Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Why the speaker’s not happy when the media hear it first

Political correspondent Noel McAdam takes a weekly look behind the scenes at Stormont

Stormont Parliament Buildings. Photo by Peter Rainey.

Executive ministers have been taken to task by the Speaker after being accused of treating the Assembly with contempt.

It is not a new problem. Over many months ministers have gone public with announcements, initiatives and statements — in effect putting the media before MLAs.

Now On The Hill can reveal a strongly-worded letter has been sent by Speaker William Hay to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

In the letter — obtained after a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper — Mr Hay complained ministers have failed to reveal when written statements will be made public and issued to the Press and for broadcast.

A procedure for urgent statements exists but Mr Hay argued this has also been ignored. He made clear: “Members should be able to access a written statement before it is given to the media.”

In the latest, most criticised instance, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland unveiled the effective dismantling of the Housing Executive in a written statement while MLAs were still on their festive break.

The move was attacked by Sinn Fein, UUP and the SDLP — though Mr McCausland has since told On The Hill he intends to answer all MLAs’ questions.

Mr Hay’s ire was drawn earlier, however, after Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister drew attention to the issue after announcements over the chair of the body heading the development of the former Maze Prison site and the decision to move the entire Department of Agriculture from its present HQ to the former Army base at Ballykelly.

“The joint First Ministers showed their contempt for the accountability structures of |Stormont,” Mr Allister said.

Mr Hay is said to have been irritated also after the Executive’s £200m boost for the province’s battered economy was made public late at night before ministers had appeared before Members.

The Speaker is now to revise a ruling he made almost four years ago and “to avoid any further misunderstanding” demand that ministers’ statements are sent to his office and MLAs simultaneously.

His letter — sent in November — said: “The spirit of my ruling was to ensure that members are informed of the content of written statements as soon as practicable after I have been notified, and particularly that members should (be given access) before it is given to the media.

“Not all ministers have been indicating the time at which a written statement will be made public or given to the news media.”

And he pointedly went on to ask Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness: “I would be grateful if you would make arrangements for all ministers to be reminded as a matter of urgency...”

There was no response to questions on the letter put to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

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