Analysis: McGuinness’s welfare claim betrays his disdain for the Assembly

Martin McGuinness
Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness probably meant his welfare reform article to hurt the UUP — and particularly Sinn Fein’s rivals, the SDLP — but it inadvertently gives an insight into how the Deputy First Minister views the Assembly.

Referring to the UUP and SDLP attempts to amend the Welfare Reform Bill — amendments which were voted down by the DUP and Sinn Fein — Mr McGuinness argued that the smaller Executive parties should have “agreed” their amendments with the other signatories to the Stormont House Agreement.

The Deputy First Minister said that the UUP and SDLP “were never interested in agreed amendments, only in scoring political points”.

There is little doubt that the two smaller parties were attempting to score points against their rivals — that is a core part of politics.

But Mr McGuinness’s suggestion that amendments to legislation should only be allowed to pass if they have been agreed in secret by the Executive parties shows extraordinary disdain for the legislature.

In all the democratic systems of government across the British Isles, the government brings its proposals to the legislature where any member can attempt to improve the proposed law.

In the House of Commons, it is not uncommon for a governing party to face attempts to change its bills from its own benches.

And of course for ‘opposition’ members of the legislature, that is the only opportunity which they have to have their say on a piece of legislation.

In that way, the legislature is a check on the Executive.

The overwhelming dominance of the DUP and Sinn Fein has led both parties to sometimes behave as if the Assembly is irrelevant.

Mr McGuinness’s comments give the impression that the real work of legislating should go on in private, not in public where the public can judge how their representatives behave.

It is telling that in the lengthy article Mr McGuinness did not once mention the MLA who tabled the most amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill — Green MLA Steven Agnew, who made 25 proposals to change the legislation.

As an ‘opposition’ MLA, he had no chance to “agree” amendments with the Executive.

The logic of Mr McGuinness’s argument and Sinn Fein’s actions is that Mr Agnew’s amendments were voted down by Sinn Fein not because they were wrong, but because they were not “agreed” in private.

UUP hits back at welfare ‘rant’ from McGuinness