Sam McBride: An astonishing full-frontal assault on the Speaker, weakening him

The speaker at Stormont yesterday morning as the chamber descended into chaos.
Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
The speaker at Stormont yesterday morning as the chamber descended into chaos. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

The tumultuous scenes in the Assembly chamber yesterday morning will have profound implications for the first Stormont mandate with an official Opposition since 1972.

The verbal brutality, the implicit scorn and the open challenge to the Speaker’s authority were jaw-dropping.

Virtually any other Speaker of a legislature facing what Robin Newton faced yesterday would have decided to either expel members from the chamber or to have tendered his resignation.

Mr Newton did neither of those things but, coming so early in his tenure, what happened yesterday is likely to have a devastating impact on his authority which will linger long into this five-year term.

The opposition anger at Mr Newton which erupted into the open yesterday has been quietly building for some time behind the scenes.

In off the record chats, several MLAs have over recent months been quietly grumbling about the Speaker, something which was exacerbated by last month’s revelations about his links to Charter NI – which he has still not definitively set out.

But the threat of punishment – in the form of either being expelled from the chamber or at least not being called in future debates – meant that MLAs were loathe to publicly criticise Mr Newton.

All that changed yesterday during less than an hour at Stormont. MLAs believed that Mr Newton had wrongly allowed Arlene Foster to speak.

Initially, Mr Newton refused to take points of order, but that made things worse, causing them to be rained down on him from around the chamber, along with cries of “shame” and “farce”.

Then MLAs began talking over the Speaker, despite Edwin Poots trying in vain to halt the spiralling situation by saying “show the Speaker some respect”. Hansard, the official report of Assembly proceedings, records a member saying “bye, bye” as Opposition and Sinn Fein walked out.

Then, having suspended the sitting for half an hour, Mr Newton attempted to go in the other direction, allowing multiple points of order for about 20 minutes.

At one point, veteran SDLP MLA Alex Attwood was virtually shouting at Mr Newton as the presiding officer was bombarded with criticism.

Mr Newton’s repeated statement that he had “taken procedural and legal advice” failed to answer several of the questions he was facing.

The fact that, unlike in Westminster or the Dail, the Assembly Speaker does not sever ties with his party (and Mr Newton will have to get Arlene Foster’s permission to stand again as a DUP candidate if he wants to remain an MLA) meant that when facing accusations about such a sensitive matter Mr Newton was immediately at a disadvantage.

It seemed clear that Mr Newton had lost the confidence of the chamber – including that of Sinn Fein, which just six months ago jointly voted him into office.

Whether he now remains even nominally in charge of Assembly business now rests with Sinn Fein and the opposition parties. If they so desire, between them they have the votes to remove him from office.