Assembly Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin is keen to see more tolerance in society and a more respectful atmosphere at Stormont. He discusses his unique political role with Peter Cheney.
As the Assembly’s first nationalist Speaker, Mitchel McLaughlin recognises the significance of that but he’s quick to add: “I’m not ready to be pinned up on the wall.” He is, in some ways, more impressed that he received cross-community backing from unionists and Sinn Féin when he was elected in January of this year.
His own political career “goes back quite a while” to the Easter Rising’s fiftieth anniversary in 1966. “There were a number of events – a quite significant pageant of events in Dublin – which I attended as a very young man,” he recalls. “That very quickly developed into my involvement in a campaign to establish a university in Derry.”
McLaughlin’s first visit to Stormont was as part of a cavalcade led by his local MP, Eddie McAteer, who was also Leader of the Opposition at the time. Several thousand people were there on the day and, motivated by that, he joined the civil rights movement and Sinn Féin.
At that time, it was “a very disorganised and small party” in the city. He also considered the SDLP as a political route and stayed with Official Sinn Féin for a brief time after the republican movement split in 1970. He was first elected to Derry City Council in 1985 and was the party’s National Chairman at the height of the peace process (1996-2005).
Being Speaker of the Assembly is “a new experience for me” but McLaughlin points to the political and organisational experience which he brings to it from his previous posts. His main objective is “that there is good business conducted in the plenary discussions between parties who are – at one and the same time – partners in government and political rivals.”
He adds: “It throws up unique challenges, not least to the Speaker but not only to the Speaker. I think parties themselves have difficulty remembering – at particular times – that they’re also members of the collective body that is the Executive.”
As with many senior politicians, he wants the media’s focus to be on the work produced by agreement and compromise since 1998 which “by far outweighs the issues that remain to be resolved.” When pressed on the perception that the current policy process is moving slowly, he replies that many politicians are still “learning to operate in a context of a devolved Assembly with quite significant powers.”
Secondly, he points to the structures (e.g. mandatory coalition) which have emerged from the peace process. These have made the Assembly “as inclusive as possible” but have also made it “much more difficult to arrive at consensus and agreement on decisions – even strategic decisions.”
However, McLaughlin also sees the Good Friday Agreement’s arrangements as a strength as they have survived several crises since 1998. Changes, he notes, can be made by an all-party agreement which will be backed by the two governments.
“This generation of politicians have come out of that scenario and have brought it to this point,” the Speaker states. “We are now seeing young people come on to the electoral register who have no experience of that conflict. They are about to become – if you like – the new generation of voters, out of which will come the new generation of MLAs.”
McLaughlin understands public cynicism but is also surprised by the flow of visitors coming to Parliament Buildings and the large audiences who watch Stormont’s proceedings on TV.
“I think that there is quite an investment in this place,” he adds. “People might be disappointed in the politicians they have as opposed to being disappointed in the arrangement that they’re living with.” He thinks that one of the best ways to increase public confidence would be more media coverage of Assembly committees where parties tend to work more closely together than in plenary sessions.
The Speaker’s St Patrick’s Day address calling for more tolerance in society proved popular and he reflects: “There’s always the possibility, particularly on sensitive debates and issues, for the temperature to rise and for people just to resort to the language and the rhetoric of conflict and disagreement – as opposed to maybe taking a positive and constructive approach.” Society has also changed quite significantly since 1998 with larger ethnic minority and immigrant communities, bringing their own traditions.
On symbolism, he notes: “This place represents a very, very diverse community now and I think it’s wonderful but this building doesn’t represent it.” The issue of adding new symbols alongside those representing unionism, it is put to him, could turn into an inconclusive discussion.
“We have made difficult decisions already and I think that we continue to find ways of doing that,” the Speaker notes. “It might take longer but, especially with determination, you can eventually bring these things to an agreed conclusion.”
He does not sense any fundamental objection to change but recognises that the ‘how’ part can be perplexing. McLaughlin reaffirms: “I’m not looking to take away any emblem or any symbolism in this place but I want to add to it.”
While the Civic Forum is now defunct, he would like to see more engagement between MLAs and with civic society – not just in terms of lobbying but also to encourage politicians that civic society is interested in their work.
McLaughlin has not resigned his membership of Sinn Féin “but I cannot and I will not act in a party political capacity.” He sees himself as representing all MLAs and speaking on behalf of the “corporate and political and constitutional personality of the Assembly.”
The disciplinary aspect of the job comes with the condition that the Speaker must act impartially in all circumstances and party affiliation “doesn’t enter into the equation whatsoever.” McLaughlin wants to see members from opposite benches listening and responding to the arguments put forward during debates. “They have to learn the technique of not making their minds up in advance,” he quips.
The Assembly also needs to be as efficient as possible in conducting its business. Personally, he views the division lobby system for votes as antiquated; the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly both use electronic voting which takes 20 seconds rather than 20 minutes.
Parliament Buildings could also become more family-friendly and fairer for women – as long working hours can often create a “glass ceiling” for female politicians. A stricter cut-off time for plenary sessions would allow members with family responsibilities to organise their time more effectively.
“Instead of the present two plenary days, on the Monday and Tuesday, I do think you could operate from a Monday through to Wednesday,” he speculates, “but you could actually more rationally divide the time between the committees and the plenary time.”
His tone relaxes when asked about what he enjoys about the role although he also mentions some of the practical pressures that it also brings.
“To be honest, I wouldn’t do this is if I didn’t enjoy it,” McLaughlin comments. “I get up at six o’clock in the morning and I’m at my desk here round about nine o’clock in the morning and sometimes I’m turning the lights off in this place whenever it’s over, and then I drive back to Derry on most occasions.”
He adds: “And that could happen certainly three days a week, sometimes four days a week and sometimes if I don’t keep an eye on this man [his advisor Robin Ramsey], more days a week.
“So there’s quite a lot of grind in it. What I believe I can do is start a process of change that can continue.”
McLaughlin is also keen to highlight his pride in the Assembly, and emphasises that he could always see that politics was heading in the right direction even during difficult times.
Ultimately, he would like to see Northern Ireland come to a point where – similarly to Scotland – it can have a “democratic discussion” about its constitutional future and a referendum with the result accepted by society.
Learning from history
The Speaker’s thinking on reconciliation is strongly influenced by the decade of centenaries and he wants to draw out “examples of how you can deal with history without being bound or controlled by it.” Over the subsequent years, nationalists “denied to themselves that so many nationalists went off and perished in the Great War” but that story is now being retold. Likewise, a senior unionist politician only found out when was an adult that nationalists were involved in the British army.
This generation, he says, should remember how nationalist and unionist volunteers went off to fight together only a short time after they were “getting ready for their own war in a sense.” He continues: “I think it’s a fascinating period of history, out of which we can draw lessons for reconciliation, for healing in the present where this Assembly could actually provide the hope and the direction.”