Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

UUP chief Nesbitt's walkout marks a new low at dysfunctional Stormont

OFMDFM committee chair Mike Nesbitt and his deputy Chris Lyttle walked out of a meeting in protest at what they perceive as a lack of co-operation from the first ministers' office

Imagine you're in a meeting and the boss – followed by the deputy boss – walk out. Not only depart, but quit in quite a huff. And then the meeting goes on, without them.

Well, that is what happened, more or less, at the committee which monitors Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness's office.

The chair, the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, and deputy Chris Lyttle of Alliance, left after papers on the latest Stormont spending round arrived only two hours before their meeting.

Mr Nesbitt claims their joint action is new territory for the Assembly rulebook.

And a former executive minister, Alex Attwood of the SDLP, raised the fact they had been forced to "discharge themselves" in the Assembly on Monday.

It amounts to the three smaller Executive parties ganging up on the DUP and Sinn Fein, although the sour relations between the committee and officials who work for Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness has pockmarked this entire Assembly session.

And it is a row which has seen Northern Ireland's most senior civil servant Dr Malcolm McKibbin asked to intervene for the first time between ministers and MLAs.

As On the Hill first revealed, the committee took the unprecedented step of asking him to step in after 38 instances of briefings being cancelled or papers arriving late since last September.

We disclosed a dossier claiming that across a total of 67 issues – including the Social Investment Fund, flooding and the Maze/Long Kesh stalemate – only seven responses were received within the 10-day timescale dictated by Stormont protocols. The single longest response, involving the schools common funding formula, took a grand total of 299 days.

Now that it has come to boycotts, Mr Nesbitt said: "Perhaps if this incident had been a one-off it might be manageable, but it is merely the latest in a long sequence."

But the DUP's Jimmy Spratt, who took over chairing the meeting when they withdrew, hit back: "I am disappointed but not surprised at the childish behaviour on display from Mike Nesbitt.

"The committee should not be a platform to continually make narrow party points."

Dr McKibbin told the committee in May: "I don't regard the relationship as dysfunctional and we are trying to improve it."

Five things we learnt this week

1. Sixty-one cruise ships are due to dock in Belfast this year. Last year the figure was 59 – generating a visitor spend of £5.8m.

2. NI Water treats approximately 570m litres of water and distributes on average 562m litres of drinking water every day.

3. Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has no plans to recommend the introduction of water charges to the Executive.

4. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing office in Coleraine will cease all licensing functions from July 17.

5. Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said his department has no responsibility or role to play in providing assistance to mortgage holders in negative equity.

Five things we expect next week

1. Arts Minister Caral Ni Chuilin is being asked if she plans to increase the annual funding allocated to the Arts Council for musical instruments for bands.

2. Sinn Fein is raising a NICVA report revealing people here are being paid less than the living wage, impacting particularly on young people, women and part time workers.

3. An Executive Minister, Arlene Foster, is bringing a public petition to the Assembly over the closure of Collegiate Grammar School in Enniskillen.

4. Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy will be urged to help boost the North Coast by investing in transport infrastructure.

5. MLAs will be asked by the UUP's Mike Nesbitt to link Refugee Week and Community Relations Week "particularly in relation to their shared aim of facilitating positive encounters between diverse cultures".

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