Assembly Standing Orders

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin 11:45 am, 9th March 1999

Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. I wish to speak against amendments Nos 60, 59, 56 and 55, relating to the formation of a committee to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The creation of a scrutiny committee would only create another tier of committee work. It is the view of Sinn Féin that what is required is an amendment of the relevant legislation to create a Statutory Committee, or committees, to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Such a committee would have full powers of scrutiny and would ensure that there was accountability and transparency in relation to the work of the Offices of Trimble and Mallon.

The proposed amendment may not be sufficient to scrutinise the work of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers. Therefore this amendment should be referred back to the Committee on Standing Orders to allow it to analyse and assess whether or not it provides the level of scrutiny envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. I am greatly concerned that the kind of detailed scrutiny envisaged in the agreement for the work of other Departments will not apply to the central Offices.

I am particularly concerned that matters relating to the rights of women and gender equality issues are to fall within the remit of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers. This will mean that Trimble and Mallon will have carte blanche to decide whether or not to act on a particular issue, and there will be no safeguard in the form of a scrutiny committee. I fear that issues relating to the rights of women will be placed far down the list of priorities if they are left in the hands of these two Gentlemen.

As evidence for this, I would like to remind Members that yesterday I hosted a discussion in the Long Gallery, attended by women from all sectors of society, the purpose of which was to acquaint the Assembly with their concerns and aspirations. Each delegate had a number of issues to which they felt the Assembly should attend. These included matters as diverse as health, education, violence against women, telecommunication masts situated close to homes and schools, childcare, poverty, prisoners and hospital closures.

With the exception of my Sinn Féin colleagues, no male Members of the Assembly attended. The fact that neither the First Minister (Designate) nor the Deputy First Minister (Designate) attended gave a very clear message to those hoping to address them that they were of little or no consequence. In the limited time available to us, we agreed some very valuable points. However, most of those at the meeting were already converted, and our discussions would have been of most benefit to those on the other Benches.

The disregard shown to this gathering of women, on International Women’s Day, gives us an indication of the importance attached to gender equality by the Assembly. This is why I am arguing strongly against amendments Nos 55, 56, 59 and 60. I want to ensure that adequate attention is given to the rights of women, victims, minorities and to the whole issue of equality.

Any body with responsibility for scrutinising the work of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must have real powers to protect the rights of the individual. There is a great need for this scrutiny, and we cannot accept a half-hearted attempt at this. We must get it right, and we cannot allow this issue to be sidelined. We must ensure that the necessary structures are in place to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Go raibh maith agat.