Stormont can stretch the bounds of process and at least do *something*
No Assembly speaker was elected this week. Again.
The DUP blocked election of a speaker in the week following the elections on May 5. They blocked a retread of the same process on Monday. The same party is also blocking the formation of an Executive.
Their stated position is that, without significant changes (meaning big mitigations or elimination) to the Protocol, they will not proceed with powersharing.
Critics – which is most other parties – say that the Protocol represents a political disagreement and that is not a good reason to step away from NI’s political structures. Those critics also say that, whatever you think about it, the Protocol is only one political issue, and it should not overshadow major challenges such as the cost of living, collapsing health service, and so on.
In fairness to the DUP, they made their position on the Executive clear ahead of the election. Also in fairness, they have pointed out that they are not the only party in recent memory to disengage from powersharing (Sinn Fein collapsed the Executive in early 2017).
However, they did not say they would block the appointment of a speaker. A speaker would provide greater options for the Assembly, albeit this would still be little more than a talking shop without an Executive in situ.
Right now, MLAs can table written questions to the caretaker ministers overseeing government departments.
They can also, as happened on Monday, schedule debates with a motion to elect a speaker and deputy speakers. This can, and indeed might, happen over and over again. It could happen every week. It could happen every day.
And, as with Monday, these debates can operate as de facto discussions about the challenges facing Northern Ireland.
So, what were our MLAs saying?
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill noted that Stormont has £420m unspent cash it could move “into the pockets of workers and families to help to alleviate the burden as a result of the cost-of-living rises.”
She also said that: “We in Sinn Féin are committed to making health the Executive's number-one priority for the next three years. We are committed to investing in health, tackling waiting lists and ensuring that you can get access to your GP when you need to do so.”
The DUP’s Paul Givan said this was not a serious debate or a serious attempt to appoint a speaker. He called the session had “no credibility” and was an attempt at majority rule.
New Alliance MLA Nuala McAllister said: “Much can be done by an Executive to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, whether through a childcare strategy, an anti-poverty strategy or the review of the welfare reform mitigations and the implementation of the recommendations by the expert panellists who were put in place by the Executive.
“The system that is designed to support those in acute financial distress — all those important strategies, into which so much work and expertise have gone, are just sitting on a shelf, gathering dust. Meanwhile, parents cannot afford to feed themselves and their children. At the heart of the cost-of-living crisis is our Government's failure to act.
Robbie Butler, of the UUP, said: “My leader spoke here a couple of weeks ago, and he majored on the silence of this place while the people of Northern Ireland battle with crippling waiting lists and the health service remains under so much pressure. I pay absolute respect to the Minister of Health whom we had during the pandemic, because there was not one person behind a door that I knocked who said that we did not have the right person in the right place at the right time.
“The cost-of-living crisis gets worse every day. Whilst I call on the DUP to at least enable the Assembly to function and Ministers to be scrutinised by supporting our nomination today, we at least can agree that the issues that I have spoken of will not disappear and need to be addressed now because they are getting worse.
“With that in mind, the UUP has written today to ask the head of the Civil Service to convene all-party talks to establish a Programme for Government and the Minister of Finance to reopen the public consultation on the Budget to allow our people to let us know how they want their money to be spent. Those are measures that, I believe, can and should be taken now to restore, in some way, the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland whom we all purport to serve.”
The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said: “The thing that we should be doing here today is electing, first of all, a Speaker, and then First Ministers, to deal with an appalling cost-of-living crisis and deal with a health service crisis that sees nearly a third of our population — a third of our population — on a waiting list.
“In relation to the cost-of-living crisis, the SDLP has a Bill ready. We tried to move emergency legislation before the Assembly dissolved for the election, and we will try to move it again should a Speaker be elected.”
That covers the first five contributors to the debate, one person from each of the big five parties.
Did they say anything unexpected? Not much – although Robbie Butler’s idea about some fudged Programme for Government is intriguing, although it seems like a tricky manoeuvre to pull off (and is obviously far less good than an Executive in place drafting an actual, full, proper PfG).
What powersharing? Northern Ireland faces a slew of major challenges and the Assembly can’t get out of the starting blocks. The system, as it stands, is already broken. What harm has befallen something that already isn’t functioning?
Mr Givan said there needs to be “constructive relationships” and that “what we had was abuse, we had disrespect”.
These are easy accusations to make (and, to be fair once more, the discussion was rather spiky) but here we have a man who used to be First Minister talking about his sore feelings while NI’s ability to tackle the soaring cost of living, the broken health service, the creaking education system et al is hamstrung by his own party’s focus on a single issue.
Yes, the DUP doesn’t like the Protocol – but most people in Northern Ireland didn’t like Brexit, and he cheered that on, and that’s why we are all in this hole together.
It is fair to ask whether Monday’s recall is a good look for Stormont? The answer is no, obviously – but, again, things already look terrible, whatever your position on the Protocol.
Should the Assembly be recalled every week? Assuming no progress is made on appointing a speaker, what would that achieve? There would be a debate that is nominally about the speaker but which would serve as a proxy to discuss all the major issues we face.
The more frequently these sessions are called, the more each of these debates would cover the same ground again and again. Nevertheless, all issues change over time. It would also provide an opportunity for political issues to be discussed by our elected representatives, in their main forum.
They wouldn’t be able to do much, but nor would this be nothing.
What are the drawbacks? It would mean a lot of time discussing similar things again and again without subsequent action – but, let’s face it, our MLAs have a significantly reduced workload.
On balance, this is a no brainer. Get them all in there, every week. It’ll look like a circus, but it is a circus, and that’s true whether or not these debates keep happening.
Join the Conversation...
We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.
Join Our Newsletter
Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.