There were farcical scenes in the Assembly yesterday evening as the chamber was left speakerless after a DUP MLA ruled that there should be no debate on a motion of no confidence in his DUP colleague Robin Newton, the Speaker.
An astonishing and chaotic situation developed whereby MLAs remained in the chamber for around 10 minutes – some, such as Eamonn McCann, heckling loudly – while no one sat in the Speaker’s chair.
The situation arose after an abrupt end to a debate on a motion of no confidence in the Speaker, Robin Newton.
The motion had been brought by Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy, who spoke at some length as he introduced the item of business, but then – to the chamber’s surprise – said that he would not be formally “moving” the motion.
It had already been decided that Mr Newton, a DUP MLA, could not chair proceedings due to his obvious conflict of interest, while it is understood that none of his deputy speakers – drawn from other parties – would agree to chair the debate.
That meant that a temporary speaker was put in place, with DUP veteran Lord Morrow, as the longest-serving member, chosen for the task.
After Mr Murphy said that he was not moving the motion, Lord Morrow said that the debate therefore could not proceed.
Lord Morrow took two points of order, with Alliance MLAs Stephen Farry and Stewart Dickson arguing that there was a precedent whereby if an MLA made a speech about their motion it was considered “moved”, even if they did not formally use that word.
Lord Morrow rejected that argument, made clear that he would not be accepting further points of order and left the chamber.
There then followed a period of bizarre parliamentary anarchy, with the live Assembly television stream still running – because the sitting had not been suspended – and MLAs shouting across the chamber with no one to call order.
Eventually, SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, a deputy speaker, took the chair and, seemingly unhappy at the situation he had been left to sort, said that he was there “because of the absolute mess we have arrived at”, adding: “There are a lot of issues and questions to be dealt with in a serious manner without the tomfoolery that has been happening here”.
Mr McGlone proposed that the Assembly be suspended for more than half an hour so that procedural advice could be taken, something which the MLAs present agreed should happen.
Eventually, the Assembly reconvened about an hour later with another deputy speaker, the UUP’s Danny Kennedy, in the chair.
He indicated that Lord Morrow had been wrong to halt the debate. However, he also made clear that the rulings of the Speaker – even if that was a temporary speaker – were final, so could not be overturned.
Mr Kennedy also criticised how Mr Murphy had acted, saying that “by convention, when a member no longer wishes to put a motion before the Assembly, he should say ‘not moved’, giving a short explanation to the House.
“It is very regrettable that Mr Murphy did not observe the substance of that convention this evening when he was called to move the motion. However, the temporary Speaker ruled that the motion was not moved. He has made his ruling, and it is not in order to challenge it.”
That incensed many MLAs, and in particular People Before Profit’s Eamonn McCann who loudly protested that the situation was perverse.
He said: “Reason cries out against that idea. It cannot be true. It cannot be the situation, because the implication of that is that, no matter what the Speaker, Deputy Speaker or acting Speaker does, we simply must accept it.”
Then, battling with Mr Kennedy who interjected to call him to order, an exasperated Mr McCann said: “Disgraceful. It makes a mockery of the House. What is the point of our being here?
“What is the point of our being here if we cannot discuss a matter...”
Mr McCann also suggested that Lord Morrow may have “pulled the plug” on the debate of no confidence in Mr Newton because it may have “suited him personally” or “suited his party”.
That was challenged by DUP MLAs Peter Weir, Trevor Clarke and Gordon Lyons during 15 minutes of heated points of order.
Mr Weir asked whether it was “in order for a member to question the integrity of the Chair and the motivation behind which he made a decision”.
Eventually, Assembly business moved on, with Mr Kennedy saying that the Speaker himself would look into the situation, although he noted the problems with that, given his personal involvement in the motion which had sparked the extraordinary scenes.