Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

At last our MLAs agree on something... taking a day off

Only eight MLAs were present for the start of an Assembly debate on the future of Hillsborough Castle's Praxis cafe

Power-sharing on a pilot light... that is probably an overstatement but, even though they have just came out of their fortnight-long Easter recess and then took Bank Holiday Monday off, MLAs have been a bit thin on the ground lately.

Last week only eight of them were present at the start of the debate on the Praxis care cafe at Hillsborough Castle including precisely none from the DUP – though Edwin Poots soon arrived for a solo run.

Numbers then expanded to around 28 for First Minister Peter Robinson's Question Time – arguably the highlight of most Assembly weeks – but still only a quarter of the 108 MLAs.

And on Tuesday past Education Minister John O'Dowd was virtually alone on the Sinn Fein benches at times when the DUP were pressing for a new controlled schools body.

It's the same at committees, though none apparently has yet had to cancel for lack of a quorum. But for example, members of the arts and leisure committee took Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin to task over the alleged 'exclusion' of Protestant working-class folk from theatres, and so on – and launch an investigation.

Then when the Sinn Fein minister goes to the committee to answer questions, there are less than half of the 11 members present. The reason ? Well you may have noticed not one but two election campaigns going on – for the European Parliament and the new 'super'-councils.

Though frankly you could also be forgiven for not noticing.

MLAs had decided to keep the Assembly running during the election campaign but inevitably many of them have been out 'on the stump' – their absence may have been a factor in Sinn Fein tabling the marriage equality motion for the third time in two years.

So now On the Hill can reveal the Assembly's business committee has taken the slump by the horns and decided – you guessed it – they will take yet another day off. MLAs will not be expected to turn up now on May 20 – three days before people go to the polls.

And rumours claim there may yet be a decision to cancel proceedings on May 19 and May 26 – the day of the European election count – as well. Though I doubt it.

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