At Westminster and most other legislatures, the performance of the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions is seen as a key barometer of the leader’s performance.
Until this week, Stormont has had no equivalent.
Yet a very limited move towards a proper question time has shown how challenging it can be — even for an experienced and able politician such as Peter Robinson facing MLAs who in many cases are not known for their incisive questioning.
Though he may have thought the exchange worked in his favour, and many of the MLAs surrounding Mr Robinson in the chamber were shaking with laughter as Mr Allister protested at the First Minister’s allegations about the will of his late brother-in-law, one veteran DUP figure said privately yesterday: “The longer it goes on, the less funny it becomes.”
For years, question time at Stormont has been a fairly turgid affair, with questions submitted weeks in advance so that civil servants could draft vast replies for ministers to read. In an attempt to rectify the problem, MLAs agreed to change the rules so that as well as the 30 minutes of scripted questions and answers there would be 15 minutes of spontaneous questions.
Monday was the first time that the First Minister was facing such “topical questions”. He is unlikely to have been thrilled that the first MLA randomly chosen to question him was Jim Allister. Mr Robinson’s response to a fairly predictable question about his Maze “U-turn” was to deny that abandoning the Maze peace centre was a U-turn.
Then, after Mr Allister asked a supplementary question about what the Maze money would now be spent on, Mr Robinson alleged that the TUV leader “secretly... as the executor of a will, is selling land to republicans in Co Fermanagh to benefit his own family”.
Mr Allister immediately rejected what he described as a “malicious falsehood” and said he was neither the will’s executor nor its named beneficiary.
It is true that in border areas — and elsewhere — some Protestant families would not sell land to Catholics. The DUP believed that there was unease within the TUV in Fermanagh about the sale of the land and sought to exacerbate that by making it public.
But, given the limited threat which the TUV would seem to pose to the DUP in Fermanagh (the party took just 2.6 per cent of the vote in the 2011 Assembly election), it would seem that Mr Robinson took a substantial risk for limited reward — even if the attack worked.
And the sectarian undertones which many read into his allegations — despite the DUP having clarified that he was not intending to suggest land shouldn’t be sold to Catholics or republicans — is utterly at odds with his attempt to make the DUP appealing to Catholic voters.
Opinion in the DUP is divided on the issue. Some of those close to the First Minister saw the attack as a direct hit on their nemesis, and brushed aside the inaccuracies in Mr Robinson’s initial allegation about Mr Allister having been the executor of the will.
But others in the party are uneasy and think that Mr Robinson is taking unnecessary risks because his position is under pressure.
Whatever the long-term implications for the DUP, that first topical question and its answer means that next week there will be increased focus on the Assembly chamber.
And not just because Jim Allister has been chosen to ask the fourth question to Martin McGuinness.