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I'm saddened by criticism, says Stormont Speaker facing confidence vote

By David Young

Stormont Speaker Robin Newton has expressed his disappointment in his Assembly colleagues, as he prepares to face a vote of no confidence on Monday.

In the letter, sent to all MLAs last night, the east Belfast DUP MLA says he was 'saddened' at suggestions he was motivated by party political interests when he allowed First Minister Arlene Foster to make a statement to the Assembly about the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive scheme - despite opposition from the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The Speaker's critics accused him of undermining the joint nature of The Executive Office and the Good Friday Agreement, as well as calling on him to resign.

In last night's letter, Mr Newton hit back, pointing to procedural problems in dealing with the Executive office as being at the heart of the Ministerial statement controversy.

"The legal and procedural requirements for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to act jointly arise when they are discharging specific statutory duties. The Assembly was recalled by the First Minster and Deputy First Minister to hear a Ministerial statement. the Deputy First Minister subsequently made clear by way of an email from his special adviser that the statement did not reflect his views and he was withdrawing his agreement...

"What was done jointly by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister cannot be done unilaterally. Had there been a join decision to revoke that notice, the position would have been different," Mr Newton said.

The Speaker went on to firmly reject claims he had acted politically.

"I have been deeply saddened by allegations that I was motivated by any party political factors in how business was conducted on 19 December 2016," he wrote.

"I reject that entirely in the case of this or any decision I have ever taken as Speaker."

Turning to the events during the controversial sitting on December 19, Mr Newton wrote: "I had no discussions with anyone from the DUP about any of the events leading up to that day or any of the decisions I had to take. I acted solely on the basis of the official advice I received."

But the Speaker admitted: "Business could have been managed better in the Chamber that day..."

The Speaker's letter ended with a plea for greater understanding of the difficult position he found himself in.

"I have listened to and understood many of the concerns expressed about the sitting on 19 December 2016," he wrote.

"It was a very difficult day which raised unprecedented issues - but these were approached entirely appropriately given the responsibilities of the Speaker and the Assembly.

"I would ask all parties to fairly consider the position I was placed in, and the advice I received."

Reacting to the letter, Sinn Fein MLA John O'Dowd said: "The DUP Speaker's actions in the Assembly on 19th December have totally compromised the neutrality of that office.

"He has lost the confidence of the House, apart from his DUP colleagues.

"As Speaker he should be above reproach and independently accountable to the political institutions. That is not the case. He is acting without regard to the integrity of the office.

"The Speaker is now acting as a law unto himself and as such should resign immediately."

Meanwhile, TUV leader Jim Allister said Monday's no-confidence motion was now largely academic - because the Assembly was about to collapse and fresh elections called for March.

But he added: "In his letter, the Speaker has fallen into the trap of blaming others - especially officials - for his own mistakes."

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "This is well past the time to try to defend yourself with reference to rules and precedents only. The Speaker, like all of us, must be sensitive to doing the right thing by the public.

"This is the time to start restoring public confidence in the integrity of the institutions. What would I have done in Robin Newton's position on 19 December? I would have walked down the corridor of Parliament Buildings, knocked the doors of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and suggested we should sit down and sort this out before we walked into the Chamber.

"It did not happen.

"It is time for change."

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