Standards and Privilege

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 7:15 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer 7:15 pm, 9th March 1999

Mr Robinson and to some extent the joint Chairman, Mr Haughey, have suggested that I give a ruling on the question of an amendment to sub-paragraph 6 of Standing Order 66, on whether some slight modification to the wording would accommodate an agreement.

There are two major problems about this. The first problem is procedural. We do not have a mechanism, as I indicated earlier, for taking amendments of any substantial sort that move outside the parameters agreed in the amendment to item 3 yesterday. But there is a more substantial problem and that is that the amendment completely changes the grammatical sense and reference within the sub-paragraph.

The subject of the sentence is "Chairpersons of Committees", and the verb is "exercising". When it comes to "their use" the possessive pronoun is used. Does "their use" refer to use by Committees and the Chairpersons of Committees? Or does it refer to use by the news media?

It seems to me that if this sub-clause is left as it is, the possessive pronoun "their" refers to chairpersons of committees and the word "use" — of the rooms or whatever — refers to use for the purposes of committee business by the chairpersons and their committees as distinct from use by the news media. However, if the Assembly were to accept the amendment by Mr Robinson, the use of whatever facilities would be available to the news media for the purposes of Committee business.

It seems not an unreasonable interpretation of the grammar — albeit a rather opaque grammar — to say that the amendment would actually change the sense of the Standing Order. Whether it would change the meaning of it, in terms of how it was acted out, is another matter. But I have to make it clear that it would not be possible for me to accept the change as it has been suggested. First of all, to do so would be procedurally incorrect and, secondly, it would effect a change of meaning in the amendment. To keep the amendment as it is means that it refers to the use of a room by the committee; to accept the amendment means that it refers to the use of a room for the purposes of news-media coverage by the news media, which is something different.

It is not for me to rule on which makes sense or on which is the best decision to take. I am simply trying to clarify it as best I can, and that is my ruling.