Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Petty point-scoring likely to dominate new Stormont term

The Assembly opens for business today in the first full day of the new session, with the parties already edging towards election mode.

Now that a General Election is less than nine months away, the prospect is that petty point scoring and policy clashes will increasingly dominate debates in the Assembly chamber.

And tensions between the Stormont ‘top two’ — Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness — also remain, feeding fears the apparent inertia in the devolved government will continue.

The First Minister intends to press ahead with his push to reform the voting system onto the agenda, against the opposition of Sinn Fein which has vowed to veto any radical change.

A ‘clear the air’ meeting between the DUP leader and Deputy First Minister shortly before last week’s Executive session does not appear to have put the spat between them to bed.

Also, despite a heavy workload, it is understood Executive meetings which had been taking place almost weekly in the run-up to the summer break are to revert to the former fortnightly pattern.

In the Assembly this afternoon, Ulster Unionist Ken Robinson and the SDLP’s Declan O’Loan are due to ask the First Minister to report and update MLAs on the current negotiations over the budget for policing and justice powers after it is devolved, which both Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness agree is crucial.

They are due to put their personal differences aside to meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the near future when they will hear the detail of the financing the Treasury is able to provide.

Mr Robinson’s question is due to come after the legislation underpinning the long-delayed switch of responsibility from Westminster to Stormont reaches its first stage, a formality which should take only a few minutes.

Now reduced to just an hour on Monday’s Question Time is also due to include investment strategy and plans for a forthcoming Older People’s Day. Behind the scenes, many MLAs insist most upcoming business will come from private members, although at its last meeting before the summer break, the Executive put through a record raft of issues requiring legislation.

The DUP insists it can have come as no surprise to Sinn Fein that it intends to argue in favour of weighted majorities — with a threshold of 65 % — instead of the current ‘community designation’ which labels MLAs as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’ and can lead to one-party vetoes.

But Mr McGuinness, who was not given sight of the Ulster Hall speech in advance, was furious and said Mr Robinson — just back from five weeks in Florida — either had sunstroke or spent too much time in Disneyland.

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