Belfast Telegraph

Stormont party allegiances and loyalties should come a definite second to responsibility of MLAs to hold ministers to account

By John McCallister

Of all the debates going on in Stormont these days, the debate over the Speaker seems like the one designed for political anoraks. 

When you put it alongside the fact that Northern Ireland has just borrowed £100m from the Treasury to get the Executive out of a hole (and the Treasury are not going to forget about that £100m), a debate over the Speaker of the Assembly seems, at best, to be small fry.

At worst, it reveals a political class that prefers squabbling and infighting to addressing the serious challenges that face Northern Ireland.

Perhaps, however, that is one of the worst consequences of our dysfunctional politics in Northern Ireland.  When politicians squabble, we turn off.  We say 'a plague on all your houses'.  We begin to think that politics is irrelevant.

And what could be more irrelevant than politicians in Stormont arguing over who the Speaker of the Assembly should be?

The DUP and Sinn Fein had a deal, dating back to 2007. A DUP MLA becomes Speaker first. When they go, a Sinn Fein MLA takes over.  With the relationships between those two parties not exactly warm at present, it is perhaps unsurprising that the DUP have decided not to follow through on the deal.

This is where we - the people of Northern Ireland - need to remind ourselves that the Assembly is not the plaything of political parties nor the creature of the Executive.  The Assembly exists to represent the people, not do the bidding of the Executive.  Party allegiances and loyalties should come a definite second to MLAs' responsibility to hold ministers - all ministers - to account.

One of the chief ways this is done is through the election of a Speaker.  It is the Speaker who role it is to safeguard the independence of the Assembly against interference from the Executive.  It is natural for the Executive to want the Assembly to be a tame pet.  The Speaker exists to make sure this doesn't happen - to make sure that MLAs have the freedom, the resources and the independence to challenge the Executive and to scrutinise its actions.  The Speaker exists, in other words, to make life uncomfortable for the Executive.

It's when governments are comfortable that they forget their first responsibility - not to get re-elected, not pursue a party agenda, but to serve the people.  When this happens, the public interest and the common good get pushed down a government's priority list.

So, no, it's not just a matter for political anoraks. The position of Speaker of the Assembly should be an important part of reinvigorating our democracy and revitalising our politics.  It shouldn't be subject to a backroom deal between the two leading Executive parties.  It should be something Executive Ministers stay clear of, leaving it to backbench Assembly members to choose one of their number to make things uncomfortable for government.

Be alert, then, when politicians from the big parties are making an issue like the Speaker boring.  It means they are are up to something, looking to make life easier for themselves in government. Government should not be easy - it's the public's taxes, the public's schools, the public's hospitals.  That is why we need a Speaker elected by backbench MLAs not chosen by Executive Ministers - to make sure the Executive is subject to uncomfortable scrutiny and searching questions on behalf of the public.

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