On the Hill: Status quo sounds fine for MLAs at Stormont
Summer break reached without crisis but public remains unimpressed
As they head for their 11-week recess, MLAs are opting for no change at Stormont – at least in how they organise themselves.
Though the Assembly mood music has been increasingly gloomy over recent months, there was palpable relief in the corridors of power-sharing this week to have reached the summer break without tipping into crisis.
Nonetheless, a cross-party review team has concluded Assembly Members are content with the status quo.
At present the 108 MLAs hold just two plenary sessions a week – the first on Mondays from noon to 6pm, unless MLAs vote to work later.
Their second on Tuesdays can run late, followed by two committee days, leaving MLAs with Fridays to return to their constituencies.
And that is how MLAs want it to stay.
"The current arrangements... allow Members to plan ahead and make best use of their time," the committee team said.
"The Committee therefore agreed that the existing model of the business week in the Northern Ireland Assembly is fit for purpose and... recommended that no changes be made to the current organisation of the business week."
The public impression of the Assembly's recent work is of increasing stalemate on key issues – welfare reform and the Education and Skills Authority – and failure to make significant progress on others, such as the shared future blueprint, and the transforming of the health service.
Yet MLAs did manage to work through the extensive legislation underpinning the now-elected new 11 super councils.
But ministers know that public opinion of their local legislature is low – and that, seven years into restored devolution, it should be making more impact.
First Minister Peter Robinson said: "I do not think that the Executive are particularly good at getting their own messages out. That is something that we have to address.
"You can blame the media when it has two stories to choose from, and it chooses the bad news.
"But if we are not putting the good news stories out or not putting them out in a way that is attractive to the media, that blame has to fall on us."
Q&A: Stephen Moutray, DUP Upper Bann
A former councillor, and a DUP member since 1979, Mr Moutray is now chair of the committee working on Assembly reform.
Q. Why did you want to become an MLA?
A. It is a complicated story. I had become involved in business and was a sub-postmaster and became aware of some of the many issues which are facing people on a day and daily basis in terms of concerns over their benefits – pensioners, for example – and things like that. But that was as a councillor before the Assembly.
Q. Apart from family and your work, what are you main passions in life?
A. I love walking and try to do about 10 miles a week. I would do about five miles on a Sunday.
I also enjoy travelling and visiting new places like Dubai, which was very interesting because of the mix of western and Islamic cultures.
Q. Is there any single issue you want to champion in the Assembly?
A. Yes. I think one of the biggest issues is trying to get more tourists to visit Northern Ireland, particularly from the United States and Canada – and especially people who left 20 or 30 years ago and now want to come back.
I think a continual effort is needed to keep customer standards up and improving local restaurants and so on.
Q. What is in most urgent need of change in the current Stormont structures?
A. We have to get to a position where there would be a voluntary coalition rather than enforced power-sharing. And of course the downsizing of the number of Assembly Members from 108, and the departments.