Presiding Officer’s Business

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 16th February 1999.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

Yesterday Mr Gregory Campbell and Mr Cedric Wilson asked me to consider the use by Mr Martin McGuinness of a visual aid during his speech. It appears that the grenade component referred to by Mr McGuinness was the lever from a used grenade. It was therefore an inert piece of metal which was not, and could not of itself be used as, a weapon, although its symbolic significance is quite clear.

Members are not searched on entering the building but are requested to place weapons in the armoury. However, this item was not a weapon, as far as I can ascertain, and so no regulations were breached. If Members feel strongly that they should be searched on entering the building, as others are, I would be grateful if this could be conveyed to me through the usual channels. However, I emphasise that, even if there were a security search, there would not necessarily be any prohibition on the bringing in of any such metal item as a trophy or visual aid.

The Standing Orders Committee may wish to address the question of Members using visual aids to illustrate speeches — that is not dealt with under the current Standing Orders. In addition, the Standing Orders Committee may wish to note that while visitors and members of the press are prohibited under the Initial Standing Orders from bringing various items into the Chamber, including certain recording and other devices and large bags, no such prohibition applies to Members. The Committee might wish to look at this matter.

I was requested by Mr Martin McGuinness to rule on whether the term —

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. You have given a ruling, which I accept, and the Assembly and its Committees need to consider it. However, there is a much more serious matter relating to the same incident. If the component part of a grenade held up by Mr McGuinness is what he claims it to be, then it is evidence and he should be arrested for withholding evidence from the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

Perhaps I could rule on this point of order, and then I will take Mr McElduff’s point of order. As far as its being an item of evidence is concerned, that may or may not be the case. However, it is not a matter for me or for a ruling from this Chair.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Perhaps it tells Members that the RUC investigation was less than thorough.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I have made the position regarding the question of evidence clear, as I see it.

I was requested by Mr Martin McGuinness to rule on whether the term "Sinn Féin/IRA", as used in the Chamber, is unparliamentary. He clearly found it unwelcome, but that does not make it unparliamentary. He suggested that its application to his party left all members under an accusation and perhaps even in danger. There is no Standing Order which addresses this issue. There is, however, a parliamentary convention that statements made in respect of a party are not considered to impugn the motives of individual members of that party in various circumstances. The reference — and I know that some Members are keen for references on these matters — is to ‘Erskine May’, page 387. I can supply that to Members if necessary. There are various contexts in which comments may be made about other parties, but they should not be taken to refer to all members, or even individual members, of a particular party.

Dr Paisley raised the matter of a large number of Members’ guests in the coffee room. I asked for an immediate report, but when the Keeper of the House got to the coffee room he found —I was going to say that the cupboard was bare — that the room was empty. The problem Dr Paisley raised, however, is a real one. I will ask the Assembly Commission to examine the regulations about the number of visitors who may at any one time be admitted to certain parts of the building.

The fact that Members had not received some documentation even by yesterday was also raised. It would be helpful if Members who did not have the report delivered to their registered address by Saturday morning would inform the Clerk of Business by the end of today’s sitting, since the Assembly delivered the Executive’s report to the Royal Mail in sufficient time for it to be delivered by Saturday morning under the special arrangements which the Assembly has negotiated with the Royal Mail. It would be very helpful to know if these arrangements are not working.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. Is it not normal parliamentary practice for papers such as these to be sent out three business days in advance rather than at the weekend?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

That is not necessarily the case in respect of the presentation of reports. In other places the practice is emerging whereby they are not even delivered, in the first instance, to the Chamber involved but published at press conferences in advance. It would be regrettable if that were to become the practice here. The procedure that you referred to is not, as I understand it, extant elsewhere.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

On a point of order, a Chathaoirligh. This debate is topical, and I have no doubt that the reference in Hansard to guns on the table, under the table, outside the door and inside the room will dog us for the next few weeks. Can you tell me whether or not Members have actually breached their honour and the practice of putting their weapons in the armoury? I see from Hansard that you have made reference to this matter already, and I am curious to know whether Members have or have not complied with the practice. It would be good to know whether we do actually have guns in the Chamber during our debates.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I have made enquiries on this matter on a number of occasions over the last months because Members who have not read avidly the minutes of the Assembly Commission may not have noted that the Commission made an early decision to delegate responsibility and authority for security matters to me. I have taken responsibility for that as best I can, and I have made enquiries from time to time about that matter.

It has not come to my attention that any Members have brought in weapons and have not deposited them in the armoury. A very small number of Members have deposited weapons on a regular basis, and others have, to my knowledge, made other arrangements outside the building. My enquiries have not led to anything further in that regard. I cannot say more.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. It is very clear that there are people in the Assembly, in the IRA/Sinn Féin party, who are deliberately fishing to try to ascertain how many Members carry authorised personal protection weapons and how many do not; to find out how many register those weapons at the front door and how many do not. It is highly dangerous for the personal protection of individuals who have made private security arrangements for you to give out details of how many Members are doing what with their weapons. I do not think that this matter should go any further.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I am responding as frankly and as appropriately as I can to the Assembly. I am a servant of the Assembly. You obviously have serious concerns with regard to this matter, and that will perhaps help the Assembly to understand why the question of Members being searched for weapons and so on on the way into the building is not straightforward in any way. It is a difficult and complex matter about which there are great sensitivities. I do not think that I need to elaborate any further, and I trust that we can proceed, as we have done until now, in reasonable security and with some element of trust.

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

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. You mentioned that some Members left their weapons in the armoury at the door. There are some people who come to this Assembly who are generally called minders of Members. I wonder how many of them leave weapons at the door. Has your attention been drawn to the fact that some of these so-called minders have refused to obey the regulation in respect of being searched at the door which involves passing through the machinery?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I am somewhat hesitant to go very far down the road along which the Member directs me. There are authorised servants of the state who bring weapons into the building, and searches do not apply to them. Nor do they apply to Assembly Members, but they do apply to all other entrants to the building, save — I think I am correct in saying this — President Clinton and the Prime Minister when they visit. Indeed, some very senior members of the judiciary have submitted themselves to a search.

There have been one or two occasions when people entering the building — from all sides, I might add — have chafed a little at the regulations that have been put in place. As far as I am aware, there has been a remarkable degree of co-operation from not only Members but also the staff and others from all parties, given the difficulty and sensitivity of the matter, and I wish to convey to all Members, their staff and officials my appreciation of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people, on an overwhelming number of occasions, have been extremely co-operative.

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

In order to clarify this matter I wish to point out that I was not referring in any way to any member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

I wish to point out that there is an omission in the Official Report of yesterday’s proceedings. In advance of my comments I wish to state that I appreciate the difficulties experienced by the Hansard staff in what can be a noisy Chamber.

On page 30, at the end of Mr David Ervine’s speech — some might describe it as a diatribe, but it was a speech — there is no mention whatsoever of the audible signs of approval which came from the Sinn Féin/IRA Benches. Normally it would be appropriate to insert "Hear, hear." While this would not have been attributed to any particular party, the content of the speech would make it fairly obvious to a reader of the Official Report who was giving their approval. Perhaps you, Sir, could ask the staff to have a look at this.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

When Members ask me to review something that appears in Hansard I now have a procedure which involves viewing the tapes. I will, of course, follow that procedure, but I have to say that my immediate response is that this is a rather ingenious point of order.

Photo of Mr Billy Hutchinson Mr Billy Hutchinson PUP

If Gregory Campbell’s point of order is to be accepted, I wish to request another addition to the Official Report. Following Sammy Wilson’s speech, Jim Wells said that the House should be a debating Chamber and that Members should not read from prepared texts. I asked if he was referring to people on his own Benches and named Jim Shannon. That does not appear in the Official Report either.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer 10:45 am, 16th February 1999

There are a number of understandings about how Hansard operates. One of these is that comments off microphone are generally not included unless they are referred to by the Member who is speaking or by the Speaker. That brings them into the property of the debate, and they have to be included. In this case, for example, had your comment triggered some response from the Member, it would have been included in Hansard, but it may have been off microphone and not heard by the reporter. By raising the question at this point you have ensured that it will now be included in Hansard. While that is an ingenious ploy, I might have to rule that such a ploy was an abuse of Standing Orders to ensure that it did not become a habit.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. This is connected not with what has not been included in Hansard, but with what has been. It is the practice in the House of Commons for the Hansard officials to notify Members that a draft of their speech will be available for checking within a specified time. That enables clear errors or misunderstandings to be dealt with. I have just read the Hansard report of my speech, and in at least one substantial and significant way it is completely wrong. At no time was it suggested by the Hansard officials that I should take a look at what they were proposing to print.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I have a couple of comments in regard to this. It is not possible for Hansard always to include things, and always to include them absolutely correctly. That is the case everywhere. As far as I am aware, it is not usually the practice, and certainly not in the other place where I operate, that every Member is advised of a particular time when he may be able to make corrections. Members may go to the Hansard office to check things. That is also the position here, I think up until two hours after the speech. At that stage things start to get into the system. Perhaps it would be helpful, in reply to the point of order, to advise all Members that if they wish to check that their speeches have been, as they feel, correctly reported, they should go to the Hansard office about two hours after they have spoken. It takes about two hours for a speech to go through the system.

However, even with that arrangement, Members may see in Hansard the following day or subsequently items which, in their view, are not accurate. Those can be drawn, initially, to the attention of the Editor of the Official Report. The substantive text is always the bound volume of Hansard, when it is finalised. I have been making enquiries to ensure that bound copies of our Official Report will be available, and corrections can be included in that. A different printing arrangement is necessary.

In summary, if Members wish to check whether their speech is accurate, from about two hours after they have made the speech they may be able to change or correct it. They may not change matters of substance, however. If they got it wrong on the Floor of the House, then they got it wrong, but if Hansard got it wrong, a change can be made. Subsequently, if that is not satisfactory, they may draw the matter to the attention of the Editor of Debates. If they are still not satisfied they may draw it directly to my attention or to the attention of the Presiding Officer on the Floor of the House. The final version will be the bound volume, and that will be made available when there is sufficient material to justify its production. We are not far away from that.

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

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Is there a time limit? In the House of Commons Members have a week to submit corrections for the bound volume. Will seven days’ notice be required?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

At this stage there is no regulation in that regard. The reason for the seven days’ notice at Westminster is that there is a regular output of Hansards, and every so often they produce the bound copies, for which they have a time limit. We have not had sufficient regular sittings to have reached that stage. There is no time limit on it. This matter will be attended to in the near future so that things can work properly. I am grateful to Dr Paisley for raising the matter.