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DUP's Donaldson, Wilson and Dodds intervened before backbench rebellion over bill - report

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Leadership: Arlene Foster

Leadership: Arlene Foster

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Ey

Leadership: Arlene Foster

Senior DUP figures urged party leader Arlene Foster not to progress with a controversial bill giving Executive ministers more powers, it has been reported.

The BBC Stephen Nolan show reported Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, veteran MP Sammy Wilson and the former North Belfast MP and deputy leader Nigel Dodds asked the First Minister to pause the legislation.

However, it progressed and was passed despite a significant rebellion within the DUP Assembly ranks.

The DUP said the bill was "a very technical piece of legislation, which was the subject of considerable legal input from senior government lawyers".

"Bills would not normally be accelerated but in recognition some members would have like more time to debate this bill we relaxed our whip on the matter."

Only half of DUP MLAs voted in favour of the controversial in a significant challenge to Arlene Foster's authority.

Those rebelling included a party officer, former ministers and MLAs who have previously proven ultra-loyal to their party leader.

Of 28 DUP MLAs elected to the Assembly, only 14 voted for the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill which was proposed by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Eleven abstained, two were not present for the vote, and South Down MLA Jim Wells — who has lost the party whip — voted against the legislation.

DUP sources have insisted that the abstentions did not represent a threat to Mrs Foster’s leadership.

They said that the vote had been “softly whipped” because of “genuine concerns” over the fast-tracking of the legislation.

However, the vote is a major embarrassment to the First Minister who was widely regarded as having been in a strong position internally given her handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

The legislation giving ministers more powers was fast-tracked through the Assembly before the summer recess on Tuesday. Its opponents claim it will give too much power to individual Stormont ministers.

Former DUP special adviser and barrister, Richard Bullick, argued that the party’s MLAs were “sleepwalking into making profound constitutional amendments” and shedding gains negotiated in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

Those abstaining included former ministers Michelle McIlveen and Mervyn Storey. Ms McIlveen is a party officer.

Others who abstained were Alex Easton, Paula Bradley, Thomas Buchanan, Joanne Bunting, Jonathan Buckley, Paul Frew, Trevor Clarke, William Humphrey and David Hilditch.

Mr Wells said: “Only 14 out of 28 of those elected DUP MLAs voted for the legislation. And when you take out serving ministers, the deputy speaker, whip and others, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of DUP backbenchers did not support this bill.”

UUP leader Steve Aiken said: “Regrettably, the Assembly passed what is by any reckoning poor and badly thought-out legislation.”

“While we did not manage to defeat the bill, the fact that some DUP MLAs chose to abstain in person shows the considerable disquiet that there is across much of the Assembly in this process.

“I fear that the flaws in this bill could haunt us for many years to come.”

The new law was introduced after a court judgment two years ago over a waste incinerator.

It overturned the Executive’s approval for the facility near Mallusk in Co Antrim.

UUP MLA Doug Beattie said: “It is important that the executive is able to operate without fear of being undermined or rocked by a solo run from an individual minister on a controversial policy.”

Defending the fast-tracking of the bill, Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney said it was to allow decisions to be made on key planning applications. He said the legislation would help increase co-operation within Stormont’s five-party coalition.

The Bill was passed by 58 votes to 13, with 11 abstentions, and will go forward for royal assent. The Assembly has been adjourned until September 7.

Belfast Telegraph