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Opposition say Ministers getting away with ignoring the Assembly

By Noel McAdam

Published 15/11/2016

Stormont's opposition parties have joined forces to claim Executive Ministers are increasingly side-stepping the Assembly.

But under pressure from the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance, Speaker Robin Newton insisted he had no power to compel ministers to attend.

Mr Newton in turn rounded on Assembly members for challenging his authority "both inside and outside the chamber".

The increasingly frosty relations between the two Executive parties, DUP and Sinn Fein, and the smaller parties dominated the opening of Assembly proceedings yesterday.

Kellie Armstrong of Alliance said her party had tabled an urgent oral question request asking Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard to make a statement.

And she told the speaker: "I ask you to confirm what action you will take to defend the right of the Assembly to scrutinise the work of ministers, particularly on matters of such public importance."

Mr Newton said he had indicated to ministers, including in a letter to First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness which he had also followed up on, that statements "when possible and convenient" should be made to the Assembly.

But the SDLP's Alex Attwood hit back: "We have a situation in which ministers do not attend debates in the Chamber and do not make statements to the House on critical matters.

"Is there not a strategic issue with the Assembly's ability to fulfil its legal and statutory functions and a danger that it is being prejudiced and damaged?"

Ulster Unionist Robin Swann joined in the criticism, and Stewart Dickson of Alliance asked Mr Newton: "At what stage will you run out of patience with those ministers who will not come to the House? You indicated that you asked them to come. At what stage will you exercise your power to make them come?"

Mr Newton replied: "I do not have the power to make a minister come to the Chamber. That is at the discretion of the minister. I indicated to you that I have written to ministers, asking them to come to the Chamber."

The Speaker then went on to say it had "been disappointing that, of late, members have been frequently breaching our procedures by challenging standard procedural decisions, my authority and that of the Deputy Speaker's, both inside and outside the Chamber."

He also said he had written to two MLAs about challenging the authority of the Chair - but did not reveal their identities.

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