By Richard Price:
The office of speaker is no mere procedural position. The role of the speaker goes beyond simply chairing plenary meetings of the Assembly. The speaker should act as the champion of the legislature and if needed, adjudicate in the interests of Assembly, over that of the Executive. The RHI scandal has exposed this, yet in a potentially helpful way.
The second opportunity provided by the RHI scandal is to elect a new speaker who understands and lives the full remit of the role, and will be a champion of reform to Stormont procedures to ensure the legislature is all that it can be.
John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, isn’t everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. But the argument that he has elevated and asserted what the role of a speaker/Presiding Officer in an elected chamber is, in comparison to his immediate predecessor, must surely be hard to counter.
His championing of reform, his promotion of scrutiny tools such as urgent questions, his quest for order in proceedings at all times, has earned him respect, even if given begrudgingly, from all who cherish the position of the House of Commons at the centre of our national political system.
Sadly, Stormont has yet to see any such Speaker in the modern era. A speaker who takes it as their goal to elevate the status and operation of the legislature, heedless of past party loyalties, or potential complaints from the Executive. It has also become clear that that person will not come in the form of Robin Newton MLA.
Whilst the circumstances of December’s RHI Statement and Adjournment ‘pantomime’ might have provided a test to any presiding officer, all the same, the test was not met.
Where procedure should not have permitted the First Minister to provide a Statement without the Deputy First Minister’s support, strange allowances in favour of his old party colleague were afforded.
Added to the charge sheet has been a conflict of interest in ruling against legitimate public interest questions on funding for Charter NI.
Then we should recall that under another of Stormont’s “quirks” (failings?), unlike John Bercow, Mr Newton (presumably) remains a fully paid up of the DUP with intention to run for election under the party’s colours again.
Up with this we can no longer put.
The Chamber should elect from its number an individual committed to upholding the needs of Assembly debate and scrutiny, over and above those of any erstwhile political friends in Government.
The Assembly further requires a Bercow-style champion of continuous improvement of the House’s procedural structures, including:
- Proper opposition debate time and speaking rights.
- Greater facility for urgent questions.
- Speedy reform of the broken ‘petition of concern’ mechanism.
- A plan for long term removal/diluting of ‘community designation’ and its importance.
- A truly independent speaker who breaks ALL ties with their former party.
Northern Ireland needs a speaker who puts the legislature first, the Executive second. A speaker with an appetite for reform. A speaker who feels the dismay of the public at broken systems and takes it as an impetus for transformation. A speaker who has a plan for taking the Assembly from its present nadir of public esteem, to a place where it can hold its head high against any western counterpart*.
It is still possible that the fallout from #RHI could achieve that. Let us hope so.
(*And wouldn’t John McCallister have made an excellent candidate. Sigh…)