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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 1 February 1999


Presiding Officer’s Business

Assembly Presiding Officer: No-Confidence Motion

Assembly: Ad Hoc Committee on Ports

Action for Community Employment (Ace)


The Assembly met at 10.30 am (the Initial Presiding Officer (The Lord Alderdice of Knock) in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.


Presiding Officer’s Business


The Initial Presiding Officer:

By virtue of paragraph 1 of the schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, it falls to the Secretary of State to determine where meetings of the Assembly shall be held and when. I have received a letter to the Assembly from the Secretary of State directing that it shall meet at Parliament Buildings, Stormont at 10.30 am on Monday 1 February until 6.00 pm on Tuesday 23 February. The Secretary of State has also indicated that she will consider a further direction in respect of this period, in particular in the light of any indications she may receive as to the wishes of the Assembly after it has begun to meet.

At the last sitting, several matters were raised with me on which I was asked to give a ruling and on which I offered to conduct investigation. The first, raised by Mr O’Connor, a Member for East Antrim, was about entry to the Chamber by Members during the conduct of a vote. On a related point, Mr Ian Paisley Jnr asked about the authority to have the doors locked.

I have investigated these matters. ‘Erskine May’ cites the precedent of Members being specifically identified in connection with entering a Division Lobby after the order has been given to lock the doors. I believe that this precedent is relevant. I therefore rule as follows.

Dr Ian Paisley and Mr Paisley Jnr entered the Chamber, according to the timed video tape, fully 60 seconds after the order for the doors to be closed had been given, and after a number of Members had voted. Both this and the leaving of the Chamber by any Member prior to the Doorkeepers’ reopening the Doors is improper.

Under Initial Standing Order 2(1), it is within the Speaker’s powers to instruct that the doors be secured during a Division. To do otherwise would be to disadvantage Members whose names occur early in the alphabetical list.

It is not permissible to vote from the Galleries, nor will it be permissible to vote in the Division Lobbies until the Assembly decides, under Standing Orders, that they can be used for that purpose, at which time they will become the proper places to vote. In this situation, however, it is quite clear that the Members entered the Division Lobby after the doors had been closed.

In view of the fact that Dr Paisley was aware of the procedure of the closing of the doors, as is clear from his intervention, recorded on videotape and timed at 5.15 pm, at the sitting on 15 December 1998, and since other Members who held the rules were unable to have their votes recorded on a previous occasion, I rule that the record be amended to disallow the votes of Dr Paisley and Mr Paisley Jnr on that occasion.

Mr McCartney raised the issue of getting advice from the Deputy Clerk. In particular, he enquired about whether it would be advisable to leave the Chamber. Having investigated the exchanges, I am content that the Deputy Clerk acted properly on that occasion.

Mr Kennedy:

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Following the marvellous achievement of Ulster at Lansdowne Road at the weekend, is it in order for me to ask whether arrangements have been made for the Assembly to receive this great rugby team so that we may all rejoice in their achievement of becoming European champions?

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I agree with Mr Kennedy, and I understand that some matters are in hand. But I am not sure that this is a point of order.

Mr P Robinson:

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I ask you to reflect further on the meaning and intention of Standing Order 2(1), which you quoted in an earlier ruling. It is clear that your role is to interpret and enforce Standing Orders, but you do not have the power to make new Standing Orders. Quite properly, that power is withheld from you. No Standing Order suggests that the Doors should be closed or locked, and you have enforced existing Standing Orders in such a way as to attempt to extend them. I would like you to look at this matter again because it goes far beyond what the Standing Orders entitle the Initial Presiding Officer to do.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

On almost every occasion when requested by Members to review a matter I have done so. I will do so again on this occasion. However, I should draw the Assembly’s attention to two matters.

First, I have repeatedly said that the Initial Standing Orders are not adequate for the conduct of the Assembly’s business and that, therefore, I should take other matters into account. Those matters include the draft Standing Orders, the discussions on them, and ‘Erskine May’. I have made that clear on a number of occasions.

Secondly, on the issue of fastening the doors — not locking them — I have not given instructions that they must be locked, although that is the procedure in other places when Members do not accept that the doors should simply be closed. If the doors were not closed our procedure would be improper because advantage would be given to Members whose names came later in alphabetical order, and that could lead to discrimination.

I will look again at the matter, and if I have made a judgement which has gone beyond what is appropriate I will draw that to the attention of the Assembly.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. Will you please provide Members with a list of what you believe is proper and what is not proper. It is extremely difficult for Members to operate properly when they do not know exactly what, in your terms, is proper and what is not proper. According to Standing Order 2(2), you have no right to disallow our votes or to remove us from the Chamber. You have no right to tell us when we may or may not enter the Chamber. For those reasons, we need a list of what, in your mind, is proper and what is improper.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I have already given that list. The matter to which I refer is clearly dealt with in ‘Erskine May’, and that was followed in the ruling given.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Will you give the precise paragraph in ‘Erskine May’ which says that doors have to be locked.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I am not clear about the purpose of the point of order since, as I have already said, my instruction was not that the doors be locked but merely that they be closed. However, I am content to state the section of ‘Erskine May’ on which I based the ruling on what happens when Members are named as having entered the Division Lobbies after the doors have been locked and the procedure to be followed when it makes no difference to the outcome of the vote. I think that the reference is on page 354. I will advise Members if that is incorrect.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Do you not accept that on all these matters ‘Erskine May’ is not specific but general?

The Initial Officer:

The Member must consult ‘Erskine May’. On this matter it is not general but highly specific.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I do not understand. In ‘Erskine May’ there is a clear statement about the locking of doors. Anyone who understands what happens in the Mother of Parliaments knows that the Chamber is never locked against Members at voting time. Sometimes the Lobby doors are locked, but not the Chamber.

You have been taking guidance from ‘Erskine May’. It covers the locking of doors, but you have said that you asked for the doors to be shut, not locked. Therefore your ruling, based on ‘Erskine May’, is not applicable in these circumstances.

How can you make a new Standing Order about voting? You must rule on the basis of the Standing Orders made by the Secretary of State. She alone has the power to make Standing Orders at this time. Your ruling on the issue of voting has not interpreted a Standing Order; it has made a new Standing Order — something that you have no power to do.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

The Member is suggesting that it is appropriate for Members to vote at any time and in any manner they choose. That is not proper.

The timed videotape shows that the two Members entered the Chamber after the other Members had begun to vote. At the last sitting it was suggested that the Members had been in the Division Lobby at the time. From my investigations it is clear that that is not the case.

I must give rulings to keep things in order. From the first sitting of the Assembly I have made it clear that the Initial Standing Orders are not sufficient for the proper maintenance of order, and there has been no dissent. I made it clear that I would refer to ‘Erskine May’, and there was no dissent. I said that I would call for the doors to be fastened, and there was no dissent. Indeed, Dr Paisley rose at 5.15 pm on 15 December to point out that the doors were locked. In fact, they were simply closed. However, he was right in saying that they should have been opened after the vote was taken. He was correct, but he made no objection to the fact that they were closed at that stage. I assume that if that had been a matter for legitimate objection, objection would have been made. Of course, there are aspects of ‘Erskine May’ that are not applicable — this being a different type of Assembly.

I do not claim always to get it right, but Members must be aware that it is not possible for every matter to be conducted properly on the basis of the Initial Standing Orders. I have taken a reasonable number of objections and points of order on this matter, and I should now proceed to the third item on the Order Paper.

10.45 am

The First Minister (Designate) (Mr Trimble):

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. You have referred to matters raised by Mr McCartney on 18 January regarding statements made, or alleged to have been made, to him by the Deputy Clerk. You said that you had looked into the matter and were satisfied that the Deputy Clerk had behaved correctly. Can you give Members more information about this? Mr McCartney’s comments on that occasion, and his report of the conversation that he had with the Deputy Clerk, do give rise to some serious considerations if they are accurate. Please explain more fully the basis upon which you are satisfied that the Deputy Clerk behaved properly.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I have looked into the matter in respect of Mr McCartney’s comments and have received from the Deputy Clerk a written account of what was said. I have also received a letter from the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party and have responded to it.

From my enquiries I believe that matters were conducted properly. There was a clear dispute: some Members claimed that the Deputy Clerk should have said more, while others feared that he might have said too much. Such was the dilemma that the Deputy Clerk found himself in, and, from what I have ascertained, I am satisfied that the matter was conducted properly.

However, if Members feel that there are matters which have not been drawn to my attention, but ought to be, they should advise me accordingly. If other material comes to hand I will treat it seriously.

Mr Haughey:

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. I do not think it satisfactory to leave the previous debate as it stands. Mr Robinson and Mr Paisley implied or stated that your authority is limited to an interpretation of the present Standing Orders. Standing Order 2(1) states

"The Presiding Officer’s ruling shall be final on all questions of procedure and order."

That clearly indicates that, with regard to practical arrangements for the business of the House, your authority goes beyond these Standing Orders.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

The Member puts it very clearly and, I think, properly. It is impossible to conduct matters solely on the basis of an interpretation of the rather thin Initial Standing Orders. The Assembly is aware of that. I drew this to Members’ attention on the first day and have drawn it to their attention on virtually every other day since. There has been no dissent until now, when Members find themselves on the wrong side of a ruling.

The purpose of Standing Order 2(1) is to address the inadequacies in the current Initial Standing Orders.

Mr McCartney:

Further to the point of order raised by the right hon Member for Upper Bann (Mr Trimble), I wish to make it clear that I do not withdraw in any way the remarks that I made in relation to the information which I received from the Deputy Clerk.

I wish to underline the fact that those remarks were intended not to indicate any imputation against the Deputy Clerk, but merely to establish that the Deputy Clerk was privy, as you were, to information about the intention of some parties to move the closure. Your reaction to that knowledge, which I believe you had, is the issue that is to be the subject of the first debate today. The matter which Mr Trimble raised can be more than adequately dealt with then.

The point that I was making, as will be clear to Members familiar with the rules of evidence, is that it seemed that the Deputy Clerk was privy to something that was going to occur and, by implication, that you were privy to it.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I refer to what I said earlier. If Members have matters which they wish to take further I will investigate them and take appropriate action.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Mr Initial Presiding Officer, further to the point of order raised by Mr Haughey, that Standing Order relates to a ruling on the Standing Orders. For you to make up procedure under no auspices whatsoever is ridiculous. You can only rule on the basis of what is in the Standing Orders.

You said earlier how terrible it would be if we were all to vote on the call of our names. That happens in the European Parliament when a President is elected. Members stay out of the Chamber until their names are called. Surely the Assembly should be capable of following the procedure of the great European experiment, which Members opposite laud to the highest heaven.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I was not aware that Dr Paisley was now advocating the European way.

The First Minister (Designate):

Further to my earlier point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Mr McCartney’s comments give rise to some serious matters in view of his statement that he does not in any way withdraw the comments that he made on 18 January.

In every such deliberative body it is normal practice for parties, from time to time, to advise the Speaker’s office, in confidence, of things that they may propose to do during the proceedings.

Mr McCartney’s comments of 18 January, repeated today, imply that that confidence was broken by someone in your office. As Mr McCartney stands over those comments, it is important that we establish whether the necessary confidentiality has been breached.

Mr McCartney:

Mr Initial Presiding Officer, may I respond to that point of order?

The First Minister (Designate):

Mr McCartney is not the Presiding Officer, so how could he respond?

The Initial Presiding Officer:

If it is a question of raising a point of order, that is another matter. The matter has been aired, and if any further material is brought, I will look into it.

Mr McCartney:

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Whether there is some pathetic play with words about what a response meant it is neither here nor there. I never suggested at any time that the Deputy Clerk breached any confidence. However, he was clearly placed in a difficult position because he was being asked a question which would have meant his breaching a confidence if he responded positively. He did not respond positively but it was quite clear by inference — and that is all that I have ever said — that he was aware of information to which I have already referred.

The First Minister (Designate):

Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. On 18 January Mr McCartney said

"the Clerk told me that ... it might not be opportune to leave the House."

The Initial Presiding Officer:

As I said earlier, sometimes matters are not necessarily undisputed. If there is other material, Members should bring it forward.


Assembly Presiding Officer: 
No-Confidence Motion


The Initial Presiding Officer:

Given my clear personal interest in this matter, I have sought the agreement of the parties to the appointment of an alternative Chairperson for this item of business only. It is for the Assembly to decide when to appoint a Presiding Officer and a Deputy Presiding Officer, although such a proposal would have to follow a motion being tabled and appearing on the Order Paper at least one day in advance of a plenary session. That has not yet happened, nor has the Secretary of State appointed a Deputy Presiding Officer.

In the interests of fairness, and for the protection of the Assembly’s interests, it would be inappropriate for me to preside over this item of business and, therefore, someone else should preside.

After discussions, I believe that Ms Jane Morrice is the most acceptable Member to preside during the debate on item 3, and I beg leave of the Assembly to ask her to take the Chair at that time.

Mr J Wilson:

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Can you assure us that the alternative Presiding Officer will have the powers that you currently possess to regulate the Assembly’s business?

The Initial Presiding Officer:

Ms Morrice would act not as an alternative Presiding Officer or as an acting Presiding Officer, but as the Chair for that debate.

Mr J Wilson:

That does not answer my question. Will Ms Morrice possess the same powers as the Initial Presiding Officer to regulate the remainder of the business at this sitting?

The Initial Presiding Officer:

If the Assembly gives leave for Ms Morrice to take the Chair for the debate on this motion, she will have the authority to conduct the business for that business alone. At the end of the debate on the motion, whatever the outcome, the Initial Presiding Officer will return to the Chair. The Assembly can then decide on how it will conduct matters in relation to the election of an alternative Presiding Officer.

I trust that those proposals are clear to Members. Ms Morrice will, by leave, preside over the debate on the motion.

I will set out the rules where those that were established in the Initial Standing Orders reported to the Assembly on 26 October 1998 are inadequate by reference to parliamentary practices that are described in ‘Erskine May’. This temporary chairmanship is made in the absence of a Deputy Initial Presiding Officer, and will lapse upon the return of the Initial Presiding Officer to the Chair. During the debate, I suggest, Ms Morrice be referred to as Madam Chair. At the end of the debate, and following any Division, the Temporary Chairperson will vacate the Chair.

Under Initial Standing Order 13(5), the Initial Presiding Officer shall continue in office, irrespective of the outcome of the debate. However, should the censure motion be agreed, the Initial Presiding Officer would continue to preside over the Assembly’s business until another Member is elected under Initial Standing Order 13 or until he resigns and the Secretary of State makes another appointment.

I invite Ms Morrice to take the Chair.

Ms Morrice took the Chair.

Mr P Robinson:

I beg to move the following motion:

This Assembly has no confidence in the Initial Presiding Officer.

11.00 am

Madam Acting Initial Presiding Officer, I welcome you to the Chair, however short your sojourn may be. The matter that we are about to debate is very serious — one that concerns a critical aspect of the working of any democratic parliamentary assembly: do Members have confidence in their Presiding Officer? It is important that we set the scene against which the debate took place, the central issue and the Speaker’s handling of it, which is what has given rise to this motion of no confidence.

During the lead up to the preparation of the report by the First Minister Designate and the Deputy First Minister Designate there was considerable speculation about its content. The business managers of the House, who meet in the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer (CAPO), give advice to the Presiding Officer, upon which he makes determinations. Over a number of weeks consideration was given to how this debate would be conducted. A conclusion was reached in the CAPO meeting of the 11 January 1999. I want to put on to the record extracts from the minutes of that meeting, which show what was agreed. Under the heading "Timing" they say

"Mr P Robinson proposed the debate on the Report by the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) should be conducted on 18, 19 and if required 20 January, the remaining business to be completed on 20 January."

That clearly demonstrates what was proposed.

After discussion

"The Initial Presiding Officer suggested the debate should be conducted from 10.30 am to 6.00 pm on 18 and 19 January and potentially Wednesday if required. The debate can be extended by a short period on 19 January if that would complete the debate."

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Mr Robinson is informing the House that the timing of this debate came from the lips of the Initial Presiding Officer. He said that we could have this debate over two days and, if necessary, a third. It was his decision, made in view of the importance of the subject matter and of the number of Members who wished to participate.

Mr P Robinson:

The whole point about CAPO is that it is a Committee to advise the Presiding Officer who takes decisions on these matters. His decision is recorded in the minutes. Furthermore, it is then his responsibility, under law, for the Initial Presiding Officer to publish a business diary, giving to Members in advance, information about what the business of the House will be.

The business diary for that week clearly shows a plenary session for Monday 18 January 1999 and Tuesday 19 January 1999, and a plenary session for Wednesday 20 January 1999, if required. There was no doubt that there was to be a full two-day debate and, if required, a third day on Wednesday 20 January 1999.

The Order Paper was issued on the day of the debate. It set out Monday 18 January 1999, Tuesday 19 January 1999 and Wednesday 20 January 1999 as sitting days. There could be no doubt in the mind of the Initial Presiding Officer about what was reasonable and right in terms of the length of time for the debate. The Business Committee — or CAPO, as it is called — took cognizance of the fact that this was a crucial debate on a very important subject — and this was recognised by all of the parties — and, therefore, that it needed the additional day or two.

All parties were represented at the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, and not one Member objected to a two- or three-day debate. Nor did any Member move that the debate be shortened in any way. There was no indication that the period allocated for this debate was too long, and the decisions that were taken clearly come from the advice given to the Initial Presiding Officer by all of the parties.

The debate, quite obviously, took fairly predictable lines. It was a normal Assembly debate — not even the references to hijackers and aeroplanes were particularly unusual. However, I listened to the revisionists trying to explain why it was proper to curtail the debate. Some of them said it was petering out: that is absolute nonsense. When the curtailing motion was brought forward, at least a dozen Members had yet to speak. Some Members arrogantly suggested that it be curtailed after they had spoken, since from then — for them — everything was downhill, and nothing further needed to be said. However, the reality was that there was plenty of steam left in the debate.

Then some of the revisionists suggested that there had been repetition. One of them had the audacity to quote my colleague Jim Wells who raised matters that nobody else had. There is nothing wrong with repetition, providing that it is not the same person repeating himself, and that seems to have been forgotten. There was no repetition; under the Standing Orders, it is the Initial Presiding Officer’s responsibility to draw to a Member’s attention the fact that he is repeating his remarks tediously and ask him to resume his seat, but there is nothing to stop one Member from covering the same points that another has dealt with.

It was also suggested that the debate was not the one that was expected. I am not sure what some Members did expect, but the subject matter was clear, and it had not changed. There may have been some delay in terms of one element of the overall report, but that would have been something more rather than less to debate. The debate had not reached the halfway stage when the Ulster Unionist Chief Whip rose to move the closure motion.

Mr Leslie:

Mr Robinson stated that the debate had not reached the halfway stage, but in his earlier remarks he said that there were at least 12 speakers to be called. I understand that 30 Members had already been called, so can he please explain by what quirk of mathematics he thinks the debate was less than halfway through?

Mr P Robinson:

For the benefit of this intellectual colossus, my statement was based upon what I knew to be the position with regard to the number of DUP Members still to speak. I would not presume to guess the number that other parties would have been putting forward, but it would have been remarkable if the DUP had been allowed to have 12 speakers without any other party making some comments. It is clear that if some Members do not like what is being said, they stop it being said. That is some democracy for this House to enjoy!

I want to examine the decision that was taken, and, incidentally, I do not fault the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party for rising to attempt a closure motion. The Standing Orders provide for that — within certain limitations — and in terms of those, what he did was fairly acceptable. However, as far as the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer was concerned, he was breaking his word, because at that meeting it had been indicated that there would be a two- or three-day debate.

Several Members:


Mr P Robinson:

Obviously, some people are not expert in the Standing Order. This is a 20-minute speech. [Interruption]

The Temporary Chairperson:


Mr P Robinson:

Madam Acting Initial Presiding Officer, the Standing Order should be put on record:

"After a motion has been proposed and provided that each of the parties present has had a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the debate, any member who has not already spoken to it, or to any amendment which has been moved, may move that the question be now put."

That, as I said, is the part of the Standing Order which perfectly entitled the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party to stand.

But there is a protection in the latter part of paragraph 11(1):

"and unless it shall appear to the Presiding Officer that such motion is an abuse of these Standing Orders, the question that the question be now put shall be put forthwith, and decided without amendment or debate."

The wording of the Standing Order is not accidental. It was not the original thought of the Secretary of State or her advisors; it comes directly from the House of Commons. It is the language of Westminster. When the Initial Presiding Officer, rightly and properly says that he uses ‘Erskine May’ as a guide, then we have the right to look at ‘Erskine May’ to see what guidance he would have found, had he looked there for advice.

There are two main tomes of knowledge in respect of practice and procedure in the House of Commons. One — the most respected — is ‘Erskine May’. The other — perhaps lesser known — is Griffith and Ryle: ‘Parliament: Functions, Practice & Procedures’. On the subject of closure Griffith and Ryle states

"The conditions attaching to the granting of the closure are important. Nothing is formally laid down, but the Chair, in whose sole, personal discretion it lies ……does seek to act within certain broad guidelines, based on previous practice and experience."

I want Members to listen to this:

"Here, practice and practical considerations are important."

And for those who do not know what the moment of interruption is, in terms of parliamentary language, it is usually at 10 o’clock, but it is a moment when a vote is expected.

"For example, a closure will normally be granted just before the moment of interruption at the end of a full day’s debate on a substantive motion ... It would not normally be granted on such business, significantly earlier than the moment of interruption. These cases are easy."

Before I come to ‘Erskine May’ — which is quite revealing on this subject — it might be worthwhile to explain why there are closure motions. As with a great deal of parliamentary practice, the House of Commons was forced to adopt closure motions because of disruption from nationalists. In the early part of this century — and, indeed, the latter part of the last — nationalists attempted to disrupt the proceedings of the House of Commons. They tried to prolong debate, to stop decisions from being taken. And those who are in the House of Commons know that if a Member speaks beyond his time, he can stop a vote from being taken.

Nationalists use these tactical procedures in order to disrupt parliamentary sessions, prevent decisions from being made and prolong debate.

A closure is not a mechanism to cut short a debate; it is a mechanism to stop a debate from being prolonged. That distinction must be made if anybody is to understand how a closure operates. That was the mistake — and I put it in those terms at the moment — made by the Initial Presiding Officer. He read the Standing Order in such a way that the closure motion was one that could cut short a debate. It never has been. It has always been a mechanism to ensure that the proper proceedings of Parliament could be held and not disrupted.

What does ‘Erskine May’ say about this? The chapter on methods of curtailing debate states

"All these methods were originally designed to counteract ... prolonging debate, and so obstructing the progress of business. They are probably a permanent feature of modern procedure, but they are still felt to be an unfortunate necessity and not to be justified except against obstruction or by pressure of business."

11.15 am

He goes on to say that the rights of the minority are protected by the discretionary power, given to the Chair and frequently exercised, to refuse to accept the closure motion. The critical words in ‘Erskine May’ are

"they are probably a permanent feature of modern procedure, but they are still felt to be an unfortunate necessity and not to be justified except against obstruction or by pressure of business".

Consider those two exceptions. The Initial Presiding Officer had indicated the length of time allocated to the debate. It was no obstruction for the debate to take its full course. The only obstruction was the move for closure. That was the abuse of Standing Orders, not continuing the debate according to the time scheduled.

I hardly need to address the subject of "pressure of business". Not even the bravest Member would dare to suggest that this Assembly has been under such time pressure that it had to move on to some other pressing matter. We have only met half a dozen times in six months; there was clearly no pressure of business, there was no other substantive motion to be debated and there was plenty of time to finish the debate. According to ‘Erskine May’ and to Griffith and Ryle, it is abundantly clear that the Initial Presiding Officer was wrong.

I described these circumstances to the Clerks at Westminster, without telling them where the matter had occurred, and asked what the Speaker would do. It was made absolutely clear to me that the Speaker would not have allowed the closure motion.

The consequences of the Initial Presiding Officer’s ruling were many. Parties had marshalled their troops for a two- or three-day debate, not just in terms of attendance but also by selecting their speakers and the order of speaking. To facilitate a balanced debate — and I suspect other parties who were unaware of the tactics of the Ulster Unionist Party may have done the same — this party had spread its key speakers for a two-day debate. We had slotted in several Members for their maiden speeches, which they were denied the opportunity to make.

Perhaps the greatest consequence was that this party at least had decided to divide responsibility for certain subjects over the two days. Contrary to the argument that there would have been repetition, later speeches would have dealt with the unnatural divisions involved in the creation of 10 Departments — Education divided in two, the cutting up of the Department of the Environment and housing going to Social Development. There are many artificial creations, and that would have been the subject of consideration.

The cost and danger of creating ten Departments is clearly a matter of some interest. Certainly it should be of interest to Ulster Unionists. I notice that Jim Nicholson, the Ulster Unionist MEP, found it incredible that ten Departments had been proposed, with an overall cost of £90 million. Mr Nicholson said

"I feel strongly that such proposals are not in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and … have no basis in logic."

Ulster Unionist security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, speaking in South Down, attacked what he called "the SDLP’s ‘snout in the trough’ approach to Assembly structures". He said the proposal that the present three Westminster Ministers managing six Departments should be replaced by ten Ministers —

Mr McFarland:

On a point of order. Is the Member making the speech that he lost the last day?

A Member:

Mr McFarland is not allowed to make a speech anyway.

The Temporary Chairperson:

My ruling is that all Members stick to matters relevant to the debate on the procedure. Mr Robinson is sticking to the procedure.

Mr P Robinson:

As the time is moving on I will not get to cover all these issues at this time. I only had 10 minutes on 18 January. However, happily, I have 20 minutes now and 15 minutes later.

The Temporary Chairperson:

Your time is up.

Mr Maskey:

Thank you, A Chathaoirligh.

I would just like to make a couple of points. In the past I have had to rise to criticize the Initial Presiding Officer, in particular, on the occasion when Mr Berry made a reference to the Loughgall incident: he, in fact, called for more Loughgalls. I had to draw the Initial Presiding Officer’s attention to the fact that this remark was disgraceful. Mr Berry was calling for further murders. [Interruption] The steam to which Mr Robinson referred has turned into hot air.

Mr Morrow:

Is the Member speaking to the motion?

Mr Maskey:

I am.

The Temporary Chairperson:

I ask the Member to speak to the motion.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

On a point of order. Should the Member not take his seat when you are giving a ruling?

The Temporary Chairperson:

Thank you for reminding me, Dr Paisley, that I should be standing.

Mr Maskey:

It is great to get a parliamentary lesson from the Rev Ian Paisley.

I am speaking to the motion of no confidence. I have previously raised objections to the manner in which the Initial Presiding Officer has conducted business here. There was one very serious incident during which I considered that he was in breach of his responsibilities — the incident in which Mr Berry referred to wanting more Loughgalls, more murders, by the British forces.

From my party’s point of view, the conduct in this Chamber has never been perfect, to say the least. However, Sinn Féin is opposed to this motion because it has more to do with political gimmickry and is a waste of people’s time. Those who voted for or, indeed, against the agreement, find it strange that parties can only find time to discuss a motion of no confidence in the Presiding Officer, who may not hold that position beyond 10 March. We have more important things to do than that.

On the matter of the guillotine motion, the DUP appears to be very smug about its ability to make best use of Standing Orders in many councils across the North. Its confidence does it credit.

To suggest that there cannot be a guillotine motion after 30 or so Members have spoken in a debate is a bit of a red herring. As a member of CAPO I certainly agreed to having two days and possibly a third day for a vote if that was necessary, but that was not binding on any of the parties. We supported the guillotine motion because in our view the matter had been well aired.

Initial comments and the conduct in that debate show that the DUP, the UKUP and other parties had several points of order which lasted for some considerable time. To have an additional 12 Members speaking after all the other contributions had been made would have been completely unnecessary. All parties had ample opportunity to express their views on the report tabled by the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate). We supported the guillotine motion not because we wanted to hinder the DUP — it may appear on television every day of the week for the high propaganda value it gets from that — but because we were sure that all parties had had ample opportunity to air their views on the report.

The general public watch the antics of DUP Members and of Mr McCartney, who is the other expert at tomfoolery in the Chamber.

We have no interest in guillotining the debate to prevent any party airing its views. We made sure we were satisfied that all parties had ample opportunity to express their views on the report. The debate is a waste of time and energy. It is political tomfoolery, and the public will make their own judgement on that. We have criticised the Initial Presiding Officer in the past and no doubt we may do so in future but overall, he has conducted the Assembly’s affairs satisfactorily, and we therefore oppose the motion.

Mr Neeson:

At the risk of repeating the words of a DUP Member earlier in the debate, I do not intend to say much in this charade. The debate should have been curtailed. For the DUP, it was not a question of debating the report by the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) but of having a go at the Ulster Unionists on the whole question of decommissioning. Most of what DUP Members said had nothing to do with the report.

Mr Robinson chose today to deal with issues in the report that should have been dealt with in the debate on that report. I regret that we are not debating the issue of Assembly staff being abused and bullied at the Doors by some DUP Members. Having raised this issue, will I also be threatened with legal proceedings in the way other Members have been threatened?

Mr Paisley Jnr:

On a point of order. Is it right for a Member knowingly to raise a matter which is now sub judice or a matter which was raised outside the confines of this building in order to try in some way to interfere in the due process of law?

The Temporary Chairperson:

Order. The matter should not be discussed further at this stage.

Mr Neeson:

At least I do not put people’s lives at risk by the issues that I raise in the Chamber. Mr Robinson said that this is a democratic, parliamentary Assembly. I conclude by saying that a democratic vote was taken on closure in the Assembly.

Mr C Wilson:

As a member of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, I concur with Mr Robinson’s comments. As Members are aware, after a period of deliberation and debate, the Committee expresses the unanimous view of all the parties that are represented on it, and the Presiding Officer considers our advice. He then determines how business is presented to the House and the manner in which it is conducted.

11.30 am

It is clear, as the record shows, that the parties indicated to the Initial Presiding Officer that a reasonable amount of time was needed to debate the matter fully — one of the major debates that we have had in the House so far.

Having considered the views of all members of the Committee, the Initial Presiding Officer concluded that the debate on the Report from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) should last for two, and possibly three, days.

Regrettably, the Initial Presiding Officer, having reached that conclusion, subsequently agreed to a closure motion to cut the debate short. The manner in which the debate was brought to a close was particularly distasteful to anti-agreement Members. They believed that the Report from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) was a serious matter, one which will have ramifications, not only for this Chamber and those involved in the political process, but for the wider community in Northern Ireland for many years to come.

The Initial Presiding Officer was wrong to close the debate at that time. In his opening comments today he acknowledged that he does not always get it right, and I believe that that was one occasion when he did not get it right. Although the Initial Presiding Officer has performed the duties of the Chair to the satisfaction of the Assembly, on this occasion, he made a serious error of judgement. Shortening the debate prevented Members from having enough time to discuss these matters fully. It was clear that the thrust towards shortening the debate came from the Ulster Unionist Party. We all know why the Ulster Unionist Party wanted to shorten the debate. It was not because they felt that Members had had a fair opportunity to express their opinions, and it was not because they felt that the debate had become repetitive.

Mr Birnie:

On a point of order. This is a debate about the Initial Presiding Officer and not about the intentions of the Ulster Unionist Party.

The Temporary Chairperson:

The point of order is that the Member should keep to the subject of the motion, and I ask him to do so.

Mr C Wilson:

I believe that I am firmly on target in relation to this subject. The fact that Mr Birnie has risen indicates that I have hit the bull’s-eye.

The motion was guillotined because the Ulster Unionist Party felt gravely uneasy about Members in their ranks who were having a very difficult day — they did not want to have to go through another day during which these Members would question the party’s line.

The Northern Ireland Unionist Party hopes that the Initial Presiding Officer will recognise that he did err in this case. It is hoped that we will not witness such a spectacle in the future. Procedures such as guillotine motions, when used to stifle debate, do nothing for the reputation of this House.

We have heard, since the inception of the peace process, during the negotiations at Castle Buildings and now in the Assembly, about its being an inclusive process. It appears that it is only inclusive, and Members can only fully ventilate their views, if they are in favour of the Belfast Agreement.

If we wish to oppose the Belfast Agreement, we are told by Members such as Sean Neeson that we are not democrats. Mr Neeson has the effrontery to question the relevancy of comments made by other parties. That has never stopped Mr Neeson getting to his feet.

It is not the business of this House, Madam Acting Presiding Officer, to determine whether Members feel that the issues being raised by parties are relevant or repetitive. If that is the criteria, then many of the debates would be much shorter. I hope that this tactic will not be used to stifle debate in the future.

Mr Robinson has explained that this tactic would not be considered normal procedure in any other debating chamber. I hope that in future the good name of this House will not be sullied by Members using procedural matters to stifle debate.

Mr McCartney:

Madam Deputy Initial Presiding Officer (Designate) — perhaps I could simply refer to you as Madam Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker — the debate of 18 January was by far the most important debate that we have had in the Assembly. The future governance of Northern Ireland centred on it.

Members were aware that it had been agreed that the report formed the essence of the determination to be made on 15 February, upon which the future transfer of substantive powers would depend. It was therefore a debate of grave, constitutional importance for all the people of Northern Ireland, no matter their views. That was recognised in the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer when it was agreed that there should be a two- or possibly three-day debate. To suggest that this debate today is some form of vaudeville act or political mimicry is just nonsense.

This debate is about the cutting short of one of the most important and essential debates that we are likely to undertake in this Chamber. That is its importance. Mr Robinson makes a number of very valid points about parliamentary procedure, insofar as that is a guide.

The purpose of a closure motion is not to cut short a debate but to prevent the unnecessary prolongation of a debate for the purpose of obstruction. Where the prolongation of that debate would cause obstruction or prevent other pressing business from being attended to, the Speaker has discretion to take the necessary course if a closure motion is put. That was never the position that faced the Initial Presiding Officer when this was proposed. Indeed, we can presume that he was aware some time before that this closure motion was going to be put.

I wish to address very briefly the matter of my remarks about the Deputy Clerk. The Deputy Clerk and I have always had a relationship based not only on respect but also on a good deal of friendliness. I sought his advice because I had no knowledge that he knew, and that the Speaker knew, that there would be a closure motion.

I inadvertently put him in the embarrassing position of having to choose between telling the truth — to admit to me that it would be wrong to leave the Assembly because a motion could be pressed at any moment — and betraying the confidence of the Initial Presiding Officer. I was unaware that he was placed in that position and, in the circumstances, acknowledge that he endeavoured to be honourable and to preserve the confidentiality that is required of him. I was unaware of his difficulty, and, with the benefit of hindsight, if any of my remarks could be remotely interpreted as importuning his good name or his integrity, of course they are withdrawn.

From the record it is quite clear that that was never the case. I was simply indicating that by his answer, which was the only one he could give in the circumstances, he clearly indicated a degree of knowledge about a possible closure motion on the part of the Initial Presiding Officer.

The question arises whether it was appropriate for the Initial Presiding Officer to accept the closure motion and, in my submission, it was not appropriate at that time. In any event, the Initial Presiding Officer was aware that many Members were under the impression that there had been an agreement at the meeting of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer for a two-day or possibly a three-day debate, and Members who wished to speak were apportioned accordingly. The Initial Presiding Officer knew that that impression had been given by the CAPO agreement and by the order of business.

Several options were open to him. He could have said at some stage, or in response to Mr Wilson’s motion, that 30 Members had spoken and, although others had yet to speak, we were approaching the time when a closure motion might be accepted. Alternatively, he could have left it until the end of the first day and advised Mr Wilson that, although the moment for a closure was not yet appropriate, it was approaching. Everyone would have been alerted, and he would have been acting entirely within the rules of the procedure and precedence that are laid down in ‘Erskine May’ and in other books.

A Member:


Mr McCartney:

It is for the Assembly to decide whether it is nonsense. Sedentary remarks are usually not worth much.

I will vote against the motion because I believe that, to date, the Initial Presiding Officer has demonstrated great qualities. It is generally recognised that he has endeavoured to be fair to everyone, and he has dealt with the business with intelligence, good humour and understanding. However, that does not remove the fact that on this occasion he was wrong in terms of procedure and precedent in accepting the closure motion. Knowing that many were under the impression that the debate would go on for two days, he was wrong to curtail it. He must have been aware that many Members held strong views on the Belfast Agreement.

11.45 am

They had a desire to be heard. Justice is not just about winning a case; it is also about having an opportunity to speak and to put the case. Everyone knows that ultimately - since this was not taken as a vote requiring cross-community support - it would almost inevitably have been carried. Therefore there was no loss to anyone. There was certainly no loss to the Ulster Unionist Party or to the SDLP in letting this debate run its course by allowing everyone to be heard. At the end of the day they were going to succeed in having it carried.

So what purpose was served by the Presiding Officer's accepting the closure motion? No purpose was served. People were denied the right to speak, people were obstructed from airing views on matters that meant a great deal to them. I therefore believe that the behaviour of the Presiding Officer on that occasion was totally wrong. He was complicit with the Ulster Unionist Party in accepting a procedural motion that had no merit, no justice and no place in public or political morality, a motion which should have been refused.

Mr Haughey:

This motion was proposed by Mr Peter Robinson, a Member for East Belfast, who assured Members that this was a critical issue for the House. Having proposed the motion he promptly left the House along with his Leader, Dr Paisley, and most of the members of the DUP have been absent from the House since then.

Mr Morrow:

On a point of order. May I inform the House and the Member that Mr Robinson has left to attend to council business and that Dr Paisley has left to attend a funeral.

The Temporary Chairperson:

That is not a point of order.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Is it in order for a Member to read out a list of names and say whether those people are present or not in the Assembly? Can the Member tell us where the Leader of the SDLP is? Can he tell us where the Deputy First Minister (Designate) is? Is it in order for a Member to do that?

The Temporary Chairperson:

I do not recognise that as a point of order.

Mr Haughey:

Madam Chair, I repeat that the proposer, of the motion, having assured Members that this was a vital matter of immediate concern and of critical consequence to the House, left the House, along with the Leader of his party and most of its members. There may be those who take the view that Members are not grievously deprived or disadvantaged by the absence of Dr Paisley and Mr Robinson, but, having called Members for this vital debate, they should have had the courtesy to sit and listen to the debate - which they have not done. If this were a court of law -

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Well, it is not.

The Temporary Chairperson:

Order. The Member has a right to be heard.

Mr Haughey:

If this were a court of law and the motion in front of the House were a charge, I would be moving now for the dismissal of the charge because the motion is wasteful.

Rev William McCrea:

It is as well that the Member knows nothing about law.

The Temporary Chairperson:


Mr Haughey:

It is spiteful, frivolous, self-indulgent, and characteristic of the quarters from which it emanated.

One of the things that puzzled me on the day of the debate was that Members were assailed by the strong view from the DUP that the only guidance that Members had for the regulation of the House, and its order of business, is the slim little tome - or perhaps I should say tomb. It is certainly a very grave matter.

"This is all we have" they said. Dr Paisley spoke at length about procedure in the European Parliament and the Mother of Parliaments, as he calls it, and Mr Robinson also quoted from 'Erskine May' in support of their case. And what is their case, Madam Chair? Their case is that such precedence and guidance have no bearing here. How much more absurd can you get than that? There is no case to answer here.

Mr McCartney:

Will Mr Haughey give way?

Mr Haughey:


Standing Order 11(1) provides that

"After a motion has been proposed and provided that each of the parties present has had a reasonable opportunity to contribute to the debate, any Member who has not already spoken to it, or to any amendment which has been moved, may move that the question be now put."

That is on the paper, which we are assured is the supreme guide for this House.

A Member:

Read the rest of the sentence.


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