Belfast Telegraph

Stormont speaker Newton blames Executive Office over Arlene Foster RHI statement confusion

MLAs questioned what capacity Mrs Foster was addressing Assembly

The Speaker of the Assembly blamed the Executive Office for the confusion over Arlene Foster's statement about the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal to Monday's special sitting.

Mr Newton wrote to MLAs to explain why he allowed First Minister Arlene Foster to make a statement to the Assembly after the deputy First Minister withdrew his authorisation for the speech.

Ahead of Monday's special sitting of the Assembly Arlene Foster - in an extraordinary move - said the speech had not been approved by Martin McGuinness.

Mr Newton was repeatedly asked under what capacity Mrs Foster would be speaking.

When the Speaker said he would allow the speech it prompted a walk out of MLAs. Some said the move brought his position to close to being untenable.

Queen's academic Professor Rick Wilford told the BBC the Speaker may have set a precedent by allowing the statement to be made without both ministers in the joint office agreeing on the matter beforehand.

In an exceptional move, the DUP Speaker wrote to all MLAs to explain his actions blaming the Executive office for putting him in a "difficult position".

It is normal parliamentary convention a Speaker does not give reasons for their decisions, however, Mr Newton said it would be "helpful to outline some of the factors" he considered.

In the letter Mr Newton acknowledged Assembly members "genuine frustrations and concerns" over the way the day's business was conducted.

"This was a very difficult situation as the way in which matters developed could not have been foreseen," the Speaker wrote.

"I made my decision aware that I would be unlikely to satisfy all parts of the Chamber.

"Having taken legal and procedural advice it was clear to me that my role is in relation to the procedures of the Assembly, not the procedures of the Executive."

He continued: "Seeking a recall for a specified piece of business is a measure not to be taken lightly but it is for Ministers to ensure that the procedures of the Executive are met in doing so, including operating the joint nature of the office.

"My responsibility on receipt of a valid notice under Standing Order 11 was to recall the Assembly for that business to be transacted."

Mr Newton said that as First and deputy First Minsters had jointly asked for the Assembly to be recalled, they would have had to act together to revoke that.

And as Speaker it was for him to ensure the rules of the house were followed and it was for the Executive to ensure ministers were following their own procedures correctly.

"Where it is thought that a Minister has exercised his or her powers inappropriately in bringing a matter to this House, remedies are a available to his or her Executive colleagues.

"It is not for the office of Speaker to deal with Executive procedure."

He added: "While my responsibilities related to the calling of the sitting, in recognising that Members would have concerns about the deputy First Minister's communication, I made my view clear to the First Minister  and deputy First Minister that Members would have an expectation of a joint statement as is normal practice.

"In addition, in the context of these unprecedented circumstances and the short time available, I indicated that I would be content to be notified if the deputy First Minister also wished to make a statement.

"This was to ensure that the concerns of the deputy First Minister could be put on the record given that our procedures did not provide for this scenario."

The Speaker said his decisions were taken given the "specific issues" of the day.

"I do not consider this to set a precedent for the future," he told MLAs.

"Clearly, it would have been better if the Assembly had not been placed in this position by the Executive Office... and I will be raising this further with ministers."

The Executive Office has been asked for a response.

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