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I wish to advise you that, since the Assembly’s last sitting, on 13 March 2017, several Members have resigned or ceased to be Members of the Assembly under the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975. A number of new Members have also taken their seats.
I refer you to all-party notice 208-17/22 that I have issued today, which provides the dates of each resignation and the date when each new Member took their seat by giving the undertaking, signing the Roll of Membership and entering their designations. This was done in my presence or that of the Deputy Speaker and the Clerk/Chief Executive. I welcome the new Members and wish them well.
Since the sitting on Monday 13 March 2017, the following Members have resigned: MEMBER PARTY CONSTITUENCY DATE Ms Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin Fermanagh and South Tyrone 09.06.17 Mr Paul Girvan DUP South Antrim 09.06.17 Mr Chris Hazzard Sinn Féin South Down 09.06.17 Ms Elisha McCallion Sinn Féin Foyle 09.06.17 Mr Barry McElduff Sinn Féin West Tyrone 09.06.17 Mr David Ford Alliance South Antrim 30.06.18 Mr Ian Milne Sinn Féin Mid Ulster 03.12.18 Ms Michaela Boyle Sinn Féin West Tyrone 03.05.19 Mrs Naomi Long Alliance East Belfast 30.06.19 Mr Simon Hamilton DUP Strangford 02.09.19 Mr Steven Agnew Green Party North Down 30.09.19 Since the sitting on Monday 13 March 2017, the following Members have taken their seats by giving the undertaking and signing the Roll of Membership: MEMBER PARTY CONSTITUENCY DATE Mr Robbie Butler UUP Lagan Valley 14.03.17 Mr Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin Fermanagh and South Tyrone 20.06.17 Ms Catherine Kelly Sinn Féin West Tyrone 20.06.17 Ms Karen Mullan Sinn Féin Foyle 20.06.17 Ms Emma Rogan Sinn Féin South Down 20.06.17 Mr Trevor Clarke DUP South Antrim 28.06.17 Mr John Blair Alliance South Antrim 02.07.18 Ms Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin Mid Ulster 04.12.18 Mr Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin West Tyrone 20.05.19 Mrs Máire Hendron Alliance East Belfast 01.07.19 Mr Harry Harvey DUP Strangford 12.09.19 Miss Rachel Woods Green Party North Down 07.10.19
Before we proceed with the first item of business and before I take any points of order, I want to acknowledge that Members on all sides have very strong views about being here today and, indeed, to make two points. First, there are legal constraints on how much business we can conduct today, depending on the decisions the Assembly takes. I will address those issues as we proceed, but it is important that everyone’s expectations are clear about the form from the start. Secondly and more importantly, Members are aware that our sitting today is in the context of some extremely sensitive issues. Members will feel passionately about them and will have the right to express them. However, Members also have a responsibility to express those views and to listen to the views of others respectfully. Many others will be watching these proceedings, and the Assembly should set an example for the wider debate in our community. Therefore, I remind Members of the importance of tone and respect. If that is clear, we will move on, and I will take the point of order.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given the fact that the Good Friday Agreement envisages an Assembly, a power-sharing Executive, North/South Ministerial Council and other bodies, is it the case, today, that, if we do not have the nominating officer here from Sinn Féin, no Executive will be formed? Therefore, we will not be able to have an Executive, Northern Ireland Assembly or North/South Ministerial Council. It is our clear view — it is the Good Friday Agreement's clear view — that the best way to effect any change to any legislation is to do it within the confines of those structures and that it will not happen as part of a shadow Assembly. We will not be part of supporting the introduction of a shadow Assembly that will effect no change at all but will lead only to the fundamental destruction of the Good Friday Agreement.
Is it the case, Mr Speaker, that without Members here present to my right or who should be to my right that there will not be an Executive formed today? If that is the case, we will be in no position to support a Speaker and allow for the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement through a unionist-dominated shadow Assembly.
If a Speaker and Deputy Speakers are elected, the role of the incoming Speaker will be to move forward on the election of the other office holders. To elect a Speaker and Deputy Speakers, we require cross-community support.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it correct that if the Assembly were to elect a Speaker and Deputy Speakers but was not able to form an Executive, it could, nonetheless, proceed to do business in this House, which could include private Member's Bills to seek to make legislation? Therefore, does it follow, if that is correct, that those determined to thwart the election of a Speaker are, in effect, thwarting the possibility of taking action to defend the unborn, whose voice cannot be heard here today but whose voice is the one crying out to us all in this Chamber? Is it not a tragedy that the SDLP, who proclaim themselves as a pro-life party, will take a step, it seems, to stop a Speaker being elected knowing that that stops legislation to prevent the introduction of section 9 of the appalling Act from July? Are both those things correct?
Let me respond to Mr Allister first, and then we will come to you.
Mr Allister, you are quite clear about, and I do not think you need me to explain to you, the procedures and the non-adhering to the procedures. If the ministerial offices are not filled, this does not prevent the Assembly from proceeding to debate private Member's motions or having further sittings to consider non-Executive business.
Mr Allister has made my point for me. The Good Friday Agreement is absolutely 100% clear. The power-sharing Executive, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council: at any point over the last 1,000-plus days, those institutions could have been restored. People on these Benches have tried hard. We have offered proposals to get those institutions back in place, but it is absolutely clear to us today, notwithstanding any particular issue, that no issue will be dealt with by this House or by an Executive unless two of the parties — the DUP and Sinn Féin — get their act together and get an Assembly and Executive formed.
That is why we are here today. We will gladly take part in those institutions but we will not be party to a stunt that is using and abusing people's emotions and sensitivities over a very difficult issue, which could have been dealt with at any point over the last 1,000 days. However, because this is not a serious attempt to do that and because it will only undermine the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and the fundamental thing the people voted for, we will not participate in this stunt any longer and we will not provide cross-community support for the election of a Speaker. Thank you.
Could you just clarify, Mr Speaker? You have already said that if a Speaker was elected — and the SDLP, clearly, are of a mind to thwart that — the Assembly could debate motions. Could it also, then, at that stage, suspend its Standing Orders to allow the introduction of private Member's Bills? So, by stopping the election of a Speaker, not only are motions being prevented but the opportunity through Standing Order 77 is being thwarted to actually pass legislation on this issue.
Will the Speaker acknowledge that the changes to the procedures in this Assembly for the appointment of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have actually put a blockage in the system where one or other of the big parties can prevent the establishment of the Executive and thereby they are abusing their position of power?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Further to Mr Allister's point around the opportunity to table private Member's legislation in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, will the Speaker confirm whether, given that the passage through the Assembly requires a Committee Stage, legislation can actually fully pass through this House, given the fact that Committees cannot be established in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive? In saying that, does that mean that any attempts to try to pass legislation in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive will indeed fall and a lot of this exercise is fruitless?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Mr Speaker, in light of your decision not to suspend Standing Orders and to allow that motion to proceed, which I deeply regret that you have taken, given the issues and given the genuine motivation of what today was about, I want to commend those organisations and the tens of thousands who came to this place who wanted MLAs to get back in here, and I want to commend our constituents across Northern Ireland who want us to get back and deal with health, education and infrastructure: all of the everyday issues that we are elected to resolve.
The SDLP have now decided that they will not support the election of a Speaker. Therefore, that thwarts the opportunity for an election to take place, which would have created an Assembly that has legislative powers; it would not be a shadow Assembly. The people are crying out that we reach out towards each other, that we stop poking each other in the eye, or we are going to go blind. We need people on the other side of this Chamber to respond to those of us who want to work with them, and that goes for all of those who are not here. However, they have decided not to participate, and that is something that I think the public will fail to understand. This institution provides a platform for us to have those debates and those conversations and to build relationships. That should be happening. It is what the people expect. Therefore, because the SDLP are not here, the election of a Speaker cannot now take place, and, therefore, we will no longer as a party be participating in the rest of these proceedings, and we will be leaving the Chamber now, Mr Speaker. Thank you.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have been very generous in relation to points of order, but could I make two points? Until this moment, until this day in Northern Ireland, the safest place for an unborn child was in the sanctuary of its mother's womb. Sadly, from tonight, the most dangerous place for some unborn will be in the mother's womb because the wanton decision can be taken to kill them. That is really what we are talking about, and that is something which rightly provokes a lot of feeling. It is a matter of immense regret to me that this House has not been able to face up to that situation.
The second point I wanted to make is that it is an illustration of the absurdity of the governmental arrangements in this place that a party such as Sinn Féin, which does not even want Northern Ireland to exist, can, by a veto, prevent this House from effectively doing any business. Unless and until that is changed, there is no hope for these institutions.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have been asked on more than one occasion by my colleague the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone whether you will indeed publish the legal advice that you were given. I think that it is important that we see that in the context of the fact that the Attorney General, the most senior law officer in Northern Ireland, gave advice that would have allowed for the opportunity for the motion to be debated here. I really think that it is important that people see the advice upon which the decision was made that this House would not be in a position to save the lives of unborn children.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, before we leave this place today, it is incumbent upon me — I am thankful to Mr Allister for raising the points that he raised — to say how terribly sad I am today about this situation. We had the opportunity today to elect a Speaker. We had the opportunity today to bring forward legislation to stop Stella Creasy's amendment coming into effect into Northern Ireland, a place that we are all very proud of and a place where today we will have the most liberal abortion laws anywhere in Europe. Just think of that for a moment: Northern Ireland will have the most liberal abortion laws anywhere in Europe.
I think this is a shameful day for those who have not come. I think that, when they reflect on it and when we realise that we have no regulatory system now in place for abortions in Northern Ireland, that it is something that has been decriminalised by 12 o'clock this evening, it is with incredible sadness that we should mark this day. There will be some who will celebrate today. I have to say that this is not a day for celebration for the unborn. It is certainly not a day of celebration for them.
We may not have been able to prevent this legislation going through today, but let me say this: this is not the end of the matter. As far as this party is concerned, we will take every possible legal option open to us to try to stop it. If it comes into force tonight, there are other options in terms of repealing, and we will make sure that we do everything we can in our conscience to protect the life of the unborn.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In light of where we are now in the Chamber and those who are present, we will not be nominating someone for Speaker. I think the Chamber and Northern Ireland have lost a very important and credible institution today with the actions in the Chamber, because I think there is a clear signal now to the people of Northern Ireland, to the people who are no longer in the Chamber, that they devalue democracy in Northern Ireland. We are a democratic party. We believe in the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland. With what we have seen here today, I call now on the Secretary of State to implement serious five-party intensive talks to see whether this place is actually worth restoring. The fact is that it is only ourselves, the TUV and the independent Member for East Londonderry who are sitting in here, who realise the opportunity that has been missed. Over 1,000 days, a health service crumbling, school principals not knowing where their budget lies, our infrastructure falling apart, business not knowing whether it is worthwhile being in Northern Ireland any more, and we have missed this opportunity today. There were serious issues that could have been talked about. There are serious issues that affect everybody in Northern Ireland, and this pantomime, this fiasco today, has I think demonstrated, surely, to the Secretary of State that now is the time to give serious consideration to whether this place has any future.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm that any legislation that this House may pass would indeed be compatible with the Westminster legislation, given that this House is subordinate to the Westminster Chamber?
I suppose what I am saying is that, if we were to be successful in passing any legislation in the House, would it supersede the legislation that will come into effect tomorrow or at midnight tonight?
Sorry, Miss Sugden, I am not quite clear about what you are saying, but legislation that is made in Northern Ireland would be Northern Ireland legislation and would not, as I understand, be subordinate to the legislation made in Westminster. That is my understanding.
Thank you, Mr Swann.
Members, having been given notice by not fewer than 30 Members, under Standing Order 11, I have summoned the Assembly to meet here today for the purpose of conducting the items of business that appear in the Order Paper. Before we can proceed, I want to make clear the procedural constraints on this sitting.
Section 39(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides:
"Each Assembly shall as its first business elect from among its members a Presiding Officer and deputies."
Therefore, the Assembly cannot conduct any further business until a Speaker and at least two Deputy Speakers have been elected. Members should be clear: if a Speaker and at least two Deputy Speakers are not elected, no further business can proceed. I am aware that contrary views on the matter have been expressed, but it is universal practice elsewhere that their first action is the election of a Speaker. It is a matter of common sense, as, I am sure, Members will recognise. Legally, we cannot proceed to conduct any business, including the appointment of Ministers, without first electing a Speaker and deputies. Members need to take the decisions that will enable the business of the Assembly to proceed.