Assembly Standing Orders

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP 4:45 pm, 9th March 1999

I want to make a number of general observations about what has been going on against the whole background of various committees. Assemblyman Durkan referred to Prof McWilliams in terms of "sneer and smear". Other Members have talked of suspicions about what the major parties would do. I think we should examine the basis for this air of uncertainty and suspicion about what is going on.

In order to do that, we must fundamentally appreciate that this is not a parliamentary democracy with one party, or a coalition of parties, in Government and other parties, with substantial numbers of representatives out of Government who will act as the Opposition, who will probe, enquire into, publicly examine and attack what the Government are doing.

What we have here is a sort of political Caliban — a creature created for specific purposes. It is called consensual government. It means that all of the major parties have representatives in the Executive, which is the Government. Therefore, where do we look for either the machinery or the people who, as Prof McWilliams quite rightly pointed out, will constitute the Opposition? Who will enquire into whether the Government are governing with integrity and probity and if their policies are valid or simply expedient?

This is where the problem arises. Under this scheme that function is to be carried out by a series of scrutiny committees. However, the scrutiny committees, by virtue of the numbers of the majority parties, will contain, in most cases, an overwhelming majority of those actually in Government. They will contain a relative minority of those parties who, not being in Government, not being in the Executive and, by their numbers, having circumscribed representation on these scrutiny committees, will not really be, if I understand Prof McWilliams’s remarks correctly, in a position to do the work of an effective Opposition, which is to ensure that the Government, whether they be a consensual Executive or an elected majority, are doing what they ought to do.

There is therefore a suspicion — and it has been there from the very beginning, through all the discussions at the early meetings of the Standing Orders Committee — that this place could ultimately resolve itself into an Executive that, broadly speaking, could do whatever it wanted, and that the role of this Assembly, in its plenary session, whether through question, answer, speeches or any other form of examination, was to question the Executive about its performance and what it was doing.

I think that much of the anxiety and questioning stems from that fundamental dilemma.

Assemblyman Denis Haughey, who chaired in a fair and exemplary fashion the Standing Orders Committee, said that this is a unique place. It is so unique, he suggested, that the Opposition will consist of Back-Benchers of all the parties that are not in the Government. Here again is a curious residual appendix of parliamentary government. The Assembly has parties and Whips.

Peter Robinson’s fair suggestion and amendment this morning was that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should be the subject of a scrutiny committee. There was a worthwhile debate in which the arguments were cogently and explicitly deployed. I have no doubt that anyone listening to that debate would, if he had been allowed a free vote, come down heavily in favour of the proposition. There was no answer as to why there should be 10 Statutory Committees to scrutinise the 10 Ministries, but no special scrutiny committee to scrutinise the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, who will exercise substantial Executive powers on a wide range of important issues. Assemblyman Sammy Wilson listed those. That was the crux of the matter.

What happened in this marvellous place, in which independent, free-thinking Back-Benchers would exercise the powerful independence of mind and intellect that they would bring like lasers to bear on the problems that confronted them? What we saw today was one of the worst features of the party system. Member after Member said no or yes, and I venture to suggest that many of them had no good idea of exactly why they were saying no or yes to a particular amendment — except that some sort of tribal drum played by the Whips had sent the message "This is a no" or "This is a yes." [Interruption] I do not need a drum.

When addressing Members in, I hope, direct, frank and open terms, I appealed to their independence of mind. I suggested that they should direct their thoughts and their minds to the value of the arguments and to the persuasiveness of points of view. I asked them to allow that arguments from places for which they had no natural empathy, might, by their good sense and logic and by their comparison of one committee with another in terms of the functions that they were to serve be persuasive enough to accept.