Anyone unsure about who was driving the joint DUP-Sinn Fein Planning Bill amendments would have been left in no doubt after watching yesterday’s Assembly exchanges.
For a ministerial announcement which has such significance for the Executive, there were surprisingly few MLAs in the chamber – less than 40 of the 108 MLAs were present when Mark H Durkan took to his feet.
But as the minister spoke, and it became clear that he was pulling the Planning Bill, the DUP’s benches rippled with noise as the party’s MLAs made vocal their displeasure.
Across the chamber, the Sinn Fein MLAs present – there were just five by the time Mr Durkan had finished taking questions –were virtually silent throughout. One Sinn Fein member, Cathal Boylan, asked a fairly neutral question about whether the minister Durkan had got advice from the Attorney General.
But his colleagues around him may as well have been in their offices.
Fra McCann was typing on his Assembly-issue computer, Phil Flanagan appeared to be composing a speech while Mickey Brady seemed on the point of slumber as he reclined in between repeatedly rubbing his eyes.
The DUP’s benches were hardly full – just 13 MLAs were there by the end – but they made their views abundantly clear.
Trevor Clarke’s repeated barracking of the minister and those who praised him earned the DUP man numerous rebukes from the Speaker.
Around him, hostile question after hostile question – many seemingly supplied by DUP chief whip Peter Weir – was directed at the minister from the party’s MLAs.
There was a telling moment when Mr Durkan, after being asked if he had consulted the Executive on the issue, said he had not – but that that was the same level of consultation as had taken place within the DUP and Sinn Fein about the amendments.
Even the boisterous DUP benches fell silent at that point for it had become abundantly clear during the initial debate on the last-minute amendments in June that most of those parties’ MLAs – despite later voting for the amendments – knew little about what was being proposed.
It is understood that shortly before getting to his feet yesterday morning Mr Durkan received a letter from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) saying that if he went ahead in pulling the bill he would be in breach of the ministerial code.
However, within minutes the minister’s department received a second e-mail telling him to disregard what had been said as Sinn Fein had not signed off on what had initially been sent.
There was a suggestion from one DUP source yesterday that the planning amendments had been at the request of a company looking to create massive employment.
Whatever the background, the haste with which the proposals emerged and lack of communication by the DUP and Sinn Fein led many to believe they were a power grab.
While the DUP protested loudly yesterday, they would almost certainly have reacted exactly as the SDLP did had anyone sought to remove powers from one of their departments.
But despite the huge power which the DUP and Sinn Fein wield, this episode illustrates the limits of that influence, not least because of the constant risk of fallouts between those two main parties.