Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Assembly farce was insult to electorate

Speaker Robin Newton
Speaker Robin Newton

Editor's Viewpoint

There are no depths, it seems, to which parliamentary democracy can sink in these extraordinary days. With Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments, the scene of shambolic events every time it considers Brexit, it is difficult to believe that any other democratic forum could have a worse image.

Yet the Assembly at Stormont managed to create one yesterday. It had not sat for more than 1,000 days as economic, educational, health and infrastructural problems mounted but yesterday was dramatically recalled in an attempt to stop a bill imposed by Westminster liberalising abortion. It is an issue which has caused great division in Northern Ireland society. Irrespective of whether one supports the pro-choice or pro-life lobbies there is no doubt that each point of view are sincerely held by hundreds of thousands of people.

The legislation introducing a liberal abortion regime was made in the absence of the Assembly which was the proper place to debate the issue.

Reconvening the Assembly at the last minute in an attempt to stymie the legislation was always going to end in failure. Worse, it ended in farce from which no one, with the honourable exception of the Speaker, emerged with any credit.

The Speaker Robin Newton, a long-time DUP member, stood up courageously to his party - in which senior members were obviously furious - to defend the legal advice he had been given on how proceedings would be run. He refused to play a populist card or bow to pressure and in so doing enhanced the standing of his office.

Yet yesterday was a reminder of what the Assembly was designed for. Had it been sitting during the near three years of its absence the committees could have mitigated economic problems like Harland and Wolff and Wrightbus by holding executives to account; they could have probed what the Department of Health Permanent Secretary meant when he said the NHS is on the edge of a cliff and discovered if additional funding is available for education.

Little wonder that so many people in Northern Ireland now despair of the Assembly ever again functioning in that manner. For more than 1,000 days the two major parties have refused to compromise on a return to Stormont, denying the other parties who are willing the opportunity to do so. There is no issue, it seems, which they deem important enough to act jointly on.

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