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 Peter Weir Peter Weir UUP 11:45 am, 9th March 1999

I agree that we should not import certain things from elsewhere. At Westminster there is no Select Committee to deal specifically with the Prime Minister’s affairs. Members are in a different situation here, and there should be proper scrutiny of the issue.

In terms of opposition, there needs to be proper scrutiny. While some degree of opposition will be created by parties which are also in government — perhaps in different Departments — we need to strengthen that role so that Back-Benchers can ensure that proper democratic scrutiny takes place.

As I have indicated, if proposals come forward — and I will certainly accept the thinking that even this amendment is not perfect — we should look at them. There may well be members of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist parties who feel that the current arrangements suit them in some regards because that is their parties’ position at the moment. However, in addition to what has already been said about ensuring that there is proper scrutiny and that the Assembly should be able to tell the public that all matters are being properly considered, I caution those members of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP who feel that these arrangements suit them to take a more long-term view.

At the moment the First Minister (Designate) is a member of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) is a member of the SDLP. However, no one can guarantee that that will be the position in the future, and that is not to draw any conclusions about future events. If any Member can tell me precisely how everything is going to go over the next five to ten years, I will let him complete my lottery ticket on Saturday.

The reality is that none of us can foretell the future, and any party, whether it be Unionist, Nationalist, Conservative or Labour, that assumes that it will always be the largest party in any bloc is taking a very arrogant view of its electorate, and parties that do that can head for a fall. We should look at the situation in which one or other of the main parties was not the largest party. If the Ulster Unionist Party turns out not to be the largest party in the future, and this goes for the SDLP as well, it will be extremely difficult for either party then to say that there should be a proper scrutiny committee for the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers. Power will then have passed to another party.

I caution Members to look at the long-term objective. We have to be fair in order to ensure that we do have proper accountable democracy. There has to be proper scrutiny of the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers, whether it comes about by means of this amendment, which is the best one available at the moment, or whether it comes about by means of other proposals which will come forward via the Committee on Standing Orders. We must not have the black hole of an unaccountable Government.