2007-2011: a new beginning?

stormont-building-sculptures Dr Sydney Elliott takes the long view of the Assembly’s history and analyses the main numerical trends of the last term.

Significant claims were made as the Northern Ireland Assembly rose for the fourth election under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It was the first Assembly to complete its term without suspension or dissolution. Indeed, it was the first devolved legislature in Northern Ireland to complete a term since the old Parliament of Northern Ireland (1965-1969). Its successor was suspended by the Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, from 30 March 1972 with two years of its term remaining.

Several potential replacements were also interrupted by secretaries of state under direct rule. The Northern Ireland power- sharing Assembly from 1973 was prorogued in 1974. A fresh attempt at an elected Assembly without powers in 1982 was dissolved in 1986 by Secretary of State Tom King after nationalist boycotts and the launch of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Even after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the Assembly was suspended on three occasions, the last in October 2002. Although fresh elections were held in November 2003, the Assembly was not permitted to meet.

A fresh agreement, the St Andrews Agreement, incorporated the DUP and Sinn Féin as the main parties. New Assembly elections were held in March 2007 and a new Executive was formed. It completed its first term on 23 March 2011 – 29 years after the suspension of the original Stormont Parliament. The emphasis in many of the comments was that stability had been restored. But it was not the status quo ante.

Composition

The composition of the Assembly remained stable in part because vacancies caused by death, illness or resignation were in the gift of the party nominating officer rather than subject to by-election.

There was only one death, George Dawson (DUP), on 7 May 2007. There were four changes from the original party to independent status: Gerry McHugh (SF), Dawn Purvis (PUP), Alan McFarland and David McClarty (UUP).

Several members resigned and made way for another party member:

• David Burnside (UUP), Francis Brolly (SF) and Carmel Hanna (SDLP);

• Iris Robinson (DUP) resigned as MP and MLA as a result of a scandal;

• Eight members resigned from June to December 2010 in response to a campaign against dual membership of the Assembly and Westminster.

Finally, Gerry Adams (SF) resigned as MP and MLA to contest the Louth constituency in the Irish Dáil election in February 2011. There was some hilarity at his exit via the Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, an office of profit under the Crown allocated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.

Eleven other members have indicated that they would not stand again. They included:

• Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Lord Wallace Browne and Simpson Gibson (DUP);

• Sir Reg Empey, George Savage, Ken Robinson, Billy Armstrong and Rev Dr Robert Coulter (UUP);

• PJ Bradley (SDLP), Seán Neeson (Alliance Party) and Brian Wilson (Green Party).

Altogether, 29 MLAs elected in 2007 will not contest the May 2011 elections.

Performance

Assembly members were very keen to stress the survival for the full four-year term as an indicator of stable institutions. The Speaker, William Hay, was also anxious to put on record the extent of the work undertaken by the Assembly. He said that the Assembly had met in 277 plenary sessions. Some 59 Executive Bills had been passed but given the recent rush to complete the session, 11 of these were awaiting formal royal assent. The MLAs had held ministers to account through 11,624 oral questions and 32,411 written questions. The Assembly had extended its footprint through 250,000 visitors, hosted 2,000 events and 226 foreign visitors.

The legislative process increased in speed and quantity over the period. The table below sets out the figures but some explanation is merited.

In the first year, nine Bills passed all stages and seven others were at various stages.

In the second year, nine Bills were passed, four of which were carried over from the previous year and nine Bills were in progress, of which three had carried over. The peak of legislative activity occurred in the third year with 16 Bills passed and 22 in progress. In the final year, 14 Bills were passed but most had carried over so that the final session was like a wrap-up year. In addition, 11 Bills had passed all stages and awaited royal assent.

There was a marked difference in the number of Executive Bills and their success rate compared with non- Executive Bills. Only two non-Executive Bills passed all stages and received royal assent – one on caravans and one on members’ allowances – but three others, on autism, single-use carrier bags, and the independent financial review and standards of Assembly members, only awaited royal assent. Four other bills were not agreed.The committees had met on 2,091 occasions and witnesses had been willing to attend. Their work generated significant reports and the Public Accounts Committee attracted a high level of media attention.

Questions are one method of building up knowledge and specialism in a subject area. Oral questions can be more challenging for ministers. As in other places, there were hints of ‘soft’ questions lobbed to ministers from the same party.

A major effort was made to make Stormont a centre for events and visitors. With some 2,000 events and 250,000 visitors, it was a success. The facilities for journalists were improved. However, the public attitude to politicians, as expressed in media content, remained critical and sceptical.

With all the evidence of output, the processes of the legislative assembly had been established. The outgoing Speaker had upheld the procedures of the chamber with a minimum number of exclusions, including members of his own party. In addition, devolution had demonstrated benefits of local decision- making. There was free travel on public transport for the over 60s, deferred water charges, frozen domestic and regional rates, rate relief for small businesses and free prescriptions. However, many of these were time limited by the requirements of the Budget cuts.

It was not the Assembly which caused the most criticism but the Executive and especially the perceived tendency of the DUP and Sinn Féin to operate the coalition as a DUP-Sinn Féin majority government. The initial fears concerning the Paisley-McGuinness relationship melted into a workmanlike period affectionately described as ‘the chuckle brothers’. When Robinson succeeded Paisley in 2008, there was a difficult period between June and November when Sinn Féin refused to agree an agenda for Executive meetings. Thereafter there was a return to business. The Robinson family problems from December 2009 seemed to draw the two politicians together to deliver their programme. In matters such as the Budget for four years, the DUP and Sinn Féin drove the issue forward against SDLP and UUP criticism.

Change in the working of the system will continue to be discussed after the election. The issue of the reduction of members has to be addressed because the number of constituencies will be reduced to 16. This could result in 12 fewer MLAs or more if the number of seats per constituency was reduced to five.

Bills by year

Executive

Non-Executive

Became law

Progress

Became law

Progress

Not agreed

2007-2008

9

7

0

1

0

2008-2009

9 (4)

9 (3)

0

2 (1)

0

2009-2010

16 (7)

22 (2)

0

6 (2)

0

2010-2011*

14 (13)

12 (9)

2 (2)

7 (2)

4 (2)

Carryover figures in brackets * to 23 March 2011

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