Standards and Privilege

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 8:00 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Mr John Fee Mr John Fee Social Democratic and Labour Party 8:00 pm, 9th March 1999

I am conscious of the fact that staff have had a difficult job reporting our proceedings over the past couple of days. All I can say is "C’est la vie". Perhaps I shall say "C’est la guerre" before the end of the night.

Amendment No 63 refers to Standing Order 71. Peter Robinson spoke about it earlier, and one of his comments was uncharacteristically incorrect. He said that statute requires us to make this Standing Order and to nominate the number of members on it. Section 40(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 states

"The members of the Commission shall be —

(a) the Presiding Officer; and

(b) the prescribed number of members of the Assembly appointed in accordance with standing orders.

However, subsection (3) states

" ‘the prescribed number’ means 5 or such other number as may be prescribed by standing orders."

That means that it is perfectly in order for us to reject Standing Order 71. We do not intend to do that destructively, or because we oppose the principle of inclusivity, nor have we taken umbrage at the way in which the Standing Orders Committee has arrived at its decision because, under the legislation, it has that right.

What we are concerned about are the thought processes that went into making this decision. The Standing Orders Committee may not have been as well informed as it could have been. This may have been a failing on the part of the Shadow Commission to explain precisely what it is was doing.

One peripheral point I would make is that the Shadow Commission, as it stands, has six members. The precedent that has been adopted, primarily from Westminster, is that the Chairman does not vote. This means that for major decisions, when members tend to turn out, there is a membership of five, and that is when divisions are most likely within the Commission. With an uneven number of voting members gridlock is very unlikely. It can happen but is unlikely to occur.