Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Stormont debate was a farce, yes, but Sinn Fein share blame for descent into absurdity

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly on the bonnet of the police Land Rover
Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly on the bonnet of the police Land Rover
Debate: Alex Maskey
Jim Wells breached the code of conduct

Charade, farce and pantomime were some of the words used by Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey to describe yesterday's Stormont debate.

It is hard to dispute his description, but he should also admit Sinn Fein bears some blame for Stormont's descent into absurdity.

There would have been no charade if Gerry Kelly, his party colleague, had been punished for obstructing a police Land Rover.

Everyone who spoke, even Alastair Ross of the DUP, accepted that Mr Kelly had been trying to calm the situation and succeeded in doing so.

Mr Kelly had acted on the spur of the moment when he broke the law by trying to block a police Land Rover, which wouldn't stop for him.

He accepted that he had broken the law – though he said it was only "technically" – and it would have been a natural next step to have apologised to the House for breaking the MLA code of conduct.

There was room for a compromise, for agreeing a standard of conduct which everyone could uphold.

Instead, Sinn Fein stood by its man and, with SDLP help, put together a petition of concern, which means that the motion cannot be carried without Sinn Fein's support.

After the DUP's Jim Wells breached the code by abusing Mary McArdle, a former IRA prisoner then working as a special adviser, his party also protected him with a petition of concern.

Such petitions are meant to guard against one-sided decisions that disadvantage one community over the other.

When used simply to score sectional victories they produce sullen sectarian stand-offs and actively discourage reasoned compromise to set standards.

Without a petition to armour-plate him against sanctions, Mr Kelly might have apologised and got a lesser penalty.

Instead, the signal was once more sent out that MLAs can break agreed codes with impunity.

This is a system that needs change.

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