The Assembly speaker has broken Assembly rules on electioneering – just weeks after the legislature for which he is the ambassador reminded MLAs not to do so.
Robin Newton – who under a quirk of Assembly rules remains the legislature’s impartial speaker yet is currently campaigning to be re-elected as a DUP MLA – has been displaying a party poster in the front window of the constituency office.
It is the latest in a series of incidents which had led to MLAs questioning Mr Newton’s judgment.
Last month he faced an unprecedented no confidence vote in the chamber, with a majority of MLAs lining up against him, but it fell on a technicality after Sinn Fein declined to move the motion.
The prominent display of the poster means that under Assembly rules Mr Newton is unable to claim any public money for the office.
The Independent Financial Review Panel, the body which MLAs asked to set the rules for their salaries and expenses, ruled that in order to claim public funds for a constituency office during an election period “no party political posters shall be displayed as to be visible from the outside of the constituency office”.
Just last month, the Assembly issued guidance to every MLA on what they can and cannot do during an election campaign.
The guidance reminded MLAs that the justification behind claiming public money for a constituency office is that it solely be used for their work as a public representative.
It said: “The overarching purpose of the expenses provisions of the determination is to assist members in meeting expenses that have actually been incurred by a member in connection with the exercise of a member’s functions.
“Members are also again reminded that costs incurred as a consequence of activities which may be deemed as being associated with an election campaign or being party political in nature are not admissible as a claim against expenses.
“In this regard, members are particularly reminded of the specific requirements of paragraph 14 (7) of determination relating to rent and rates which states that ‘no expense may be recovered if any party political posters are displayed so as to be visible from the outside of the constituency office’.”
However, when Mr Newton was asked, through the DUP, whether he would voluntarily not claim allowances for his constituency office from the point of dissolution, Mr Newton declined to make that commitment.
Instead, a DUP spokesman said: “Posters were inadvertently placed in the window of Mr Newton’s office but have been removed.”
Mr Newton has also been in breach of another aspect of Assembly expenses guidance of which MLAs were reminded just weeks ago.
In the guidance given to MLAs by the Assembly last month, they were told: “Websites that members have either paid for themselves need not be removed from the web; however, a clear statement must be attached throughout the dissolution period. The statement might say:
‘This website was established while I was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As the Assembly has been dissolved there are no members of the Assembly until after the election on 2 March 2017.’”
However, Mr Newton has continued to describe himself as an MLA on both his Twitter account and his personal website – something which several other former MLAs, including UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (on Twitter) have also done.
In relation to Mr Newton, a DUP spokesman said that “guidance has been issued to all DUP candidates reminding them of the need to ensure social media profiles and websites which use the term MLA follow the correct procedures for election periods”.