Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

More positives than negatives, for now

After 100 days of devolution, political correspondent Noel McAdam delivers his verdict on the first session of the restored Assembly

After almost five years in deep freeze, the Assembly has met precisely 17 times since devolution returned on May 8.

So far bills embracing the Budget, taxis and welfare reform, among others, have begun their long journeys.

If little major legislation has been finally enacted that is hardly surprising when the Executive has still to finalise its programme for government.

Instead, and in contrast to the last period of self-governance, when the Assembly's business committee was left floundering to find subjects for MLAs to discuss, much of the time has been taken up with private members' issues.

Debates have included suicides rates among young people, the review of the domestic rating system, the teacher induction year idea, neighbourhood renewal and lignite mining in north Antrim.

Any matter which cannot be resolved by Ministers at the fortnightly Executive meetings must be tabled for debate in the Assembly.

Similarly, following months of deliberation by the multi-party Preparation for Government Committee, points of controversy which arise from the myriad scrutiny committees should also reach the floor of the House to be sorted out by vote.

Thus, for example, the Culture Arts and Leisure Committee could take weeks debating Irish Language legislation, but it will still require cross-community support of the full Assembly.

So far there have been few headline-grabbing skirmishes and only minor mirth-making exchanges such as David McNarry's attempt to liken the DUP benches to Star Trek.



Sure, debating blows have been landed but the tone has been so reasonable it is tempting to conclude most members are keen to avoid controversy.

That impression is underpinned by the apparent failure to process any action against Ian Paisley Jnr over his anti-gay remarks.

While they seemed inseparable in public, First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness held their respective Question Times on the basis of "themselves alone".

Other problems remain - procedures seem cumbersome - and sectarianism seems at times just under the surface.

However, overall, it has been more positive than negative and remains a work-in-progress.

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