Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 4 October 2015

On the Hill: Relations at Stormont have hit a new low

By Noel McAdam

Published 27/02/2014

Questions surrounding flooding were asked of OFMDFM by its overseeing committee
Questions surrounding flooding were asked of OFMDFM by its overseeing committee

We do not comment on leaks – so Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness' office told On The Hill, in response to our disclosure that for the first time the head of the Civil Service, Dr Malcolm McKibben, has found himself pulled into a dispute between MLAs and ministers.

We were bold enough to ask the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) for confirmation as well as a comment from Dr McKibben to balance up our report and – five days later – the answer above is all we got.

On The Hill has documented the long deteriorating relationship between officials in OFMDFM and the committee tasked with monitoring it, which has now led to the unprecedented involvement of the province's top civil servant.

The bad blood goes back some years but since the current Assembly session started the committee began keeping a record, which chairman, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, handed to Dr McKibben with the following figures:

* 17 – occasions on which papers were late

* 17 – number of cancelled meetings

* four – policy announcements without consultation.

Dr McKibben is expected to have a word with the DUP and Sinn Fein heads of the administration at their regular weekly meeting, some of which have had to be cancelled recently due to the meetings of the five party leaders (also including SDLP and Alliance) on the post-Haass hiatus.

But now the row is also set to involve the entire committee system at Stormont, with other Assembly committees being asked to set out the quality of their own contact with ministers and officials. A weary and frustrated Mr Nesbitt argued the exercise would allow the extent of their problem to be "benchmarked" against others.

But he has also said he is at a loss to understand the underlying reasons for the ongoing stand-off, which previous meetings even involving special advisers, has failed to improve.

Across 67 items – including the Social Investment Fund, flooding and the Maze stalemate – only seven responses were received within the 10-day timescale dictated by protocols. The single longest response, believed to involve the schools common funding formula, took 299 days.

And of the remaining 60, a total of 14 responses are still outstanding, the longest a question about the policy underlying European Union funding to most deprived regions which as of today is 240 days overdue.

Five things we expect next week

1 The key 'consideration' stage of the Local Government Bill will go ahead if it gets through the Executive meeting today.

2 A cross-party motion including the DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP and SDLP will call on Health Minister Edwin Poots to introduce pulse oximetry to screen all newborns for early detection of congenital heat defects.

3 NI21 wants MLAs to back a motion asking the Executive to approach Westminster to request a joint commission to examine devolving fiscal powers.

4 The committee on Enterprise Trade and Investment is bringing forward a debate on electricity pricing.

5 Legislation on the licensing of pavement cafes also reaches the all-important consideration stage.

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