Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Democracy is turned on its head when 54-vote majority is beaten by 32 votes

Stormont Parliament Buildings. Photo by Peter Rainey.
Stormont Parliament Buildings. Photo by Peter Rainey.

This should be a moment of truth for the Stormont institutions, a moment to reconsider where we are heading.

On the surface we had a good debate in the chamber which, for once, did not divide along purely sectarian lines.

There were some strong speeches which dealt with real issues that voters are concerned about -- for instance overcharging on Government contracts and alleged links between politicians and developers.

Politicians even returned from holiday to thrash out these issues which were raised in a BBC Spotlight documentary, aired after normal sittings had ceased. That looked like democracy in action, but at the end of more than two hours debate a 54-strong cross-community majority was overturned by 32 votes cast by a single party, the DUP.

The 54 votes were made up of Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists, the TUV, the SDLP, NI21, Alliance and various unionist-leaning independents.

This outcome was possible because of a safeguard inserted into the Belfast Agreement known as the petition of concern.

It was intended to stop one community, orange or green, riding roughshod over the wishes of the other.

It allows any 30 members to effectively veto a motion which they feel will allow a minority to be discriminated against or disadvantaged. The DUP, with 38 MLAs, is the only party which can raise a petition on its own.

Yesterday Sammy Wilson, the Finance Minister, said it had done so partly because "we are not going to allow our minister to be kicked around in some sort of political game".

The other reason, really the same reason put more politely, was that he thought the motion too narrow.

It focused on Mr Wilson's colleague Nelson McCausland, the DUP Social Development Minister, who refused to appear in the Spotlight broadcast but used yesterday's debate to deny wrongdoing and say he acted with "integrity and probity".

The motion spoke of "allegations of serious and wrongful political interference in the Housing Executive" and noted journalistic claims that Mr McCausland had "seriously and purposefully misled the Assembly and the Committee for Social Development".

Nobody expected the DUP to back such a motion, and it did attempt to amend it to take the focus off its members.

However, using a petition of concern after its proposed amendment was democratically rejected was widely criticised.

It can be highly damaging for a governing party to circle the wagons around a minister in the face of such allegations.

The normal course is for the minister to stand aside saying he wants to concentrate on clearing his name and to remove any strain on the Government.

This, as Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leader pointed out, is what Peter Robinson, the First Minister, did in 2010 when he was accused of irregularities and breaches of the ministerial code.

Arlene Foster took over his role for a period and then, once his name was cleared, he returned to office with his reputation enhanced.

That approach restored confidence in the institutions and the party.

Mr McCausland defended himself ably but he would have commanded more confidence if he had followed his leader's example. Even now Mr Robinson, said to be planning to rotate some ministers this month, should take the opportunity to move Mr McCausland out of ministerial office.

Instead we got the worst -- a mudslinging conclusion.

Opening the debate, Caitriona Ruane of Sinn Fein asked the DUP if Trevor Turkington, a NIHE double glazing contractor, or Red Sky were DUP donors.

The only reply she got was from Robin Newton of the DUP who told her that Norman Hayes, a Red Sky executive, "is not a member of the DUP, has never contributed to the Democratic Unionist Party, has never been a fundraiser for the Democratic Unionist Party".

She said that there was no place for "a brown envelope culture", a reference to envelopes full of cash given to politicians and parties in the Republic by favoured building developers.

Ms Ruane, who moved the motion, called for Mr McCausland to step down while an investigation is carried out.

More accusations came from Jim Allister, the TUV leader and a former DUP member, who claimed that Mr Turkington was a DUP donor and had signed the nomination forms of Stephen Moutray, a DUP MLA.

"Have you no shame that you would use your position in office to promote a commercial interest?" Mr Allister asked, alleging that specifications for Housing Executive glazing contracts were modified after a meeting with Mr Turkington, who he called "a political buddy". He spoke of the "desperation of the DUP to cover its tracks in relation to its unhealthy arrangements with commercial interests".

Mr Robinson broke in to ask Mr Allister if he had ever gone with a begging bowl to builders.

Mr Allister denied this, but the DUP spoke of an Exocet which would eventually hit him.

Its members also waved a picture of Alex Attwood which appeared on the website of PK Murphy, a Pomeroy-based building contractor. All this is damaging to the political system.

There may be good answers for much of it.

For instance, Mr McCausland also appears on the Murphy website in his capacity as minister, Mr Allister says the DUP may be referring to a fundraising breakfast he held in 2009 and Mr McCausland also answered his critics.

Several members pointed out that the only way to dispel suspicions about business links was to introduce full disclosure of large political donations as happens elsewhere in the UK.

The DUP has a point in saying that any inquiry should go wider than Mr McCausland and the contractor Red Sky, but that will happen anyway.

An independent report has shown up to £18m in overcharging on Housing Executive contracts and involving at least four other contractors.

The police have now been called in and they won't be stopped by petitions of concern.

The deeper challenge for politicians is to reassure the public that they are behaving properly and accountability.

Yesterday's performance won't help with that.

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