Belfast Telegraph

Escape for NI Bill in despatch box car crash

By Tony Grew

The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is now an Act. The Queen granted Royal Assent to the legislation last week.

It brings to an end the practice of MLAs also sitting as MPs (or TDs) and allows for a reduction of the size of the Assembly.

In the end, creating an Opposition at Stormont has been left to MLAs. Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said she hopes the local parties "will give this careful thought".

Northern Ireland MPs had a final debate on the Bill last week and what an interesting session it was.

Andrew Robathan, Villiers' deputy at the NIO, has a unique political skill. Where there is harmony, he brings discord. Where there is consensus, he sows disagreement.

Last week, he gave one of the most cack-handed displays of petulance and bluster the Commons has seen for some time. It was a masterclass in how not to behave at the despatch box.

MPs were being asked to approve some tidying-up amendments that had been added to the Bill in the Lords. They allow the Assembly to shrink from 108 MLAs to 90, but ensure the parties could not reduce its size any further.

Naomi Long, Jim Shannon, Margaret Ritchie and Nigel Dodds all said they were happy enough with them. As shadow minister, Stephen Pound observed: "An unusual feeling of amity is spreading its warm embrace over the House today." He spoke too soon.

Other amendments relating to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Civil Service Commissioners troubled our MPs. Robathan admitted he was not aware that the Northern Ireland civil service is entirely separate from what is called the "home" civil service.

He got into a spat with Naomi Long. Dodds observed the minister was "getting a little tetchy". Margaret Ritchie and Dodds peppered him with interventions, backing up their colleague from Belfast East.

Robathan revealed he does not think human rights in Northern Ireland "are any different, and nor should they be treated differently, from those of somebody elsewhere".

Lady Hermon had been simmering for a while. Now she came to boiling-point. She tried to intervene on Robathan, who announced he had finished and plonked himself on the front bench.

The Deputy Speaker, in a break with procedure as usually ministers have the last word, called on North Down's finest. "It grieves me to have to say that the minister has unnecessarily churned up a lot of disagreement and annoyance," she said. "I am very surprised, and exceedingly disappointed, that the minister seems not to have read the Belfast Agreement.

"If he had done so, he would understand that it contains an entire page and chapter dedicated to human rights."

Robathan now had to intervene on Lady Hermon. He casually told the House that he had not read the agreement since it was signed in 1998. Lady Hermon called that admission "really embarrassing".

She said she was "profoundly disappointed" with his attitude. In Lady Hermon's world, that is the most damning of criticisms.

The Commons approved the Bill, in spite of Robathan's despatch box car crash.

MP defends her 'jewel in crown'

Are people from Ards and people from North Down really so different? Jim Shannon thinks so.

In a Commons debate last week, the DUP MP mentioned the upcoming merger of the local councils.

"Those of us who live in the Ards area perhaps find an alliance with North Down very difficult to accommodate," he claimed.

Lady Hermon rose to remind him that "North Down is, in fact, the jewel in the crown of constituencies in Northern Ireland".

Ken and Kenny picture perfect

How times have changed. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was in Westminster last week for his annual bilateral meeting with David Cameron.

He also attended a reception run by cross-community organisation Champ and Discover Ireland.

As he was posing for photos with Ed Miliband, Ken Maginnis appeared, keen to get himself snapped with Kenny.

"A decade ago he would have been protesting the visit," one veteran Labour MP observed.

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