Failure to debate no-confidence motion against speaker ‘disgraceful’

Video grab taken from the Northern Ireland Assembly of Speaker Robin Newton during an Assembly Plenary Session at Stormont in Belfast.  Picture date: Monday January 16, 2017. Photo credit: PA Wire
Video grab taken from the Northern Ireland Assembly of Speaker Robin Newton during an Assembly Plenary Session at Stormont in Belfast. Picture date: Monday January 16, 2017. Photo credit: PA Wire

A failure to debate a scheduled motion of no confidence in Stormont’s Speaker made a mockery of the devolved Assembly, an MLA has said.

People Before Profit member Eamonn McCann questioned the worth of the legislature after a bizarre series of exchanges prevented a debate on Speaker Robin Newton’s handling of recent events in the chamber.

Sinn Fein had initially tabled the motion against under-fire DUP MLA Mr Newton but when it came to kick-off the debate, they unexpectedly withdrew it in protest at the DUP’s use of the contentious petition of concern voting mechanism to ensure it fell.

With Mr Newton and the Assembly’s other lower ranking speakers deciding not to take the chair for the debate, father of the house, DUP MLA Lord Morrow, had assumed the role of temporary speaker.

In response to the Sinn Fein move, Lord Morrow ruled that the debate could not proceed and promptly got up and left the chair.

After a period with an empty chair, SDLP deputy speaker Patsy McGlone then stepped in and temporarily suspended the institutions. After 40 minutes, the sitting resumed with another deputy speaker, UUP MLA Danny Kennedy, presiding.

While questioning the basis of Lord Morrow’s decision, Mr Kennedy insisted it could not be challenged and the debate could therefore not proceed.

Mr McCann reacted furiously.

“What we have had here is someone simply pulling the plug on this debate, whether it was because it suited him personally or it suited his party I don’t know, but it was absolutely improper,” he said.

“The situation we now have is as a result of a petition of concern from the DUP and the fact of the walk-out by Sinn Fein - put the two together and what it means is the minimal powers that we might have had of scrutiny of this matter are taken away from us.”

He added: “It’s disgraceful - makes a mockery of this house. What is the point of us being here, what’s the point of us being here if we can’t discuss a matter that is being talked about in every pub and street.”

Mr Kennedy repeatedly told Mr McCann to be quiet and resume his seat.

“No amount of drama or hysterics is going lend any credence to the argument you make,” he said.

DUP MLA Peter Weir questioned the appropriateness of Mr McCann’s remarks about his party colleague.

“Is it in order for a member to question the integrity of the chair in terms of the motivation that he made a decision on,” he said.

Mr Newton has been under political pressure over his handling of a recalled Assembly session to debate the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal before Christmas.

He has also been forced to defend himself against conflict of interest accusations in regard to his handling of Assembly exchanges on a controversial charity in his east Belfast constituency.

Unexpectedly pulling the motion, Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy still levelled criticism at Mr Newton.

“I would suggest he still has not got the confidence, with the exception of his own party colleagues, of virtually every other MLA of this house,” he said.

Ahead of the debate Mr Newton wrote to all MLAs defending his handling of recent Assembly events.