Belfast Telegraph

Flags, Northern Ireland's past and parading, along with welfare reform, will tax former US senator Gary Hart

By Will Chambre

The Assembly is a remarkable place. And we make that statement clearly to show that there are times when democracy works. We know you may want to take a deep breath and consider this statement, but it actually happens.

Yes, MLAs sometimes take the time to park the tribal bus outside Stormont’s Parliament Buildings, disembark and get down to business.

Seasoned observers such as ourselves know this happens on occasion, especially well away from the jaundiced eye of the mainstream media. From committee rooms to questions to ministers, real, actual, proper democratic processes take place.

This week, for example, we have witnessed the passing of the consideration stage of Lord Morrow's human trafficking and exploitation bill. Now, before you find a high horse to climb upon and rant from, take a moment.

An elected member brought forward a private member's bill that he thought was an important enough issue, it was debated thoroughly at each stage and had its supporters and detractors air their views in the media and in the chamber.

Yes, the mainstream media focussed on the issue of prostitution, as it grabs the headlines; but the fact that so many amendments to all the clauses in the bill were put forward and that the debate on trafficking and its victims was at the core of much of this speaks more about the Assembly than even MLAs might realise.

With a public fed up at the constant diet of wrangles, budget crises, in-fighting, and general discontent, this showed that the ladies and gentlemen occupying the various benches can, and do, take serious decisions about serious matters. Agree or disagree with Lord Morrow's Bill, it at least shows that the Assembly can debate long into the wee small hours to reach an accommodation on a piece of legislation.

An accommodation is also what retired Senator Gary Hart will need when he sits round the table with the flip side of Northern Ireland politics. Whether he secretly curses US Secretary of State John Kerry for sending back here, or whether he missed out the Titanic Tour last time is a moot point.

For all the work being undertaken around legislation in the Assembly, to many of us looking in from the outside, our politicians still seem at times to behave like children arguing in a playground. Those closer to the core may think it more of a dysfunctional family of step-children all rowing. Whatever view is taken, Senator Hart will know the score, having sat at talks here before.

Flegs, the past, parading - now with the added extra bonus element of welfare reform and the budget - will tax his diplomatic skills.

Whether the Christmas deadline can be met (at least Senator Hart will get to pick up a few gifts at the Continental Market and stock up in 'Made In Belfast' T-shirts) remains the subject of much discussion. Unless you are one of the participants, then it is just speculation of course, but can we expect a resolution ahead of the season of goodwill.

What is certain is that MLAs will continue to legislate and hold executive ministers to account, both in the Assembly chamber and its committees as well as representing constituents and all that they are elected to do.

It's called democracy, and while Winston Churchill described democracy as "the least worst form of government", it is nevertheless the reason why we traipse off to the polling booth once in a while.

Eye on the week ahead

Half-term is here!

There is no business next week in the Assembly. Not because of an apocalyptic collapse of talks, or the implosion of Parliament Buildings into a chasm of self-doubt over its purpose, nor because direct rule came into place when no one was looking.

The reason is that all the MLAs are off enjoying their half-term break...

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