RHI puts heat on Speaker

Robin Newton’s role as Speaker of the Assembly has come under criticism in the early stages of the new mandate, however, his role in sparking a mass walk out during December’s RHI special sitting has moved his position closer to untenable.

Alongside the political grandstanding which flourished with the emergence of fresh details of the botched heating scheme, it is important to note that December’s walk out was not a political stunt but rather an important point of principle on the workings of Government.

To contextualise the situation that led to all but the DUP MLAs leaving the Assembly chamber, confidence, especially among the Opposition parties, was already low following his recent handling of proceedings surrounding funding issued to Charter NI through the Executive Office’s Strategic Investment Fund (SIF).

In November the Speaker was forced to apologise “unreservedly” after he blocked an Assembly question by the SDLP, with it later emerging that he had previously provided advice to Charter NI and also sat on the steering group responsible for designating funding.

While the Speaker has stressed that he did not hold a position as an advisor to Charter NI, he accepted that he should have delegated the question. However, his handling of the process has been referred for investigation at the request of the SDLP.

Fast-forward to December when the Speaker recalled a special sitting of the Assembly to deal with the RHI revelations, at the request of the Office of First and deputy First Minister. As deputy First Minister in a joint office, Martin McGuinness’ withholding of consent led to calls for the Speaker to define under what grounds Arlene Foster would be addressing the Assembly.

Amid confusion the scheduled address was adjourned for 20 minutes as the Speaker refused to take a point of order from UUP leader Mike Nesbitt which questioned the Standing Order under which the session was to proceed given that the original terms had now changed.

The Speaker struggled to deal decisively with the numerous points of order raised when the session reconvened, most of which called for standing order clarification and specifically the capacity under which Foster would be speaking. His decision to allow the speech by the Speaker prompted the walk out of MLAs and some claimed that a precedent may now have been set.

The events prompted the Speaker to write to MLAs to explain his decision and address “genuine frustrations and concerns” over the nature of the days.

In the letter the Speaker accused the Executive Office of placing the Assembly in a difficult position and added that he would be raising the issues with ministers.


Members must be confident of the impartiality of the Speaker and this is achieved through the operation of a number of conventions. He does not participate or vote in any debates in the Assembly, he does not become involved in party politics, nor does he comment on Northern Ireland political matters or on issues of Government policy. When speaking on behalf of the Assembly, the Speaker confines himself to matters relating to the operation of the Assembly. Similarly, he will only make statements to the press on factual or procedural matters relating to the Assembly. 
Northern Ireland Assembly website

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