Politics

Assembly round-up

stormont

Stormont’s debates majored on education and children in November while floods, attacks and justice devolution added some sense of crisis. Transfer – in policing and schooling – still divides but unity was found on protecting young people from harm and promoting their interests.

As attention focused on child abuse in the Catholic Church, the Assembly called on the Executive to commission an assessment of the problem in the North and also fund helpline and counselling services for victims. This was followed up by the first public petition to the House since restoration, on 9 November, on the same issue.

The Assembly gave its consent to the UK Child Poverty Bill, on 16 November, and members also united behind Dawn Purvis’ call to condemn the neglect of children and young people, on 24 November.

OFMDFM questions on 9 November fell on the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Stephen Farry took up that point by asking Martin McGuinness to update MLAs on flag-flying rules, as national flags could be misused to cause division. A review was taking place, it was confirmed.

The Department of Justice Bill debate and continuing committee scrutiny took place within Stormont’s walls but most of the main talks over that have been taking place elsewhere. Tensions rose to the point that Sinn Féin demanded a transfer date to be named before Christmas otherwise “deep trouble” would follow. The party added that new DUP conditions were being set and warned that the funding package wouldn’t last forever. Both governments had hoped this would be cleared up by May 2008.

In contrast the DUP, and indeed the UUP, are taking their time and contending that the public is more interested in jobs and flooding than this technical political issue. They are sceptical of the arguments that devolution will, in itself, encourage investment and deter dissidents.

There is generally a lack of debate about justice itself while the parties focus on the process and finances. This suggests that devolution, when it happens, will not mean a major change in policy.

On the other ‘hot topic’, the Education and Skills Authority’s formation stalled over DUP claims that controlled schools are not properly represented. Talks about postprimary transfer have continued with participants said to be “encouraged” about the progress made.

Dissident attacks were first on the agenda on 23 November with denunciation from all parts of the House recorded in Hansard. Arlene Foster contrasted the PSNI with those who had “murder in their hearts”. Michelle Gildernew saw both attacks as “reckless and futile”. Later in the month, she had the chance to commend the people of Fermanagh for their “resilience and fortitude” amid the flooding.

Sinn Féin’s Billy Leonard will meanwhile replace Francie Brolly as the party’s East Londonderry MLA, although the co-option process (detailed below) is not without its faults. When the month was just over, news came through that Gerry McHugh had joined Fianna Fáil, a move which makes him that party’s first member to sit in Stormont; he will remain an independent MLA. His nearest predecessor was Eamon deValera, who abstained from Stormont but represented parts of County Down in full or in part from 1921 to 1938.

Replacement by appointment

The retirement of Carmel Hanna has opened the way for another unelected successor. Local SDLP members will make their choice and the final decision rests with the party leader, who has three chances to make that decision; if the third time passed without a name, a by-election would be called. Co-options are designed to protect smaller parties who would otherwise lose their seats. However, the SDLP topped the 2007 poll in South Belfast (26.8 per cent) and the DUP (22.4 per cent) and UUP (18.4 per cent) were also contenders. When the current law was debated by peers in February, Lord Bew pointed out that other countries using PR elections “take the risk of consulting the electorate” when vacancies come up. The NIO response was that it was important keep a “political balance” in the province.

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