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Terrorists given red carpet as democrats get red card

As a single MLA among 108, I certainly do not expect to be called in every debate, but I do seek fair play. You can tell a lot about the Assembly by how it treats its minorities.

It seems if you are a convicted terrorist, you can expect the red carpet at Stormont, but if you dare to challenge the political consensus, the red card is more likely.

Many have rightly said that Stormont desperately needs an Opposition. Five months on from the election and still no Programme for Government, not a single proposal for legislation and no government business debated this month, who could disagree with the need for change?

Yet, if it can't cope with one voice of opposition, how would it ever handle an Opposition? This Stormont has a long way to travel before it embraces the basics of democracy; even its Business Committee contains only Government MLAs.

There is something of the politburo approach to holding debates in which only Government MLAs are called to speak. Yet this happens.

It was the recent important debate on the absence of a Programme for Government which brought me into conflict with the powers-that-be. I protested that only Government MLAs were allowed to speak. I did so, not on some irrational basis, but on the fact that Standing Order 17(5) requires speakers to be called having due regard to 'the balance of opinion on the matter, the party strengths in the Assembly and the number of members who have indicated a desire to speak'.

With 105 MLAs supportive of the Government, of course they will dominate the speaking list, but how can 'balance of opinion' be obtained by shutting out 'the opposition'?

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How, therefore, I asked, could you debate an issue such as the Programme for Government and not allow a single opposition voice to be heard? Was that such an unreasonable query? Last month we saw energy issues debated, but again only government MLAs were called to speak. In OFMDFM Questions, it seems difficult to get called if you are not from a Government party.

Last month I should have had an opportunity to put an oral question to the co-First Ministers asking why their department needed eight special advisers. It was a question specific to OFMDFM and was accepted by the business office.

At the last minute, to avoid giving an oral answer, the Executive - not the business office - transferred the question to the Department of Finance and Personnel. There is nothing in Standing Orders or business office guidance which provides for such interference. Yet it happened and, sadly, the Speaker washed his hands of it.

Last Tuesday, when I was called to question the First Minister on his recent US trip, I drew the wrath of the Speaker for attempting to introduce my question with a little levity and ended up gagged for a week. What was wrong with jocularly asking the First Minister was it something he said or did in the US which caused his partner, McGuinness, to seek alternative employment? I've no idea why that should offend the Speaker, or his perception of the rules, but it clearly did and I was banned. It's better to be dour.

But there is a serious point at the heart of this suppression of the unwanted voice. It speaks to the very nature of the present artificial structures. If they're not robust, or tolerant enough to embrace dissent or an alternative view, then how will they ever build the inclusive society they purport to seek?

I believe I have a contribution to make both by speaking in the Assembly and through the issues I have highlighted by the use of Written Questions. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I have a viewpoint - and constituents - entitled to be heard. Whether I, and they, are allowed to be heard depends on the capacity for toleration of dissent by those who control what they see as the brave new Northern Ireland.

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