock, but it is a moment when a vote is expected.
"For example, a closure will normally be granted just before the moment of interruption at the end of a full day’s debate on a substantive motion ... It would not normally be granted on such business, significantly earlier than the moment of interruption. These cases are easy."
Before I come to ‘Erskine May’ — which is quite revealing on this subject — it might be worthwhile to explain why there are closure motions. As with a great deal of parliamentary practice, the House of Commons was forced to adopt closure motions because of disruption from nationalists. In the early part of this century — and, indeed, the latter part of the last — nationalists attempted to disrupt the proceedings of the House of Commons. They tried to prolong debate, to stop decisions from being taken. And those who are in the House of Commons know that if a Member speaks beyond his time, he can stop a vote from being taken.
Nationalists use these tactical procedures in order to disrupt parliamentary sessions, prevent decisions from being made and prolong debate.
A closure is not a mechanism to cut short a debate; it is a mechanism to stop a debate from being prolonged. That distinction must be made if anybody is to understand how a closure operates. That was the mistake — and I put it in those terms at the moment — made by the Initial Presiding Officer. He read the Standing Order in such a way that the closure motion was one that could cut short a debate. It never has been. It has always been a mechanism to ensure that the proper proceedings of Parliament could be held and not disrupted.
What does ‘Erskine May’ say about this? The chapter on methods of curtailing debate states
"All these methods were originally designed to counteract ... prolonging debate, and so obstructing the progress of business. They are probably a permanent feature of modern procedure, but they are still felt to be an unfortunate necessity and not to be justified except against obstruction or by pressure of business."
He goes on to say that the rights of the minority are protected by the discretionary power, given to the Chair and frequently exercised, to refuse to accept the closure motion. The critical words in ‘Erskine May’ are
"they are probably a permanent feature of modern procedure, but they are still felt to be an unfortunate necessity and not to be justified except against obstruction or by pressure of business".
Consider those two exceptions. The Initial Presiding Officer had indicated the length of time allocated to the debate. It was no obstruction for the debate to take its full course. The only obstruction was the move for closure. That was the abuse of Standing Orders, not continuing the debate according to the time scheduled.
I hardly need to address the subject of "pressure of business". Not even the bravest Member would dare to suggest that this Assembly has been under such time pressure that it had to move on to some other pressing matter. We have only met half a dozen times in six months; there was clearly no pressure of business, there was no other substantive motion to be debated and there was plenty of time to finish the debate. According to ‘Erskine May’ and to Griffith and Ryle, it is abundantly clear that the Initial Presiding Officer was wrong.
I described these circumstances to the Clerks at Westminster, without telling them where the matter had occurred, and asked what the Speaker would do. It was made absolutely clear to me that the Speaker would not have allowed the closure motion.
The consequences of the Initial Presiding Officer’s ruling were many. Parties had marshalled their troops for a two- or three-day debate, not just in terms of attendance but also by selecting their speakers and the order of speaking. To facilitate a balanced debate — and I suspect other parties who were unaware of the tactics of the Ulster Unionist Party may have done the same — this party had spread its key speakers for a two-day debate. We had slotted in several Members for their maiden speeches, which they were denied the opportunity to make.
Perhaps the greatest consequence was that this party at least had decided to divide responsibility for certain subjects over the two days. Contrary to the argument that there would have been repetition, later speeches would have dealt with the unnatural divisions involved in the creation of 10 Departments — Education divided in two, the cutting up of the Department of the Environment and housing going to Social Development. There are many artificial creations, and that would have been the subject of consideration.
The cost and danger of creating ten Departments is clearly a matter of some interest. Certainly it should be of interest to Ulster Unionists. I notice that Jim Nicholson, the Ulster Unionist MEP, found it incredible that ten Departments had been proposed, with an overall cost of £90 million. Mr Nicholson said
"I feel strongly that such proposals are not in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and … have no basis in logic."
Ulster Unionist security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, speaking in South Down, attacked what he called "the SDLP’s ‘snout in the trough’ approach to Assembly structures". He said the proposal that the present three Westminster Ministers managing six Departments should be replaced by ten Ministers —
Thank you, A Chathaoirligh.
I would just like to make a couple of points. In the past I have had to rise to criticize the Initial Presiding Officer, in particular, on the occasion when Mr Berry made a reference to the Loughgall incident: he, in fact, called for more Loughgalls. I had to draw the Initial Presiding Officer’s attention to the fact that this remark was disgraceful. Mr Berry was calling for further murders. [Interruption] The steam to which Mr Robinson referred has turned into hot air.
It is great to get a parliamentary lesson from the Rev Ian Paisley.
I am speaking to the motion of no confidence. I have previously raised objections to the manner in which the Initial Presiding Officer has conducted business here. There was one very serious incident during which I considered that he was in breach of his responsibilities — the incident in which Mr Berry referred to wanting more Loughgalls, more murders, by the British forces.
From my party’s point of view, the conduct in this Chamber has never been perfect, to say the least. However, Sinn Féin is opposed to this motion because it has more to do with political gimmickry and is a waste of people’s time. Those who voted for or, indeed, against the agreement, find it strange that parties can only find time to discuss a motion of no confidence in the Presiding Officer, who may not hold that position beyond 10 March. We have more important things to do than that.
On the matter of the guillotine motion, the DUP appears to be very smug about its ability to make best use of Standing Orders in many councils across the North. Its confidence does it credit.
To suggest that there cannot be a guillotine motion after 30 or so Members have spoken in a debate is a bit of a red herring. As a member of CAPO I certainly agreed to having two days and possibly a third day for a vote if that was necessary, but that was not binding on any of the parties. We supported the guillotine motion because in our view the matter had been well aired.
Initial comments and the conduct in that debate show that the DUP, the UKUP and other parties had several points of order which lasted for some considerable time. To have an additional 12 Members speaking after all the other contributions had been made would have been completely unnecessary. All parties had ample opportunity to express their views on the report tabled by the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate). We supported the guillotine motion not because we wanted to hinder the DUP — it may appear on television every day of the week for the high propaganda value it gets from that — but because we were sure that all parties had had ample opportunity to air their views on the report.
The general public watch the antics of DUP Members and of Mr McCartney, who is the other expert at tomfoolery in the Chamber.
We have no interest in guillotining the debate to prevent any party airing its views. We made sure we were satisfied that all parties had ample opportunity to express their views on the report. The debate is a waste of time and energy. It is political tomfoolery, and the public will make their own judgement on that. We have criticised the Initial Presiding Officer in the past and no doubt we may do so in future but overall, he has conducted the Assembly’s affairs satisfactorily, and we therefore oppose the motion.
At the risk of repeating the words of a DUP Member earlier in the debate, I do not intend to say much in this charade. The debate should have been curtailed. For the DUP, it was not a question of debating the report by the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) but of having a go at the Ulster Unionists on the whole question of decommissioning. Most of what DUP Members said had nothing to do with the report.
Mr Robinson chose today to deal with issues in the report that should have been dealt with in the debate on that report. I regret that we are not debating the issue of Assembly staff being abused and bullied at the Doors by some DUP Members. Having raised this issue, will I also be threatened with legal proceedings in the way other Members have been threatened?
On a point of order. Is it right for a Member knowingly to raise a matter which is now sub judice or a matter which was raised outside the confines of this building in order to try in some way to interfere in the due process of law?
At least I do not put people’s lives at risk by the issues that I raise in the Chamber. Mr Robinson said that this is a democratic, parliamentary Assembly. I conclude by saying that a democratic vote was taken on closure in the Assembly.
As a member of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, I concur with Mr Robinson’s comments. As Members are aware, after a period of deliberation and debate, the Committee expresses the unanimous view of all the parties that are represented on it, and the Presiding Officer considers our advice. He then determines how business is presented to the House and the manner in which it is conducted.
It is clear, as the record shows, that the parties indicated to the Initial Presiding Officer that a reasonable amount of time was needed to debate the matter fully — one of the major debates that we have had in the House so far.
Having considered the views of all members of the Committee, the Initial Presiding Officer concluded that the debate on the Report from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) should last for two, and possibly three, days.
Regrettably, the Initial Presiding Officer, having reached that conclusion, subsequently agreed to a closure motion to cut the debate short. The manner in which the debate was brought to a close was particularly distasteful to anti-agreement Members. They believed that the Report from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) was a serious matter, one which will have ramifications, not only for this Chamber and those involved in the political process, but for the wider community in Northern Ireland for many years to come.
The Initial Presiding Officer was wrong to close the debate at that time. In his opening comments today he acknowledged that he does not always get it right, and I believe that that was one occasion when he did not get it right. Although the Initial Presiding Officer has performed the duties of the Chair to the satisfaction of the Assembly, on this occasion, he made a serious error of judgement. Shortening the debate prevented Members from having enough time to discuss these matters fully. It was clear that the thrust towards shortening the debate came from the Ulster Unionist Party. We all know why the Ulster Unionist Party wanted to shorten the debate. It was not because they felt that Members had had a fair opportunity to express their opinions, and it was not because they felt that the debate had become repetitive.
I believe that I am firmly on target in relation to this subject. The fact that Mr Birnie has risen indicates that I have hit the bull’s-eye.
The motion was guillotined because the Ulster Unionist Party felt gravely uneasy about Members in their ranks who were having a very difficult day — they did not want to have to go through another day during which these Members would question the party’s line.
The Northern Ireland Unionist Party hopes that the Initial Presiding Officer will recognise that he did err in this case. It is hoped that we will not witness such a spectacle in the future. Procedures such as guillotine motions, when used to stifle debate, do nothing for the reputation of this House.
We have heard, since the inception of the peace process, during the negotiations at Castle Buildings and now in the Assembly, about its being an inclusive process. It appears that it is only inclusive, and Members can only fully ventilate their views, if they are in favour of the Belfast Agreement.
If we wish to oppose the Belfast Agreement, we are told by Members such as Sean Neeson that we are not democrats. Mr Neeson has the effrontery to question the relevancy of comments made by other parties. That has never stopped Mr Neeson getting to his feet.
It is not the business of this House, Madam Acting Presiding Officer, to determine whether Members feel that the issues being raised by parties are relevant or repetitive. If that is the criteria, then many of the debates would be much shorter. I hope that this tactic will not be used to stifle debate in the future.
Mr Robinson has explained that this tactic would not be considered normal procedure in any other debating chamber. I hope that in future the good name of this House will not be sullied by Members using procedural matters to stifle debate.
Madam Deputy Initial Presiding Officer (Designate) — perhaps I could simply refer to you as Madam Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker — the debate of 18 January was by far the most important debate that we have had in the Assembly. The future governance of Northern Ireland centred on it.
Members were aware that it had been agreed that the report formed the essence of the determination to be made on 15 February, upon which the future transfer of substantive powers would depend. It was therefore a debate of grave, constitutional importance for all the people of Northern Ireland, no matter their views. That was recognised in the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer when it was agreed that there should be a two- or possibly three-day debate. To suggest that this debate today is some form of vaudeville act or political mimicry is just nonsense.
This debate is about the cutting short of one of the most important and essential debates that we are likely to undertake in this Chamber. That is its importance. Mr Robinson makes a number of very valid points about parliamentary procedure, insofar as that is a guide.
The purpose of a closure motion is not to cut short a debate but to prevent the unnecessary prolongation of a debate for the purpose of obstruction. Where the prolongation of that debate would cause obstruction or prevent other pressing business from being attended to, the Speaker has discretion to take the necessary course if a closure motion is put. That was never the position that faced the Initial Presiding Officer when this was proposed. Indeed, we can presume that he was aware some time before that this closure motion was going to be put.
I wish to address very briefly the matter of my remarks about the Deputy Clerk. The Deputy Clerk and I have always had a relationship based not only on respect but also on a good deal of friendliness. I sought his advice because I had no knowledge that he knew, and that the Speaker knew, that there would be a closure motion.
I inadvertently put him in the embarrassing position of having to choose between telling the truth — to admit to me that it would be wrong to leave the Assembly because a motion could be pressed at any moment — and betraying the confidence of the Initial Presiding Officer. I was unaware that he was placed in that position and, in the circumstances, acknowledge that he endeavoured to be honourable and to preserve the confidentiality that is required of him. I was unaware of his difficulty, and, with the benefit of hindsight, if any of my remarks could be remotely interpreted as importuning his good name or his integrity, of course they are withdrawn.
From the record it is quite clear that that was never the case. I was simply indicating that by his answer, which was the only one he could give in the circumstances, he clearly indicated a degree of knowledge about a possible closure motion on the part of the Initial Presiding Officer.
The question arises whether it was appropriate for the Initial Presiding Officer to accept the closure motion and, in my submission, it was not appropriate at that time. In any event, the Initial Presiding Officer was aware that many Members were under the impression that there had been an agreement at the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer for a two-day or possibly a three-day debate, and Members who wished to speak were apportioned accordingly. The Initial Presiding Officer knew that that impression had been given by the CAPO agreement and by the order of business.
Several options were open to him. He could have said at some stage, or in response to Mr Wilson’s motion, that 30 Members had spoken and, although others had yet to speak, we were approaching the time when a closure motion might be accepted. Alternatively, he could have left it until the end of the first day and advised Mr Wilson that, although the moment for a closure was not yet appropriate, it was approaching. Everyone would have been alerted, and he would have been acting entirely within the rules of the procedure and precedence that are laid down in ‘Erskine May’ and in other books.
It is for the Assembly to decide whether it is nonsense. Sedentary remarks are usually not worth much.
I will vote against the motion because I believe that, to date, the Initial Presiding Officer has demonstrated great qualities. It is generally recognised that he has endeavoured to be fair to everyone, and he has dealt with the business with intelligence, good humour and understanding. However, that does not remove the fact that on this occasion he was wrong in terms of procedure and precedent in accepting the closure motion. Knowing that many were under the impression that the debate would go on for two days, he was wrong to curtail it. He must have been aware that many Members held strong views on the Belfast Agreement.
They had a desire to be heard. Justice is not just about winning a case; it is also about having an opportunity to speak and to put the case. Everyone knows that ultimately — since this was not taken as a vote requiring cross-community support — it would almost inevitably have been carried. Therefore there was no loss to anyone. There was certainly no loss to the Ulster Unionist Party or to the SDLP in letting this debate run its course by allowing everyone to be heard. At the end of the day they were going to succeed in having it carried.
So what purpose was served by the Presiding Officer’s accepting the closure motion? No purpose was served. People were denied the right to speak, people were obstructed from airing views on matters that meant a great deal to them. I therefore believe that the behaviour of the Presiding Officer on that occasion was totally wrong. He was complicit with the Ulster Unionist Party in accepting a procedural motion that had no merit, no justice and no place in public or political morality, a motion which should have been refused.
This motion was proposed by Mr Peter Robinson, a Member for East Belfast, who assured Members that this was a critical issue for the House. Having proposed the motion he promptly left the House along with his Leader, Dr Paisley, and most of the members of the DUP have been absent from the House since then.
Madam Chair, I repeat that the proposer, of the motion, having assured Members that this was a vital matter of immediate concern and of critical consequence to the House, left the House, along with the Leader of his party and most of its members. There may be those who take the view that Members are not grievously deprived or disadvantaged by the absence of Dr Paisley and Mr Robinson, but, having called Members for this vital debate, they should have had the courtesy to sit and listen to the debate — which they have not done. If this were a court of law —
If this were a court of law and the motion in front of the House were a charge, I would be moving now for the dismissal of the charge because the motion is wasteful.
It is spiteful, frivolous, self-indulgent, and characteristic of the quarters from which it emanated.
One of the things that puzzled me on the day of the debate was that Members were assailed by the strong view from the DUP that the only guidance that Members had for the regulation of the House, and its order of business, is the slim little tome — or perhaps I should say tomb. It is certainly a very grave matter.
"This is all we have" they said. Dr Paisley spoke at length about procedure in the European Parliament and the Mother of Parliaments, as he calls it, and Mr Robinson also quoted from ‘Erskine May’ in support of their case. And what is their case, Madam Chair? Their case is that such precedence and guidance have no bearing here. How much more absurd can you get than that? There is no case to answer here.
Standing Order 11(1) provides that
"After a motion has been proposed and provided that each of the parties present has had a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the debate, any Member who has not already spoken to it, or to any amendment which has been moved, may move that the question be now put."
That is on the paper, which we are assured is the supreme guide for this House.
I will read it in a minute.
There is therefore no question of Mr Wilson’s right to raise the motion, and Mr McCartney and others accept this. Standing Order 11(1) further provides
"and unless it shall appear to the Presiding Officer that such motion is an abuse of these Standing Orders, the question that the question be now put shall be put forthwith."
What is an abuse of the Standing Orders? The Presiding Officer is empowered by Standing Order 11(1) to make a judgement.
On 18 January six UUP Members, seven SDLP, five DUP, five Sinn Féin, two Alliance, two NIUP, one PUP, one NIWC, one UKUP and one UUAP had spoken. Every party was given the right to speak. Every party made an input.
Let us look at the input that was made. It is instructive. To be fair to Dr Paisley, he did refer to the report in very generalised terms. He was followed, for his party, by Mr Campbell who devoted all of his remarks to decommissioning, a matter which was not on the agenda and was not dealt with in the report. Mr Wells followed for the DUP, and likewise did not speak about the report. Mr Shannon followed, and he dealt exclusively with the Good Friday Agreement and decommissioning. Mr McCartney then followed with the Good Friday Agreement.
Is it in order that a Member should say that the Acting Initial Presiding Officer, on a previous occasion, when my hon Friend was speaking, permitted him to speak on something that was not relevant. Is it right that there should be such criticism of the Chair?
I am sticking entirely to the relevance of the debate. The debate is on whether we should have confidence in the Presiding Officer, and that is affected by whether he made a reasonable judgement on this occasion. Did this party have an opportunity to make an input into the debate. I am pointing out it did, and that it did not avail of it. I have listed the Members who made contributions — Mr Watson, Mr Carrick, Mr Boyd, Mr Roche. All those members of the anti-Agreement family had opportunities to speak, although they dealt almost exclusively with matters that were not before the House at all.
To argue that they did not get an opportunity to deal with the matter in question is clearly wrong and absurd especially in circumstances where almost none of what they had to say was relevant. I quote Initial Standing Order 2(1):
"The Presiding Officer’s ruling shall be final on all questions of procedure and order."
If I have any criticism of the Initial Presiding Officer it is that he showed a little too much indulgence to the codology, the guffawing, the sniggering, the catcalling, the schoolboy, schoolyard antics of the DUP and associated anti-agreement parties. They assert that this is a vital matter affecting everybody, but then rush to the door. The previous day Ulster was being sold out — a shameful betrayal — and they were behaving as though they were at the movies. There was laughter, guffawing and sniggering of a kind and duration that few of us have had the misfortune to see in the past.
Mr Robinson referred to the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer. He is calling for the rule and the rubric to be quoted word by word. Where do the rules give CAPO the right to determine and regulate the business of the House? CAPO’s role is to advise the Initial Presiding Officer, and that is clearly laid down in the regulations that established CAPO. Its decision to allocate two or three days to this debate was indicative — not imperative. Those who are shamming and crying that they did not get an opportunity to make their views known had that opportunity but did not bother to deal with the issue that was before the House. The Initial Presiding Officer’s ruling was entirely valid, appropriate, and intelligent, and I support it to the hilt.
Regrettably, it is necessary for this issue to be brought before the House. I welcome the opportunity to support the motion.
On 18 January, the Assembly was presented with the long-awaited report of the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) on the future government of Northern Ireland. Its content was crucial to the whole community, and that was clearly identified by those who were responsible for formulating the business of the Assembly because two to three days were set aside for the debate. Having agreed the schedule at the outset, the Initial Presiding Officer was aware of the need to permit as much input as possible to the debate. He made a poor judgement in his decision to permit the Assembly to govern itself on this matter.
One of the main selling points of the agreement was the fact that a 108-Member Assembly would be put in place to bring about devolved government in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it was agreed to increase the number of seats in each constituency from five to six — a change from previous decisions. That was to permit maximum representation from within our community, thus allowing the maximum contribution on behalf of our constituents.
For example, in relation to my constituency of East Antrim, if Mr Neeson had not been called in his capacity as leader of the Alliance Party, it is possible that no one from that area would have had the chance to express his views to the House, irrespective of whether he was pro or anti-agreement. That results in a serious under-representation of our communities and sends the wrong signals to the general public.
While the Initial Presiding Officer’s actions may have done a great disservice to many Members, he has also created a perception and a lack of confidence in the Assembly by the electorate. To many, it seems that when the going gets tough and the heat is on, the guillotine will be produced and the debate ambushed. That is the wrong message to send to the outside world. I have highlighted what the community expects in such circumstances, but there is also a need for equality within the House.
The Standing Orders were quoted by my colleague Mr Robinson. They state that closure occurs after a motion has been proposed and provided that each of the parties present has had reasonable opportunity to contribute to the debate.
Did the Initial Presiding Officer really deem this to be the case?
On previous occasions many parties had between 40% and 50% of their Members speaking in the debate. On 18 January 1999 the Democratic Unionist Party, the third largest group, had less than one third of its membership called despite the fact that all Members wished to speak. The Initial Presiding Officer had recognised this deficit on past occasions but failed, on 18 January 1999, to redress the matter and show equality.
After the community and the party, I as an individual, having been called by the Initial Presiding Officer, rose to speak but was ambushed and guillotined by the Initial Presiding Officer upholding the intervention of Mr J Wilson. If a Member has been called, his freedom of speech should be acknowledged, and any closure or putting of the question be put on hold. I have not yet received a satisfactory response to the question which I put to the Initial Presiding Officer on 18 January 1999.
On the question of individual Members’ participation, the issue must be raised as to why the Initial Presiding Officer determined a debate of two to three days, knowing the maximum time allocated to each Member and then, after five hours, allowed the debate to be closed. This indicates a serious misjudgement and clearly shows that a reasonable number of Members had not taken part in the debate.
Thirty Members may have contributed before the closure, but the time allocated would have allowed at least another 30 participants. If it had not been for the misjudgement of the Initial Presiding Officer many Members like myself from grass-roots Unionist and Loyalist backgrounds would have been able to give our views on issues raised in the report such as departmental structures, cross-border bodies, executives and, of course, the D-word — decommissioning.
It was, of course, the highlighting of the decommissioning issue which led to the unease among the Ulster Unionists, and despite assurances from the Deputy First Minister Designate that all would be listened to, both the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP contrived with others to force the Initial Presiding Officer to make a very poor decision.
While decommissioning was the word on most people’s lips on 18 January 1999, the D-word today is democracy. If democracy cannot be upheld through freedom of speech then the wheelbarrow Mr Close referred to can be loaded up with democracy, wheeled down the mile-long driveway and dumped outside the gates on the Upper Newtownards Road.
I once again commend the motion in the hope that, in future, such blatant acts of denial of freedom of speech are ended and reasonable opportunities are afforded to constitutional parties and individuals who adhere to the democratic process.
On a point of order. Mr Hilditch drew attention to page 473 of the Official Report, where he is reported as having said
"Having been ambushed and guillotined again, I am asking for a ruling on the putting of the Question. My freedom of speech has been affected. I had been told that I was to speak and was on my feet when I was interrupted. Was the putting of the Question ultra vires?"
You will note from the continuation of The Official Report that that question was not answered. It is important and incumbent upon yourself to give us a ruling on that matter.
The point of order is that during the course of his speech today Mr Hilditch has drawn attention to the fact that the Initial Presiding Officer at the last meeting and again this morning in his comments failed to give a ruling on the point he raised: the interruption of his speech by Mr J Wilson was ultra vires and therefore the putting of the Question was ultra vires.
I understand the point you are making, and, certainly, a ruling was required and requested of the Initial Presiding Officer at the last meeting. It should be put to him at a later stage.
If Mr Hilditch and Mr Ian Paisley Jnr looked further down the same column of the report, they would see, on page 473, that the Presiding Officer did give an answer to that question.
Further to that point of order, Madam Chair. You have not yet given me a ruling on this matter. It is not for another Member to supply you with his interpretation of a ruling; it is up to you to give a ruling on the matter. After Mr Hilditch spoke, three other Members made additional points of order that could be interpreted as being repetitious. Mr Hilditch’s point of order was a completely separate matter, and he has not yet received a ruling from the Initial Presiding Officer.
I welcome Ms Morrice in her position as acting Chairperson.
Our Initial Presiding Officer has had difficulties. It has often been said in the Chamber that this is not Westminster. Nor is it the Forum, which existed for two years before the Assembly. There seems to be much confusion about the Assembly’s procedures. The Initial Presiding Officer has tried to interpret the Initial Standing Orders, and he has often made the point that he would like the Standing Orders Committee to provide him with final Standing Orders that could be approved by the Secretary of State. Until such time, he must follow the Initial Standing Orders.
The Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer is exactly that. It is a committee that advises; it is not a committee that rules. The final authority rests with the House. In allowing the closure motion on 18 January, the Initial Presiding Officer was asking Members whether they wanted the Question to be put then. Seventy-five Members said "Aye" and 24 Members said "No". In other words, the Chamber ruled that we move to close the debate.
The record of proceedings of 18 January shows that we asked the Initial Presiding Officer to close the proceedings earlier than the Wednesday morning, which, according to Mr Robinson, was when the debate should have closed. However, page 466 of Hansard quotes Mr Peter Robinson as saying that if it was possible to close by Tuesday night, the Initial Presiding Officer could do so. That shows, therefore, that we have already given the Initial Presiding Officer authority to close a debate earlier than was agreed in the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer. However, the Initial Presiding Officer chose to ask the Assembly if the Question that would close the debate should be put.
We should, therefore, vote against today’s motion and show confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer. He had no alternative to putting the procedural Question on that occasion.
From time to time, Members may not like the rulings of the Initial Presiding Officer, and there have been occasions when we have asked him to rule, in consultation with ‘Erskine May’, on whether some of the language and behaviour in this Chamber has been discourteous or unparliamentary.
We have heard rulings which may not please every Member, but if this Chamber is to operate, it must accept them. We may be unhappy with them but we must work to ensure that proceedings in this Chamber are not discourteous.
It does not help the Chamber, in its early days, that a vote of no confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer is sought. This is more a quarrel about the fact that some Members did not get to speak on that occasion.
The Initial Presiding Officer has had to take account of the number of Members present and of the mandate of parties and make rulings on who should speak and who should not. Some Members have been displeased when debates have been closed, and not all have been able to put their positions. The Initial Presiding Officer might not get it right all the time, but I think that he has got it right most of the time.
I oppose the motion of no confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer.
I rise today as one of those who was deprived of the opportunity to speak on 18 January. The motion before the Assembly today is one of no confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer.
I am a member of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer. Those who attend that Committee will recall that it decided that Monday 18, Tuesday 19 and, if necessary, Wednesday 20 January should be designated as the days for debating the report from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate). Everybody agreed that that was the best way forward.
It is often asked "What is a person other than his word?" When Mr Jim Wilson moved that the Question be now put, he did so knowing that he was breaking his word and a commitment already given. He found plenty of allies in his new-found friends in the SDLP and Sinn Féin/IRA. By so doing he has put future decisions of CAPO under the spotlight.
Never again can we place any confidence in what Mr Wilson tells us. Mr Wilson, the Ulster Unionist Chief Whip, should be in the dock today too, but he is not.
I will repeat what Mr Wilson said at a meeting of CAPO because the Assembly is entitled to know what motivates him. Mr Wilson said that, if expedient — his word, not mine.
He is nodding. He is saying that that is what he said.
Mr Wilson is on record as saying that, if expedient, he would, of course, do those things in the future which would be an advantage to him or his party. He put "him" first.
We know what motivates Mr Wilson: himself. I took the time to check the definition of "expedient" in the dictionary. It is quite interesting. It means to do something based on —
On a point of order. The last point of order seems to have been lost on Mr Morrow. I ask for a firm ruling that he must stick to the subject of the debate.
I repeat that CAPO’s recommendations have never been turned down, and I hope that Mr Wilson will take note.
As I was about to say before I was interrupted, at least we know what motivates Mr Wilson. It has been said that he had additional reasons —
Yes, and he went on
"The reason was that I was told last week that I was speaking on Wednesday. At lunchtime today I was told that I was speaking tomorrow night — the fellow was undoubtedly confused, but then most members of the SDLP are —
"and two hours ago I was told that I was speaking tonight."
To keep favour with his Chief Whip, he then said
"I am not criticising my Chief Whip" for confusing me — my words, not his —
"but I will raise the matter at our next meeting."
On a point of order, Madam Chair. Standing Order 10(1)(iv) says that if any Member of the Assembly intentionally refuses to conform to any Standing Order, the Presiding Officer has certain powers. It is beyond dispute that Mr Morrow is not conforming to Standing Orders. He is not being relevant to the matter in front of us. I call upon you, Presiding Officer, to exercise your powers.
Further to that point of order, Madam Chair. I do not know what the problem is with our Chief Whip’s speaking, but I have now counted five separate occasions on which people have tried to interrupt him with bogus issues to prevent him from completing his speech. He was prevented from making it two weeks ago, so can we allow him to make it today?
Numerous points of order have been raised asking that the Member restrict his comments to those that are relevant to the debate. He has drifted from the point, and I ask him to keep to the subject matter. [Interruption] I will take those points of order. I have to say, however, that Mr Campbell made the point that his Chief Whip had been interrupted on a number of occasions and if I take these points of order, that will mean further interruptions.
Why was Mr Haughey called? He had not asked for a point of order. He asked for it only after you had called him — let us be clear about that. He stood up and remained standing whilst my friend was on his feet making a speech — that is not the order of the House.
I took Mr Haughey’s point which referred to a Standing Order. Had he not begun his point, I would have asked him to sit.
There were three points of order raised — Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Wilson and a third. Do you wish to put these points of order? If not, I ask Mr Morrow to continue.
Madam, had I been left alone, I would have been finished by now.
In case it has slipped anyone’s mind, I want to draw the attention of the House to what was being debated on the day the guillotine was operated on Mr Wilson’s initiative. It was, of course, a report produced by a so-called Unionist Mr Trimble and by a strident Nationalist Mr Mallon.
It is significant that a debate on that report — a report which was supposed to have far-reaching effects on the future of this country — was guillotined and that I and others were not allowed the time to speak. My view was that the report was not only rotten from the core but rotten to the core. I should have been allowed to give my observations on it, but I was prevented from doing so by those who see expediency as being the order of the day. It ill behoves those who behave in such a manner — stealing cheap points — but maybe it is better to have something like this happen early on in the Assembly because they can be dead sure it will never happen again.
In that report, a way forward for Northern Ireland was recommended —
Was it right for the Presiding Officer not to permit Members of the House to speak on that day even though they had already submitted their names? I conclude that he was wrong and that on this occasion he looked around and, under the pressure coming from the two largest political blocks, he wilted and decided to put the procedural Question. Everybody in the Assembly has a right to speak, but the Initial Presiding Officer was pushed by Mr J Wilson and others.
They were also wrong to use the term "expediency" to convey to the outside world that there was little debate or interest in what was happening in the Chamber. I hope that in the future parties will be given a better crack of the whip. Mr Trimble had problems that day, and Mr Wilson was aware of them. There were at least four Members on his bench who were prepared to deviate.
On a point of order, will you please tell the House precisely what you are going to do? Several times you have informed the Member that he is out of order, but he clearly has no intention of paying you any respect. He is ignoring you. What are you going to do?
There are one and a half minutes left for this Member. I have reminded Mr Morrow several times and referred to this as being the last time. I was grateful that in the last minute he did return to the motion, but then he left it again. The Member may have his last minute to speak, but I will remind him that if he strays once more from the no-confidence motion he will have to terminate his speech.
On a point of order. I have noticed that the clock has been stopped during these points of order. This is evidently a new practice. Does it apply only to points of order or also to interventions?
I am concerned about the way in which the Initial Presiding Officer handled the Assembly sitting on 18 January. Will he allow himself to be used again in future sittings? A precedent has now been established, and future sittings will be abused in the same way that we witnessed on 18 January. We must keep in mind Mr J Wilson’s warning that expediency will be the order of the day.
I believe that the Initial Presiding Officer was wrong to put the procedural Question on 18 January. He should have used his discretion and allowed the debate to continue until at least Tuesday.
The sitting was suspended 12.29 pm and resumed at 2.00 pm.
The Presiding Officer is supposed to act impartially, and the fact that this motion is being debated today shows, sadly, that many Members feel that he has not done that. The Speaker’s role is to provide guidance and help Members to rise above party politics and the factions which exist within this Chamber. The perception is that the Speaker has failed to fulfil that role.
"The arms issue must be tackled at the beginning with clear commitments given which will be honoured by actual decommissioning beginning in a short period."
This statement from David Trimble shows, as far back as June 1996, the feebleness of the Ulster Unionist Party leadership’s confronting of Sinn Féin. In January 1999 Members were asked to approve a report which contained stand-alone cross-border bodies with executive powers.
Madam Chair, there are references to the motion in every paragraph of my speech.
We were told that we had been ambushed. The togetherness of Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party in that ambush says it all. The depths to which the Ulster Unionist Party has sunk beggars belief. The coalition of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sinn Féin/IRA and the SDLP shows the future in store for principled, anti-IRA Unionists.
I was very generous, during the earlier part of the debate, over the relevance of issues. I ask those Members yet to speak to be extremely careful in keeping to the motion under debate. I will not be so generous this afternoon.
I do not think that it is possible to determine whether or not a Member has kept to the issue in question until he has completed his speech. It would be quite arbitrary to make a ruling on this.
I acknowledge the point of order made by Mr Roche. However, it should be obvious to all Members what is relevant to the debate and what is not. I ask every Member to adhere to the motion.
You have said that this morning you were generous in allowing certain leeway, but that this afternoon you intend to adopt a different approach. I do not believe that anyone could consider that to be fair and proper.
Mr Douglas had been speaking for one minute and 35 seconds when it was suggested that he was straying from the subject. He had not started to develop his argument. That treatment was described as lenient. Surely it is wrong to suggest that after less than two minutes one can decide that a Member is straying from the subject. Mr Haughey spoke for 10 minutes and not once touched on the subject.
Further to that point of order. Is it right for Mr Haughey to attack me in my absence when I was at the funeral of a close friend? In any debating forum it is sensible to know the reason for a person’s absence before commenting on it. I have a good parliamentary record, and I know that people should remain in the Chamber. After Mr Haughey made his speech he left the Chamber. I had to attend a friend’s funeral, and I make no apology for that.
Further to the point of order. Every Member must have an opportunity to develop his speech. It is unfair for experienced Members to use points of order to disrupt the speeches of new Members. I ask for a ruling on that abuse of the system.
Further to the point of order. Is it not pertinent that on this occasion the Arthur Daleys of Unionism are already trying to derail the debate by engaging in their normal political promiscuity?
Many Members tell us that they are democrats and must allow that I am entitled to speak.
Every paragraph in my speech contains a reference to the motion. What did the Ulster Unionists achieve by voting with Sinn Féin in an ambush against their fellow Ulster citizens? Our refusal to acquiesce in approving Sinn Féin’s entrance into government has caused a political impasse. Accepting armed terrorists in an Executive is morally wrong. Token gestures of Semtex and other explosives will not suffice. Not to debate the report in full was also morally wrong.
No amount of smart moves, shady dealings or strokes to stifle debate, with or without the help of the Initial Presiding Officer, can hide the emerging voting pattern involving Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist in a coalition. Why have a debate at all? I put to David Trimble the question that he posed to the Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, in September 1997: how can anyone justify bringing to the table of democracy those who have been responsible for murder and other iniquitous crimes for which they have not paid their debt to society? By their actions, David Trimble and his negotiating team have done exactly that. These people will not now be brought to justice. David Trimble has secured a virtual amnesty for IRA and INLA murderers and bombers.
In 1997 David Trimble told the people "We are here not to talk to Sinn Féin but to confront them and expose their Fascist character." However, on every occasion in 1998 and 1999 the Ulster Unionist Party has voted with Sinn Féin/IRA — its friends in the Assembly. Not even a fool would call that confrontational. Instead, the Ulster Unionist Party has bestowed on IRA/Sinn Féin a worldwide credibility usually reserved for statesmen. It regularly meets privately with Gerry Adams.
Madam Chairman, this has got absolutely nothing to do with the motion. This is another example — [Interruption]
Members are engaging in a sixth-form debating routine.
Mr Douglas has said nothing that bears any relationship to the motion.
In approving the January report, one must ask if this will provide an opportunity for Sinn Féin to get into government? For my colleagues and me the risk is too great. It would be like giving a seal of approval to Sinn Féin/IRA and any Government that they are accepted in while they maintain their armed capability. The cutting short of the debate was a great disservice to those who elected us, but it exposed the togetherness of Sinn Féin/IRA and the Ulster Unionist Party.
Obviously the Ulster Unionist Party feels that this is not the case. They guillotined the anti-Agreement Members, but at what price? Despite the ambush, our heads are still on. There was much confusion among the Unionist Assembly Members about the ramifications of voting on the report. Did the fear of what they were voting for forge the alliance?
Many do not want to see Sinn Féin/IRA take part in an Executive without decommissioning. Why punish our own people again and again? Will we be ambushed again today? Now Unionists are expected to approve cross-border bodies, with stand-alone executive powers, without one gun being handed over. Those who had any doubt that the approval of this report was a back-door passport to allow Sinn Féin/IRA into an Executive should have voted against it. The Ulster Unionist Party leader could have defended that action by explaining that the IRA are unreconstructed terrorists. Instead, the party choose to ambush fellow Unionists by jumping into bed with its friends, IRA/Sinn Féin. This motion would be unnecessary if protocol had been observed.
On a point of order, Madam Chairman. How can it be in order for you to declare that what we are discussing is a debate that was brought to an untimely end by the Chairman? Surely the Member is entitled to go into the details of the debate and of the way his party was dealt with during it. Fifty per cent of the Members of your party spoke in the debate, but now, when a Member is describing what took place and making the point that his party did not get a fair say, you rule that that is not relevant.
This is a very wide debate. It deals with the Presiding Officer and says that Members have no confidence in him. Members could roam from Dan to Beer-sheba in this debate. Members such as Mr Foster and Mr McGimpsey need to go to the House of Commons to see how much goes into a debate there. Of course, they will never make it.
Madam Chair, I have not much more to say. Indeed, had certain Members not interrupted, I would have finished long ago. This motion would have been totally unnecessary had proper protocol been observed. The voting alliance of the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Féin has now been exposed. I hope that such motions will be unnecessary in future. I support the motion — free speech is a right, not a privilege. I hope that the behaviour of the Presiding Officer, which has caused so much offence and hurt, will never be repeated in this Chamber.
I am one of the Members who were listed to speak on 18 January in a debate which was originally billed as a three-day event. I understand that it had been agreed to by all the parties at a CAPO meeting. I contend that the Initial Presiding Officer — namely, the Member for East Belfast, the Lord Alderdice — in allowing the closure motion to be put on Monday 18 January, did quite wantonly and outrageously, and apparently without regret, disenfranchise a significant proportion of the electorate in my constituency.
I also assert that by his action he deliberately pandered to the wishes of certain pro-agreement elements in the Ulster Unionist Party and beyond. Had I been able to speak on 18 January, as it was my steadfast hope to do, I might well have concluded that the Assembly, having been set up with such ill-advised haste following the signing of the Belfast Agreement, had resulted in an unholy mess. The befuddled thinking behind the emanating documentation, including the report presented to the Assembly on 18 January by the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate), beggars belief.
The First Minister (Designate) attempted to explain away his folly by telling Members that a final report would be necessary as there were certain areas of government which had not been fully considered. It was due to his ineptitude that these essential areas — for example, the Child Support Agency — were overlooked, forgotten or ignored. They should have been included in the agreement between the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP reached on 18 December 1998. Perhaps Mr Trimble should be congratulated — after all, he seems to have made a virtue of his crass stupidity.
It seems that Mr Trimble’s stupidity — some would say infamy — knows no bounds. In a recent letter he says
"critics have complained that the allocation of 10 departments will not reflect the community balance."
Madam Chair, I must again draw to your attention that what Members are hearing is a contribution dealing with the content of the First and Deputy First Ministers’ report of 18 January, and not with the motion being considered today.
The Member is continuing to focus on the First and Deputy First Ministers’ report. I ask you, Madam Chair, to rule on whether or not the Member is adhering to the motion.
The most glaring, startling omission from the report that was presented to the Assembly on 18 January is the total failure to address and, more importantly, to resolve the issue of decommissioning.
On a point of order, Madam Chairman. It is not consistent for the Members involved in this ludicrous exhibition to insist that these are the only Standing Orders under which we can operate. Furthermore, these Orders make no provisions for a Member making a maiden speech to be given licence to disregard the motion before the House. I ask you to rule that the Member’s remarks are not relevant to the debate and to call upon him to discontinue.
I have made two rulings. The first is that there should be no inappropriate interventions. The second, which is the order of today, is that the Member should keep to the motion. I ask for order and for there to be no further inappropriate interventions. Mr Robinson has six minutes left.
The authors of the report cannot even bring themselves to pay lip service to the essential issue of decommissioning. Why is that, since this issue renders by comparison all other issues redundant? Mr Trimble’s letter dated 8 January states
"The Ulster Unionist Party has now fulfilled all of its obligations under the Belfast Agreement. There remains only one party still to honour its commitments, and it is Sinn Féin/IRA on whom maximum pressure must be now exerted. As your leader I wish to assure you that Sinn Féin will not be included in the agreement that I have referred to above, if Sinn Féin/IRA do not honour their commitments to decommissioning made under the Belfast Agreement. If they do not, the Ulster Unionist Party will not form an Executive that includes Sinn Féin".
In illustration of a political reality, the dogs in the street and the cows in the field are often referred to. They, together with everyone else in Northern Ireland, know full well that Sinn Féin/IRA have no intention whatever of effectively dealing with the issue of decommissioning.
We are in grave danger of bringing the House into disrepute by contributions that are outside the terms of the motion. I seek your ruling on the continuing disregard of your earlier rulings on this matter.
I raised the issue with the Chair. Two weeks ago there was an attempt, which is the subject of today’s motion, to deprive Members of an opportunity to speak. That attempt succeeded, and that is the issue that we are addressing. Other avenues are being used to deprive Members of their democratic right to speak. You should exercise your authority, Madam Chair, and request that Members desist from attempting to stop a democratically elected representative from making his maiden speech.
Further to Mr Farren’s point of order, not only are the Member’s remarks irrelevant, and persistently irrelevant despite the advice of Madam Chair and of Members who have intervened, but it is clear that he and his colleagues are trying to overturn the democratic decision of the House by creating circumstances in which they can make the speeches that they were unable to make at the previous plenary session. That is an abuse of the Initial Standing Orders, and I ask you, Madam Chair, to rule on that.
By Standing Order 8(6) I may direct a Member who persists in irrelevance or repetition to discontinue his speech. I mention that as a warning. I will allow the Member another chance, but if he moves away from the subject of the debate, I will direct that he discontinue his speech.
On a point of order, Madam Initial Presiding Officer. You mention a Standing Order about tedious repetition. Will you rule that it also relates to those who repeat the same point of order time after time with the sole intention of interrupting the Member who is speaking?
Further to that point of order. You have ruled that you wish the Member to continue his speech. You do not want interruptions. Some Members obey your ruling only when it suits them. When it does not, they try to silence other Members.
When a Member is making his maiden speech, he should be allowed to speak without interruption. It is also important that the speech is relevant. I shall now ask the Member to finish his speech and to bear in mind my warning in relation to Initial Standing Order 8(6) should he move away from the subject of the debate.
Thank you, Madam Acting Initial Presiding Officer. You may be relieved to hear that I have almost finished.
Is it not disingenuous of the Ulster Unionist leadership to beat their chests and claim that without decommissioning there will not be an Executive that includes Sinn Féin? These same Ulster Unionist leaders lied when they told the Unionist electorate that terrorists would not be released from prison until decommissioning had taken place.
I asked the Initial Presiding Officer what authority you would have, Madam Chair, and he told the House that you would have the authority that is given to him. You have heard umpteen points of order. Will you now rule that this Member is out of order?
No Member has a right to direct how you rule. No one can ask the Speaker to rule in his favour. Where does the Member think he is — Glengall Street?
To conclude, as one of those who suffered as a result of the scandalous decision unilaterally taken by the Initial Presiding Officer, Lord Alderdice, I cannot now, or in the future, be comforted that he will be any more judicious than he has been to date in looking after the interests of Back-Benchers. Their fate is a pitiful one.
How are we to be heard? What arbitrator can we turn to in the face of high-powered political predators who wantonly call in the weapons of expediency to guillotine discussion? How can we ever stimulate our constituents if the roar of our rhetoric is to be denied? The sole interest of the Initial Presiding Officer seems to be the aiding and abetting of ruthless party managers who will stop at nothing in order to foist an unwanted and rejected agreement on the majority of the Unionist people of Northern Ireland.
I therefore support the motion.
I thought that Mr M Robinson had a point of order to develop before I spoke.
There have been a number of references in this debate to the meeting of CAPO. It was hard to find them in among the diatribes against the Ulster Unionist Party, but there were one or two. I wish to establish clearly what happened in those discussions in CAPO because not one but two meetings of that Committee were called to consider the arrangements for the plenary session on 18 January 1999. The normal CAPO meeting was held on 11 January 1999, and at that meeting a suggestion was made which led to a consultation on extending speaking time.
Proposals on which there was consultation were that the proposer should have up to 30 minutes instead of 20 minutes; that all parties in the first round should have 20 minutes rather than 10 minutes; that there should be wind-up speeches for the larger parties of 20 minutes (a precedent); and that the winding-up by the proposer of the motion should be extended to 20 minutes. Those would have been major changes in the time allowed for Members to speak.
We also discussed the length of time for debate at that meeting, and we talked about setting aside Monday and Tuesday with the possibility of running on into Wednesday. We never talked about a three-day debate, but we did, when we were discussing longer speeches, refer to a two-day debate. Consultation was required on that as well as on other issues relating to the motion to be debated. To have changed the length of the speeches would have required a variation of the Standing Orders, and that could only have been done by leave of the House.
We needed to consider the matter and meet again, which we did on Friday, 15 January 1999. There was no agreement at that meeting on changing the length of speeches, so we had no further discussion. Perhaps, at that point, we should have had more discussion.
Perhaps the entire membership of CAPO was at fault in considering whether we needed so long if the speeches were going to be shorter. It could be argued that we should have discussed it. What is not true is the kind of suggestion that has come from several DUP Members that we had agreed a three-day debate when we knew there were only going to be 10-minute speeches. That is not the case. What we did was ill-considered, but when we decided not to change the length of the speeches, clearly a change was made to the length of time required for the debate as a whole. We had originally been allowing for the possibility of longer speeches.
What we established at that point is what we have established today: this debate has absolutely nothing to do with whether we have confidence or not in the Initial Presiding Officer. We are not discussing the issue in the way CAPO discussed it or voted on it. It is quite clear from the speeches from the DUP and the UUAP that they are merely trying to rehash the debate that was shortened on the 18 January 1999, and to discuss this any further is a waste of time. There are other more important matters to discuss in a fortnight’s time and much more to do. Since the DUP is incapable of talking to the motion it has proposed, it, like I, should cease speaking now.
I support all that has been said by my DUP colleagues today. I have no confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer because of the way that he acted during the debate on 18 January when he allowed a guillotine motion to bring to an end a debate that was very important for Northern Ireland. I question his judgement and the reasoning that lay behind his allowing the premature closure of what had already been agreed would be at least a two-day debate.
It was a false statement levelled against the DUP and democracy, although one could say that his judgement was in line with the so-called peace process, which, by its bending of the rules, denial of the truth, and "Yes" campaign’s spin doctoring, was deforming democracy to suit its own ends. By his actions on 18 January, the Initial Presiding Officer denied me democracy. True democracy is a precious jewel with many bright facets, including the freedom of speech and the opportunity to exercise that freedom. By allowing the guillotine motion, Lord Alderdice denied me the opportunity to speak during the debate.
I object to the formation of 10 Government Departments when only seven are required to run Northern Ireland efficiently. Three extra Government Departments will add an additional £90 million to the Northern Ireland budget — money that would be better spent on our hospitals, education and infrastructure. However, it seems that Ulster Unionist Party Members — even against the better judgement of their own Westminster MPs and European MP — are determined to have "jobs for the boys".
On 18 January the Initial Presiding Officer decided that democracy was downgraded for all, not just me. As the DUP representative for South Antrim I have recently received views from many outraged Unionists. They expected that such an important subject as the proposed future structures of the Government of Northern Ireland would have been afforded at least the time agreed during the Committee meeting — namely, two days. They were not surprised that the Ulster Unionist Party Member for South Antrim moved a motion to close off debate. It seems to be more important for the Ulster Unionist Party to keep their new-found friends in the SDLP and Sinn Féin happy. Mr Trimble was quoted in the ‘Irish News’ on Tuesday 29 December as having said
"we are, I think, fast becoming inseparable."
This newly formed alliance between the UUP and SDLP Members worked well in order to bring about the guillotine motion, and the Unionist majority is asking what other tricks lie in store from these new-found friends.
I support this motion of no confidence motion. The Initial Presiding Officer’s actions on 18 January added to a process that will see democracy being demolished. Some Members know all about demolishing. They have demolished lives, families, friends, towns and villages. All they seem to know is how to destroy and demolish, and they are now involved in a process of demolishing democracy. These might seem like strong words, but it is my honest opinion and that of the majority of Unionists with whom I am in contact that this is pulling down democracy. The process is clear to see — for example, the issue of decommissioning, or should I say the total lack of it.
Democracy has not been well-served: this issue is continually side-lined by some and pushed further down the pipeline by others. No, democracy has not been well served. Nor was it well served when Lord Alderdice took the decision on Monday, 18 January to move the guillotine motion, a decision which, to many inside and outside this Assembly, was taken rather quickly. I was amazed at the speed of that decision if, indeed, he had no pre-knowledge of what was going to happen. It was all settled rather quickly.
I am sorry that, for the reasons I have given, Lord Alderdice does not give me, or the people I represent, reason to have confidence in him.
I support fully the DUP’s no-confidence motion.
It was not my intention to become embroiled in this debate, but I do contend that the motion is uncalled for and is of shabby appearance. It is really an attempt to redress injured pride rather than be constructive for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
I do not agree with all the philosophy of Lord Alderdice, nor, I am quite sure, does he with mine. However, I do contend that he performs the onerous duties of Initial Presiding Officer of the Assembly with great skill, consistency of integrity, impartiality and obvious responsibility, and that has to be admired. He brings commendable dignity to his role and to the Assembly. I am not convinced that there are many others who could do equally or even nearly as well.
What was his problem a couple of weeks ago? He carried out his responsibilities — nothing more and nothing less. The meaning of Standing Order 11(1) which has been mentioned before — and I will not read it again — it is very clear. Thus I contend that this motion is shabby; is intended to be disruptive; and is sheer hypocrisy. It is an endeavour to destabilise the Assembly by stone-walling, filibustering and freebooting methods. It is pitiful, unforgivable, very base and typifies low-grade politics.
There are Members of the Assembly who, when we talk about origins, profess loud and lustily the Word of God. My experience here and at the Northern Ireland Forum, is that many Christian virtues are lacking. There are biblical words that apply to all of us:
"For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
I make that point today because what we have is self-gratification — an attempt to redress damaged pride, which falls short of Christian virtues. I am told that pride was a greater share than goodness of heart. [Interruption]
On a point of order. Is any of this Member’s speech relevant to the debate? He was quick to insist that quotes and points raised by Members on this side of the House were not relevant. Surely his speech so far has been irrelevant.
Although you have mentioned the motion, you have not dealt with its subject, which is that this Assembly has no confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer. You have referred to the context of the motion; I would prefer now that you deal with its content.
This is bringing the House into total disrepute. I do not mind the juvenile delinquents on the Back Benches, but Mr Robinson should know better. He is hurling insults at our Colleague who is trying to speak. It is up to you, and not Mr Robinson, to rule on this.
Madam Chair, will you make a ruling on the comments made by the Member for South Belfast. While pointing in this direction, he described Members as "bootboys and thugs". May I ask you to ask him — no, to direct him — to withdraw those remarks immediately.
I would like to draw Members’ attention to the unruly and unparliamentary behaviour which we have seen in the last 30 minutes. It is inappropriate. We are not paying each other proper parliamentary respect and courtesy. Members should speak to the Order Paper and observe proper order in the Chamber. I would ask Dr McDonnell to reflect on what he has said.
On a point of order, Madam Acting Initial Presiding Officer. May I point out that this is not a matter of choice for the Member for South Belfast. He has used unparliamentary language, and if it is allowed to remain on the record, similar language will be used by other Members in the future, a precedent’s having been set. Clearly it was unparliamentary, and the Member should be asked to withdraw it. Then we can leave it at that.
I did not refer to the Members in the far corner as "bootboys and thugs"; I said that they were behaving like bootboys and thugs. I will withdraw the remark, if that will make a useful contribution to the debate.
On a point of order. It is perfectly legitimate for the Member to give us the reason we are having this debate. If it is acceptable to refer to what took place at a meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer in order to provide the background to criticism of decisions made by the Presiding Officer, it is perfectly legitimate for the Member to give reasons for the behaviour of these detractors.
It is not a point of order. My Colleague agreed to take an intervention.
We owe a debt of gratitude to my Colleague for introducing the guillotine motion. By doing so, he saved us from having to listen to endless prattling. I think Mr Robinson is frustrated because he lost his speech. His party must be thoroughly embarrassed at being caught on the hop in this way.
I take Mr McFarland’s point. That is why I referred to virtuousness. As Mr Ervine said, I was trying to explain why certain Members are speaking to the motion in this way.
In conclusion, I would say that we reprove, not in order to correct, but in order to persuade them that we are free from faults ourselves. I reject this motion because I find it repulsive, hypocritical and totally unnecessary.
I have listened attentively to the debate, and I have heard the word "ambush" being used — some Members in this Chamber know all about ambushes. It was rather sad to see the Ulster Unionists get involved in an ambush on fellow Unionists on 18 January, to try and stifle debate in this House.
It was also interesting to note that they waited until a member of the Democratic Unionist Party got up to speak before Mr Wilson brought the guillotine down. They were not on their feet trying to stifle debate when Sinn Féin/IRA was speaking. On 18 January the Ulster Unionists, along with the SDLP and Sinn Féin, knew exactly what they were doing — strange bedfellows.
Who informed the Initial Presiding Officer of the timing of the guillotine motion, and when? Lord Alderdice obviously knew that the debate was not going to last until Tuesday or Wednesday, and there are a number of questions he must answer. Clearly the SDLP knew all about it, because during the debate on housing that evening, a Member referred to the situation. His information on the day was that the debate would end in a few hours. Obviously it was a conspiracy on the part of the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, and their good friends in Sinn Féin.
For them to come into this House and get into bed with Sinn Féin in a conspiracy is hypocritical. The Ulster Unionists knew —
Forgive me for moving away from the motion; that was not my intention. I have been interrupted so many times by Mr J Wilson, who seems to have no problem when it comes to interrupting DUP speakers. The Ulster Unionists have added very little to today’s debate — I could count those who have spoken on the fingers of one hand — but they are good at interrupting and making points of order. They make no points of order when the SDLP or Sinn Féin are speaking. I saw Mr Wilson giving instructions earlier; perhaps one of them was not to interrupt SDLP or Sinn Féin, but when a DUP man gets up to speak, make sure that he is interrupted.
I support this motion. Lord Alderdice has a number of questions to answer about his rulings on 18 January. It is a conspiracy — and this is what the Ulster Unionists cannot seem to understand, for whatever reason — by the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Féin. In the last 30 years, certain gentlemen on my right have happily ambushed a number of people and, on 18 January, the Ulster Unionists were happy to get into bed with them and ambush the Democratic Unionist Party. That is sad.
I have listened with interest to the debate and also to the time-wasting by many of the Members opposite, particularly SDLP Members. They have accused others of bringing this House into disrepute but, by their own actions, have been party to doing the same thing in the use of unparliamentary language by the Member for South Belfast and by the time-wasting effort of the Member for Mid Ulster, Mr Haughey, who constantly made frivolous and repetitive points of order after he had been ruled out of order.
The DUP has brought forward this motion of no confidence because the procedures used on 18 January ought not to have been used. Mr Hilditch was very clear — he was denied his right to free speech. Two other colleagues intended to make their maiden speeches and were denied the opportunity to speak and raise issues. Such issues are at the heart of the establishment of this Assembly and at the heart of the progress of democracy in Northern Ireland.
Others have raised the question of balance, including Members from the parties opposite. There was no balance given to the parties in the debate on 18 January. That is why we found Lord Alderdice’s ruling so irreconcilable. Less than a quarter of my party’s speakers were given the opportunity to express their point of view. Less than a third of the entire House had the opportunity to put their points to the Assembly. Other parties got considerably more than a quarter, some got 50% and one Member, Mr Hutchinson, got 100%. That balance was totally unfair; there ought to be balance given, especially to a party with a large mandate like the DUP which is the third largest party in the Assembly.
The sequence of events in the Chamber indicates that the Initial Presiding Officer was a party to a set-up, a conspiracy to stifle free speech and free debate in this Chamber. It is quite obvious that there was a series of nods and winks indicating that if the debate were cut short and those who opposed the report of the First and Deputy First Minister (Designate) were silenced, then the Initial Presiding Officer would be able perhaps to secure his position. A Presiding Officer or a Speaker should have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear any matter that goes against the interests of the Back-Bench Members of this House.
On 18 January Lord Alderdice so abused his position that he breached the trust and confidence that Members must have in him to be fair and impartial. He abused his position in connivance with a party or parties to the detriment of the rights of Back-Bench Members. That is unforgivable. If we cannot trust the Presiding Officer to uphold our rights whom can we trust to ensure that we have free and fair debate in this House? This is not a personal matter against John Alderdice, rather it is about the abuse of the privilege and trust given to him by the Members of the Assembly.
This debate has a second purpose, which is to ensure that precedent is not established by the faulty application of the procedural motion to vote without there first being a complete debate. Lord Alderdice’s actions were wrong, and this House should censure them. I have listened to the one-dimensional argument of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. Since 18 January those parties have complained that the debate was repetitious. So what if it was repetitious? Mr Haughey drew attention to many of the speeches made by Members from this side of the House and tried to answer their points; he failed to answer their points but did draw attention to the fact that several points had been raised. From what he said, it was certainly not repetitious.
Members are entitled to say what is on their minds. If they believe in the same policies and share the same objectives, then the debate will have many facets. The Ulster Unionist Party does not understand about sharing the same ideas because many of them have different ideas.
It is very interesting to hear SDLP Members, in particular, lecturing about repetition. How often we have been subjected to the single transferable speech of their Leader "The French are still French, and the Germans still German. You cannot eat a flag." If SDLP Members are sick of repetition, perhaps they should ditch their Leader. Did they not realise they had a lot to gain from a repetitious debate? They could have said "It had petered out. They did not have the ability to keep the debate going." They chose a different tack, the subtlety of which was lost on myself and many others: they chose to silence people they claimed were being repetitious. Their tactics were lost on many people inside and outside the House.
The First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) lost the moral high ground by bringing forward the motion, and therefore, they had to seek a procedural mechanism to prevent the debate from flowing. They were angry and could not take the heat. One defector had already decided that he was going to cross to this side of the House, and they knew that if the debate continued over two days and public pressure mounted, more Members would feel under pressure.
On the day of the debate Mr Roy Beggs Jnr was reported on the front page of the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ as saying that he would have to vote against the report because of its contents. Yet he had to vote with the report. We believe that he was pressurised to do so. If another day had been allowed for the debate, perhaps he would have had the freedom he wanted during that vote.
We then had the blatant misrepresentation by the Deputy First Minister (Designate) that he had been guillotined and if he could be guillotined, then everyone else could be also. The Deputy First Minister (Designate) was not guillotined, and he knows it. He wanted personal, special privileges and extra time for himself, not for his party. He thought that he could then force the rest of the House to accept that he had special privileges.
Having listened to the Deputy First Minister (Designate) over the years, I know he would like special privileges. He used to tell us that when he came to this building his flesh crawled when he had to pass that terrible statue of Carson. He also told us that when he was in the talks he hated sitting at that table from Gosford Castle.
But the baubles of office, the bulging pay cheque from the British Exchequer and his new-found polite tones have made him believe that he has privileges above and beyond other Members of this House. He has not. He has the same privilege as every other Member — the right to be elected and speak on behalf of their constituents. Unfortunately, on 18 January, he was party to a conspiracy to deny other Members the opportunity and privilege to speak on behalf of their constituents. He should be ashamed of his behaviour and of the excuse he made after the debate.
On 18 January the country witnessed the Ulster Unionist Party’s, the SDLP’s and, indeed, Sinn Féin’s fear of public debate. People witnessed one Ulster Unionist Party Member not doing anything special — holding to his election pledge — but they also witnessed 27 others abandoning theirs. The country saw that and rejected it. Had the debate been allowed to continue, there might have been a better decision taken and we might have had the opportunity to explore other avenues — for instance, the make-up of the cabinet, the Executive and the Departments.
In the ‘Coleraine Chronicle’ of 12 December 1998, Mr Beggs, Mr Nesbitt and another member of the Ulster Unionst Party made it clear that there should be no real movement until there was substantial decommissioning. Mr Beggs stated that the Ulster Unionist Party was the only one that wanted seven Departments — that the SDLP wanted 10.
Yet, in that debate all those Members were forced to vote in a way which imposed 10 Departments on us. Mr Ken Maginnis said that this was the worst example of "snouts-in-the-trough" politics. We had the right to speak in that debate whether we had things of substance to say or not. We were denied that right.
We hear a lot about accountable democracy, and I addressed that in my first speech in the House. I intended to address it again in my second speech, which was to have been during the last sitting. Unfortunately that sitting was guillotined, and I did not have the opportunity to speak on that subject.
That that happened is much to the shame of Lord Alderdice and the Ulster Unionist Party, which joined up with the SDLP and Sinn Féin — an unholy coalition — to guillotine the motion before the Assembly that day. That motion was the most important motion to come before the Assembly for debate since its inception. Since the agreement was signed the biggest decisions, decisions which will copper fasten the agreement, have been taken in December 1998 and January 1999 when the House voted to endorse the Report from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate).
The motion before the Assembly on 18 January 1999 was worthy of a two-day debate at least. CAPO agreed to have a two-day debate. Lord Alderdice allowed the debate to be guillotined because he felt that all parties had been given a fair opportunity to have their voices heard. That is patently wrong and patently untrue. Lord Alderdice made a prejudiced and partisan decision on that day.
Five out of 20 Members from the Democratic Unionist Party had an opportunity to speak. Some parties had 50% of their Members called to speak while others had 100% called. The Democratic Unionist Party had only 25% of its Members who were down to speak called. This calls into question the system for calling Members to speak, the system by which the Initial Presiding Officer goes round each party once before returning to the main parties. In situations where debates are to be brief, this system does not give Back-Benchers in the larger parties much opportunity to speak.
I do not count myself as any less a Member than Members from the Progressive Unionist Party, the Women’s Coalition or any of the other small parties. I was elected here, and I have the same mandate to speak as anyone else in the Chamber — particularly when time has been set aside for a motion.
There was no other pressing business on that day. I listened when Mr Ford said how busy we were. There have not been many debates in the House so far. I am fairly busy as I am trying to set up a constituency office in Lagan Valley, but I know that other Members are not as busy because they are not doing that sort of thing. They have plenty of time to take part in debates because they are doing very little else. As this was a very important debate and Members should have had an opportunity to speak, it was the Initial Presiding Officer’s responsibility to ensure that minority parties got that opportunity.
Those of us in the "No" camp in the Assembly are in the minority, and we see the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Women’s Coalition and the Progressive Unionist Party banding together on a regular basis to vote down the people who were against the agreement. It is the Initial Presiding Officer’s duty to ensure that people in the "No" camp have an opportunity to put their case, however much he loathes what they say.
We had a case which we put to the electorate and for which we received significant support. Lord Alderdice must ensure that the Members of the Democratic Unionist Party have the opportunity to speak.
We hear that this agreement is about give and take and that both sides have to give. We know what the Unionist side has had to give. They have had to give acceptance to the release of prisoners; they have had to allow Sinn Féin into government; and they have had to give acceptance to the establishment of the North/South bodies — bodies which these Members agreed to and voted for on that particular day. However, we cannot understand what Sinn Féin has had to give up.
Some people have had to give up procuring weapons to stand for election; some people have had to give up planting bombs and setting off explosions; and other people have had to give up attempting to murder. That was not much to give up in return for a position worth £30,000 per year.
What is amazing is that members of the Ulster Unionist Party can join in a coalition with these people and vote with these people against their Unionist colleagues and against the Unionist people. Such behaviour is morally wrong and corrupt. It is also wrong that the Initial Presiding Officer should have shown such prejudice and such partisanship in allowing the closure motion to go forward.
I support the motion of no confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer. It is not a motion I would support lightly. The office of Presiding Officer in the Assembly is a very important office and its incumbent should act with decorum and impartiality.
Lord Alderdice has not acted in such a manner. It is significant that Mrs Betty Boothroyd, who is acknowledged as a competent and capable Speaker, indicated that she would not have allowed the motion to be closed had she been in the same position as Lord Alderdice.
Did Lord Alderdice take any advice on this matter, or did he act as he did because, as an interim Presiding Officer, he is going to have to be voted in at some stage by the majority of the House? It would be wise for him to keep in with those parties which have the majority in the House who could put him into the Chair permanently. I believe that Lord Alderdice took the decision on the closure motion on a partisan basis and not on a fair and equal basis. That is why we are having this debate today. This is a genuine and proper debate.
I regret that Mr McDonnell indicated that we were bully boys and thugs. I am not a bully boy or a thug. I respect Alistair McDonnell, both as an opponent and as a friend. I have met him many times and while in the Waterfront Hall he introduced me to the Mayor of Barcelona. I am surprised that he introduced the Mayor of Barcelona to a person he considers a thug or a bully boy. The real thugs and bully boys are those who beat people to a pulp with their baseball bats and hurley sticks and whose representatives are sitting in this very Chamber, and to whom the SDLP are cuddling up every day.
The thugs and bully boys are not the Members who come and participate in the cut and thrust of debate. The thugs and bully boys are those Members who sit like muted rats except when they try to interrupt Members who are speaking, particularly Members who are speaking for the first time and who are not particularly confident, in an attempt to put them off.
It is regrettable that the Ulster Unionists behave in this way. I notice that Mr Wilson is sitting with a smarmy smile on his face. He is the one who has asked his colleagues to interrupt the speeches of the DUP and the Unionist people, while ignoring the speeches made by Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Of course these Members are now his colleagues and his friends.
It is with sadness rather than joy that one takes part in such a debate. It is important that business is conducted in a proper fashion. Healthy debate should not be denied. If Members knew anything of debate in the House of Commons they would know that this is nothing like real debate. There is plenty of thrust and hard debate in the House of Commons, and new Members are willing to take it. There is an old adage:
"If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
Some people want special treatment as Members of the Assembly, but they do not like the thrust of debate. This motion deals with important issues. My hon Friends have given many reasons why it is important that this debate take place. There is nothing personal in my remarks concerning Lord Alderdice. He has been courteous with me on many occasions in this House and has shown courtesy as the Initial Presiding Officer.
However, we are dealing with a particular issue, and it goes to the core of what we are about here — dealing with issues which are so relevant and so important to the future of our country. If anyone asks me why I should be excited, or why I should want to take part in one of the most important debates about the future of my country I tell them that I have an interest in my country, an interest in the future of my children.
Therefore the Initial Presiding Officer, when he ended the debate, was denying my right to discuss matters that are very important and go to the very heart of the future of this Province and what kind of society we are going to have.
I remember Terence O’Neill saying many years ago "What kind of Ulster do you want?" That was the type of a debate that we ought to have had because we were deciding the kind of Ulster and the kind of future our children were going to have.
I, as a Member of the Assembly, wanted to participate in that debate, and when the Initial Presiding Officer allowed the guillotine motion it was not put by those who had an interest in the debate. Even today the largest party in the Assembly, the Ulster Unionist Party, made one short statement concerning its position.
I can understand that some Members from the Ulster Unionist Party were not feeling aggrieved about the guillotine. The truth is that they were not permitted to speak on that occasion because the Whip could not be sure what they might say. There are many concerned people, for whom I have respect, in the Ulster Unionist Party. Many of them were deeply moved by this issue. However, they were not allowed to speak in case they did not tow the party line.
I support this motion. I was denied my right to speak on behalf of the people who elected me.
When I am not speaking I notice many wonderful things. Today I saw Mr Wilson directing his colleagues: "Get up, get up. Make interventions", and their hands were going feverishly to stop the Democratic Unionist Party Members from exercising their right of free speech.
I think that when Mr Wilson considers the matter, in the context of the Unionist family, he will have second thoughts. He has not done his people, and the Unionist people, proud today. He had no contribution to make himself, but he tried to stop free speech and debate.
If a Member has a response to a point in the debate, he should stand up and make it; if not, he should sit and remain silent. However, a Member should never orchestrate matters to remove the right of free speech from others. It should never happen within the Unionist family, bearing in mind that Unionist Members have to endure seeing the representatives of murderers and gangsters all around them. I feel angry and frustrated, and I resent that, even in these circumstances, there are colleagues from the family of Unionism trying to stop free speech.
Mr Foster started to quote the Bible. Maybe he is not the best authority on the Scriptures, and perhaps he should look closely at some of those verses again.
No. The Member has had his say, and I do not regard him as a theologian. I will not enter a theological debate, which would be ruled out of order anyway.
When the Initial Presiding Officer was reaching his decision he had to consider whether he felt there had been an adequate, balanced debate. I will remind the House and tell the Initial Presiding Officer the balance: 22 Members on the pro-agreement side and nine Members on the anti-agreement side. Oh yes! There was balance.
No. I have only a short time, and I am using it profitably for the cause of Ulster. It is shameful to suggest that five hours’ debate is too long to debate the future of one’s country, that five hours is too long to debate the future of one’s children or grandchildren. Those who supported such a decision ought to bow their heads in shame. They were doing no service whatsoever to the future of democracy in this society.
I am not surprised that Sinn Féin would want to stop me from speaking. They have done that for years; they have tried to murder me and silence me for years. I can take that: the enemies of Ulster are enemies of myself because I am speaking on behalf of Ulster. But what I cannot take, and what I resent most, is that those who are supposed to be in the Unionist family would stop me, a representative of the Unionist people who topped the poll in Mid Ulster.
I do not object to Members making genuine interventions. However, Mr Foster moved away from the debate throughout his speech, so he should not be lecturing me. This is the reason why I am aggrieved and why I support the motion before the House, though it gives me no joy to do so. As I sat in the House, and during the break, several Members from different parties — all bar Sinn Féin; I do not deal or talk with them — said to me "Do you know what you are doing? Do you know that you are strengthening Mr Alderdice’s position? We have to say what a great person he is and support him." That is why there was only one speaker from the Ulster Unionists — they did not want to say that.
However, the SDLP has been more vocal and I would say, with the greatest respect, to Lord Alderdice that my party may have assisted him somewhat. Anyone voting for him today could not turn around and support a vote of no confidence in him tomorrow.
I would like to remind Members that we are here because the electorate sent us here. As a democrat, I respect the right of others to have their say in this Chamber and to express their views — no matter how much I may disagree with them —but I was denied my democratic right when I was not allowed to speak in the debate on 18 January.
I want to make three points in relation to today’s motion. First, I want to talk about the decision to guillotine the debate and its implications. The Order Paper clearly stated that three days were being given to debate the report prepared by the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate). It further stated that the Assembly was to sit each day at 10.30 am. Every indication was that there was to be a three-day sitting.
But, contrary to that decision made prior to the Assembly’s sitting, the Ulster Unionists and their new friends among the Nationalists proceeded to break that agreement. That implies that whenever these two groups decide that they do not like what they are hearing, and having set a precedent in which the Initial Presiding Officer acquiesced, they will stifle the rest of us. That is the message being given.
My second point relates to the reasoning behind this. According to Mr Mallon, speaking on radio on the following Tuesday, the debate was becoming sterile and nothing new was being said. Given that logic, both he and Sinn Féin/IRA need speak only once a year since they never have anything new to say except to repeat their anti-British rhetoric and parrot their united-Ireland slogans. Of course, it would be different for Mr Trimble. He and his colleagues change their policy every day, so they would need to speak quite often. In fact, not many of them seem to know what their policy is. That intellectual giant, Mr Nesbitt, speaking to Stewartstown Ulster Unionists said
"I see there is some uneasiness among Unionism as to where we are going, but that is one of the reasons why I wish to make it clear to you that, both in our policy and in what we will accept and now accept, we are clear."
Make something of that if you can.
I then come to the claims made about this Assembly. It was hailed as the dawning of a new era — the beginning of democracy. Mr Mallon is on record as saying that Northern Ireland had moved from the physical process to the political process. That statement is, of course, nonsense, given the hundreds who have been and are still being beaten almost to death.
Looking at the decision that he and the Ulster Unionist Party took, the only thing that has changed is the means used to silence the pro-Union majority. While Sinn Féin/IRA has done all it can to erase any semblance of our Britishness, the SDLP is doing all it can to make sure that we do not have too much of a voice — just enough to give an air of respectability to the proceedings. Nationalism has always been Fascist in its approach; now it is aided and abetted by compliant Unionists.
As for democracy and accountability, if Sinn Féin/IRA is anything to go by, its approach to the financial corruption in the Dáil, as recorded in the ‘Irish News’ of 27 January 1999, is
"The peace process must transcend all other political questions."
So they are clear in their approach: nothing matters but all-Ireland agendas.
Even the tiny Alliance Party — that citadel of democracy — has ditched the pretence of believing in free speech. One of its councillors is recorded in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ of 26 January as having said
"There should be no air time given to the DUP."
Another councillor is on record as endorsing what she described as "social engineering".
In short, the decision to halt the debate was to make sure that the message of the pro-Union Members who represent the majority of the Unionist population was stifled.
Mr Trimble did not want to hear. He has private meetings with Mr Adams to hear what he has to say, but he endorses the abuse of procedures in order to silence fellow Unionists who oppose his betrayal and who represent the majority of the Unionist community. I support the motion.
When one considers the number of debates that have taken place in the Assembly, it is clear that the decision on 18 December was taken very early. It is important to remember that we have been involved in setting what may turn out to be a precedent. This debate is not a reaction to the pettiness of the Arthur Daleys of Unionism. It is about the principle and the decision which was taken on that occasion. In our previous sitting there was repetition. Mr McGimpsey repeated a confession list of concessions to the IRA that had already been set out by Robert McCartney. At that sitting no one jumped up on points of order.
Members on the anti-agreement Unionist side are exactly the same in number as those on the pro-agreement Unionist side. Many of the anti-agreement Unionists topped the poll in their constituencies. Therefore, a greater number of Unionists said no to the agreement. When it was arranged and contrived that their voice should be stifled, there was a deliberate attempt to coerce. If the political promiscuity of Jim Wilson and his colleagues has seduced the Initial Presiding Officer, it is time that we drew to the Initial Presiding Officer’s attention the fact that he has a duty to reflect the feelings of all Members.
The speeches by Mr Taylor and Reginald Empey and all the others who enjoy DUP-bashing display the weakness of their case. There was an infernal row among Ulster Unionist Party Members on 2 December and they engage in DUP bashing to hide the wounds within their own ranks. It was obvious that the bouncers, the so-called Whips, were leaning heavily on dissident Members an hour before the vote was taken. The bully-boy tactics which are condemned when they are used on the streets are apparent in the Assembly Lobby.
A structure so young and tender and in its formative stage must be treated with more respect. The Chair should not be subjected to the pressure that it was so obviously put under at the last plenary session to put the Question. It had obviously been decided that when the Question was put, the Initial Presiding Officer could abandon his responsibility, knowing full well that there was already an orchestrated decision.
We hope that the Initial Presiding Officer will take on board what has been said in the debate because it has been said not out of arrogance or spite. This is being put forward as a means of trying to make the Assembly work to the credit of Northern Ireland, to the credit of us in it and, indeed, to his credit. We are trying to show that what was done creates a precedent — and it could be a very dangerous precedent. If it were used in reverse, we would hear an awful lot of whinging from Benches other than our own, and that is something for the Presiding Officer to reflect upon, and I do not mean that to be a direct admonishment.
The Initial Presiding Officer was under pressure. While SDLP people today came out in his support to some extent, they are no particular friends of Lord Alderdice. It is well known that he is tolerated — just about — by the Official Unionists. In fact, it could be tactical on our part to reinforce the Speaker’s position, but the decision taken on that day has to be examined. At the previous meeting, in spite of all the heckling that went on, we talked about building trust and giving confidence. What confidence was given by the tactics used in that instance? Fifty per cent of the Unionists’ representatives were vetoed by another 50%, and they should think honestly about what they did.
Maybe I will be forgiven for a slight digression. I, as someone from West Tyrone, look at the tombstones of those who have been murdered. One of them, from north Strabane, was Senator Barnhill, who was in the other Chamber in this House. He and his sister were killed early in this 30-year campaign. He was responsible for making arrangements for the Americans to come to Derry and use it as a base in the Second World War. Do Members think that Senator Barnhill, as an Official Unionist representative in this House, would have condoned the conduct of the Chief Whips at the last meeting?
Or look at the tombstone outside my own village, in the parish of Clogher. There are 21 names on it. Strangely, the first name on it is that of a man called Clements, who taught my children and whose sister is married to my brother — a leading Official Unionist. At the bottom of the list is a personal friend of mine, Ivan Anderson. The day before he was killed we spent an hour checking whether he had made his will and had made his peace with God — he knew he was going to be killed. He was the secretary of the Official Unionists in my area. Do Members think that he would have condoned what Mr J Wilson and the Whips did on 18 January 1999?
A sobering thought is the glee that was felt at that moment. I would hate to think of another line being added to the bottom of that memorial, dedicated by an Assembly Member. "Could it be possible that their memory was betrayed by Assembly Members?" Those are the thoughts that we need to instil, and we need to bring a little bit of stark reality as to what these Benches are about.
When we are talking about this agreement we think of King John and Magna Carta — the barons. Who are the new barons? Are they the barons of drugs; the barons of arson; the barons of tyranny? Who are they, and who is jumping to their tune? The decision was made, and I am saying to Lord Alderdice that he should reconsider that decision, that he should ensure that it is not a precedent. If this House is to have harmony, there are 28 representatives of over half of the Unionist population who must be considered in future when decisions are being made in this Assembly.
The DUP did not put down this motion with any great relish. Many Members have referred to what happened at the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer (CAPO). Some Members have said that this meeting exists to give advice to the Initial Presiding Officer, and that is accurate — that is one of the reasons for its existence. However, Members who oppose the motion have missed the point that in the seven months of this Assembly there has not been another instance of the Committee’s advice being discarded in the way that it was on this occasion. So I would not put too much store by the nature of CAPO and what it exists to do.
CAPO was always the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, and its members agreed unanimously the advice to be tendered to the Initial Presiding Officer, and the Initial Presiding Officer ruled and took his decision on that basis. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that CAPO members were in agreement, and there was a ruling from the Initial Presiding Officer.
Members who oppose this motion are grasping at straws by trying to say that the Initial Presiding Officer could set aside the agreement that had been entered into unilaterally at the CAPO meeting. According to my list, Messrs Hilditch, Hay, Poots, Paisley Jnr, Peter Robinson, Kane and Mark Robinson from the DUP were due to speak. Those who, in defence of their own position, said that there was a wide range of Members to speak on that day cannot deny that many Members, whose names had been tabled and were due to be called, were denied the opportunity to speak. If they have had an opportunity to speak today, that is well and good — it is not before time.
Today every ruse imaginable — and there have been some disgraceful attempts — has been used to stop some Members from speaking. There were queries as to whether a Member’s paragraph or sentence contained a reference to the motion. Were they straying from the motion? Would they be called to order? Why is it that we keep getting the distinct impression that opposition in the Chamber is not only frowned upon, but will be remorselessly crushed if any attempt is made to express it?
Today is a good day because the voices of those who were elected to express the views, misgivings and concerns of hundreds of thousands of people can, must and will be heard.
The Presiding Officer’s decision was taken during the day. I had urgent business to attend to and had left the building. There was thought of communicating with anyone about the possibility of a vote. The rights of many of my party’s Members and those from other parties who had wished to speak were taken from them. They were denied those rights because of the Initial Presiding Officer’s decision.
Today’s debate, which was agreed to reluctantly by some, gives Members the right to speak on behalf of many people. There have been attempts to stop some members from speaking. They have been interrupted by points of order, but all such efforts have failed. From this failure a lesson can be learned.
This will be a successful day, no matter what happens in the short term, if people learn a lesson from the fact that some Members have strong views. They were elected to express those views and they must be heard. There must be evidence that they will be heard.
Does the Member agree that the Initial Presiding Officer misled the House? Page 415 of the Official Report shows that he received from the Secretary of State a letter directing the Assembly to meet for more than one day. Thus in the light of the CAPO meeting and the letter from the Secretary of State, we presumed that the Assembly would meet for more than one day. Does the Member accept that the conspiracy runs much deeper than Members are prepared to accept?
Members and the Secretary of State, were aware that we were scheduled for two days with the possibility of a third. But none of that seems to matter in the remorseless attempt to grind down the opposition.
If lessons from two weeks ago are learned today, we can put the past behind us and proceed to the future.
I cannot remember your long list of names, so I will call you Madam Speaker or Deputy Speaker. I shall not go over the points which have been made. If I did, there would be interventions and points of order. I want to make a couple of observations.
I am not going to make any comment on the contribution that was made. That strikes me as odd, and, surely, the Initial Presiding Officer must also find it odd. The pickle in which the Initial Presiding Officer found himself was partly due to the fact that he allowed himself to be used by a party which feared another day’s debate on the report from the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate). I am not in a position to judge whether this was a mistake, or whether the Initial Presiding Officer deliberately, or willingly, allowed himself to be used in this way. Had I been in his position I would have expected more vociferous support from those who had created the situation.
It is not that there is no one in that party who is able to come to the defence of the Initial Presiding Officer. Some of us were indeed impressed by the robust — some might say unknightly — contribution from "the knight from Knock" in defence of his own party. It seems he had been carried away by the honour bestowed on him. He must have thought he was one of the Kray brothers — Reggie and Ronnie. He behaved in the House like a political Kray brother, but he is absent today. He has not come to the defence of the Initial Presiding Officer.
It strikes me as odd that the Ulster Unionist Party has been so quiet about this. It must be because of embarrassment. Many people have said that what happened on 18 January was embarrassing for those opposed to the report, and that they were ambushed. However, I believe that the real embarrassment is among those who moved the closure motion, and, by facilitating this motion, the Initial Presiding Officer helped to reveal the weakness of the arguments used by those who were in support of the report.
As I listened to the speeches in the Chamber today it occurred to me that, as Rev William McCrea said, some people spoke in defence of the Initial Presiding Officer not because they wanted to but because they felt obliged to do so. This would worry me if I were in the Initial Presiding Officer’s position. However, my concern is with the nature of the defence made on behalf of the Initial Presiding Officer. Mr Paisley Jnr has already dealt adequately with criticisms about repetitiveness, although I would add that many people will find it odd for us to be lectured about repetitiveness by the SDLP. If the rule about repetitiveness is strictly observed in the House, there will not be many debates which last longer than a morning. Indeed, many of us know that the way to get your message across is to repeat it and repeat it.
No. My time is running out. Many people realise that repetition is an important way of getting your message across.
As regards some of the other arguments used, I found the remarks made by one of the Sinn Féin Members very enlightening. He said that the decision made by the Initial Presiding Officer in that debate was quite correct, because nobody is bound by any agreements. Those who believe that Sinn Féin has entered into an agreement with them, and that they have got some kind of peace agreement, should take note of what Mr Maskey said in the House this morning. He says that it does not matter if you make an agreement. They are not bound by any agreement.
His next argument was even more comical. It was "We don’t have time for this; we have more important things to do." Those are the new-found democrats who wish to make the institutions of government in Northern Ireland work. That is almost as funny as the comment from one of his colleagues who knows all about broken bones. Many of them know about broken bones in IRA/Sinn Féin. The other morning on the radio he talked about the shortage of orthopaedic surgeons, and spoke about how he wanted to get into the Assembly to get to grips with the problem. Now we are told that Sinn Féin have no time for the motion because they have more important things to do.
Mr Haughey said that many of the speeches had been irrelevant. If I were Lord Alderdice, I would be worried. Mr Haughey said that if this had been a court of law, he would have asked for the case to be dismissed out of hand because Peter Robinson had walked out. I will let Mr Robinson deal with that.
I have only a minute or two left.
He then went on to a most bizarre argument. He said that he would be supporting the Initial Presiding Officer because on the day in question, the Initial Presiding Officer had presided over eight speeches which were totally irrelevant and consisted of tomfoolery and buffoonery. I would not support any Presiding Officer who allowed buffoonery, tomfoolery and eight irrelevant speeches. That was his defence of Lord Alderdice.
It is clear from the debate that there is embarrassment. People know that the decision was wrong. Those who asked for it to be made are the most culpable. They acted out of expediency and to avoid political embarrassment. The mistake was that the Initial Presiding Officer allowed himself to be used in that exercise.
I do not know the outcome of this debate, and I would not presume to guess, but it has been important for two reasons. It has given people the opportunity to highlight the danger, as Mr Campbell said, of trying to stamp out opposition in this House for short-term expediency. It has also given those who were party to this an opportunity to defend their actions. They have been totally silent. They have not offered a defence.
The debate has highlighted the inadequacy of the party that brought this situation about and put the Initial Presiding Officer in the difficult position in which he finds himself. I trust that the lesson will be learned that in this House we will have the freedom of expression and freedom of debate that allow for proper, accountable government.
Perhaps I could deal with some of the comments that have been made. There will be occasions when everyone who wishes to contribute in the Assembly will have important and pressing business in other parts of the Province. Those who aspire to ministerial and other offices will have to make speeches and carry out functions elsewhere. If the Member who referred to my absence earlier had made the least enquiry of me, he would have found out that the building of a £9 million facility, which I had assisted in bringing to East Belfast, was starting in my constituency and that it was appropriate that I should be there to speak at the sod-cutting ceremony today.
As for the comments on the absence of my Colleague Dr Paisley, given that he was attending the funeral of a life-long friend, it is slightly cheap that his absence should have been referred to. It is ironic that that Member should have suggested that it is a lack of courtesy for a Member to speak and then leave the Chamber when that same Member left the Chamber immediately after his speech. Those who attempt to lecture others should practise what they preach.
Few expected that we would have many people attending this debate to listen to the arguments and, in an open-minded way, to decide how they would vote. It is evident that some pre-judged the issue, including the Alliance Party. One of the amusing features is the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ headline "Alliance set to back Alderdice" — something we thought we would not see again. We can see by his physical presence that we have been able to reconcile the Initial Presiding Officer with his former colleagues. That will be welcomed as much by him as by them. It is, of course, noticeable that one of them is not present, but I am sure that that has nothing to do with the fact that the Initial Presiding Officer is sitting among his former colleagues.
For the rest of the Members any stick was a good enough one with which to beat the DUP. It is not a case of looking at the issue and making a determination based on the weight of evidence that would be produced during the course of proceedings. If that had been done the central feature of the debate was the principle set down in the very first speech, one which not one Member has attempted to counter and that is this: a closure motion is not intended to curtail debate; it is intended to ensure that debate is not prolonged. That was the procedural issue upon which the Initial Presiding Officer should have ruled, and he did not get it right.
Monica McWilliams said that it did not do any good for an infant Chamber to have this sort of thing happening. Quite the contrary: this is exactly the kind of issue that must be settled at the early stages, because precedents are established on rulings from the Chair. That is the key issue as far as this debate is concerned, and one of the reasons this motion was moved.
In introducing the debate I indicated that we had scheduled a number of Members to deal with specific issues each on 18 January, and I drew attention to two of those issues, one of which was decommissioning. The fallacy of the Official Unionist Party’s argument would have been exposed had the Initial Presiding Officer not ruled in the way that he did. The Official Unionist Party has now confirmed on its website the basis on which it believes that Sinn Féin can be excluded from the Executive, and that basis is the lack of decommissioning.
The reason it gives is that Sinn Féin is not exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means. That language is used three times in the statement and has been extracted from the Belfast Agreement, but that is precisely the language that was used during the talks at Castle Buildings, and it allowed Sinn Féin into those talks on the basis of that same language. If it wants to rely on that now as a basis for not allowing Sinn Féin into an Executive, it should have relied on it then and come out with the UKUP and the DUP rather than staying in those talks on that same criterion.
If the Initial Presiding Officer had not ruled in the way that he did, we would have warned Ulster Unionist Members that by voting they were giving the green light to the Secretary of State to proceed to set up all of the structures dealt with by the report, and we would have been right so to have warned them.
Statements were issued by the Northern Ireland Office indicating that she is starting to set up the 10 Departments even though the determination has not been legally approved. She has begun to create the implementation bodies even though the Assembly has not approved the determination of the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate). Such a vital issue should have been debated in the Chamber. However, because of the actions of the Initial Presiding Officer, we were not permitted to do that.
We would have pointed out to Ulster Unionist Members that they were breaching their election commitments that they would not allow bodies to be set up on an all-Ireland basis which had Executive powers and which would not be accountable and also that they would not let Sinn Féin into the Executive. Again, because of the Initial Presiding Officer’s ruling, we were denied the opportunity to do that.
We would certainly have responded to gibberish from the First Minister (Designate) about the DUP’s position vis-à-vis Sinn Féin in the Executive. Sometimes I wonder who will get him first, the men in white coats or the men in grey suits. What he argued was the DUP’s position was not remotely close to it. Our position remains the same: we will do everything in our power to stop Sinn Féin getting into an Executive. When the Ulster Unionist Party capitulates the circumstances which the First Minister (Designate) mentions, come into play.
For any parliamentary Assembly to function, there should be some degree of honour and trust in the business managers of the Assembly. Following remarks made by Mr Wilson during a Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer meeting, it is clear that we cannot have that degree of honour and trust. Indeed, he indicated that no matter what he agrees with other parties he reserves the right, if it is politically expedient to his party, to use Standing Orders to violate that agreement. Members have heard the same kind of comment from Sinn Féin Members, who suggested that they do not feel bound by agreements that they reach.
I think your difficulty is at the very heart of the problem. The debate was curtailed on 18 January because they do not like hearing arguments that do not come from their own party. The Initial Presiding Officer’s decision was one that denied free speech.
We should ask why the Ulster Unionist Party put the Initial Presiding Officer in that position. Could they not find Members prepared to support what the First Minister (Designate) had put forwad in his report? That is certainly possible. Or could they not hold the line? I saw some evidence of that as the DUP often talks about paramilitary beatings. I saw parliamentary beatings taking place during that day when the political cudgels were being wielded against their Members because they were not coming into line.
Of course, the fear was that, as the debate continued, Members would hear the arguments and Whips would be unable to keep them in line, which they were clearly struggling to do. Another fear was that they would find out that Mo Mowlam was going to use the motion to proceed with the setting up of structures. The last thing they wanted was for the public to hear the arguments. Other parties should be very careful — the rights that they trample on today are the same rights that they will seek in the future.
In the future, I am certain, some Members will say our rights have been trampled on simply by the exercise of a majority voting in one direction or the other. That is why we have a Presiding Officer who is given discretion to safeguard the rights of minorities in the Assembly. Therefore there were two principal reasons — [Interruption]
The Democratic Unionist Party felt it necessary to table the motion for two reasons. First, we sought, procedurally, to restore the amount of time which was denied to it. On 18 January we made it clear, through points of order, that procedures are a two-edged sword. Today all those Members who were denied the right to speak on 18 January had that right restored.
I particularly congratulate my colleagues who made their maiden speeches today. They showed excellent potential. We have shown that procedural devices can be used to ensure that our rights are maintained.
Secondly, we wanted to ensure that no precedents would be set by the Initial Presiding Officer’s ruling. His ruling was manifestly wrong. However, as Ms McWilliams said, everyone can get it wrong sometimes. The greatest act of courage is when people admit that they got it wrong. It has been made clear that, procedurally, such a ruling would be unacceptable in any other democratic establishment. The Initial Presiding Officer should reconsider this matter and ensure that what happened is not used as a precedent.
Some almost personal references were made in relation to the Initial Presiding Officer. More than anyone in the Assembly, I could be said to have a gripe against the Initial Presiding Officer for he has contested my East Belfast constituency on many occasions. We have met each other on the hustings many times. Throughout that period of election campaigning we have never fallen out on any of the issues. Many Members will agree that he has fulfilled his role in a competent manner during his tenure as Initial Presiding Officer. That should be acknowledged.
If a wrong precedent is set early in the life of a democratic institution, it may continue throughout the life of that institution.
In the light of the debate, I urge the Initial Presiding Officer to reconsider his ruling. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the motion.