Assembly Standing Orders

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP 3:45 pm, 9th March 1999

The Member makes a fair point. I will be loath to give way in future for such an intervention. I make no criticism of his having, on that day, put forward, without solicitation, what I thought was some form of compromise towards the smaller parties. My difficulty is with the Standing Orders. I accept that there was no determination of the numbers or the specific size, although it was accepted that it would be larger than the non-Statutory Committee and would, as far as possible, have a broad representation.

Where did the figures come from? I do not criticise those who imported the figures. My criticism is of the larger parties that allowed the amendment to be tabled but advocated a different formula. However, they did not propose a formula to show the proportionality they were prepared to accept irrespective of that which the First Minister wants. The First Minister has addressed a specific issue relating to the Act and the agreement, and has given his reasons for tabling the amendment. I wish that it were the only issue that I think exists, but I am somewhat concerned over the carve-up of the Speaker.

I am concerned by the fact that there will be 11 members on a committee and the minimum number possible of those who could conceivably provide opposition. That begins to worry me in the context of collective governance — if we ever get to that. I am somewhat dismayed by the fact that the amendment essentially abandons an agreement while there is no counter amendment from parties who created a situation that could have led to proportionality which was different from that in the Statutory Committee.

I appeal to Members with a fair point. It is that those who vote against this and support the amendment will deny the small parties the representation that they deserve.

I shall extrapolate from a point that the First Minister made when he talked about proportionality. If I am not mistaken, the Act and the agreement do not preclude every Member of the Assembly from being on a committee. When he talks about his level of proportionality, he does not consider the fact that other committees have functioned very well. Examples are the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, the Standing Orders Committee and the Ad Hoc Committee on the Port of Belfast. They have not been that unwieldy, and they offer a genuine opportunity for greater participation by those who are in opposition. In the light of our debate about the lack of scrutiny of the central Department, this proposal will not go down that well. It represents suppression of the smaller parties.

It is a degree of closing down the opportunity, or, dare I use that well-worn word in Northern Ireland, a "perception". But the UUP and the SDLP did carve up the position of Speaker, and it will be perceived — and is by me — that the main reason given for putting down the amendment is not the real reason behind it.