Analysis: NAMA inquiry a big challenge to a timid Assembly

The NAMA scandal is an enormous challenge - and opportunity - for Stormont
The NAMA scandal is an enormous challenge - and opportunity - for Stormont

The Assembly is the subject of massive criticism, some of which is unfair, but much of which is entirely justified.

For a while, senior DUP and Sinn Fein figures complained about media “negativity” and suggested that with a better spin operation its public image would improve.

Yet despite a small army of press officers, the Executive and Assembly now have the sort of reputation that if Stormont was an individual it would probably struggle to sustain a libel action because a jury would be unlikely to believe that it had much of a reputation.

Yet the inquiry which the Assembly’s finance committee has just established into what is currently the most pressing matter of public interest – the NAMA deal scandal – provides the perfect opportunity for MLAs to demonstrate the value of a devolved Assembly.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the committee, chairman Daithi McKay secured the unanimous support of members for a proposal to compel any witness who refuses to attend the committee’s inquiry.

Assembly committees have robust powers to summon witnesses and documents. Section 44 of the Northern Ireland Act gives the Assembly (in reality, really its committees) the power to require any person “to attend its proceedings for the purpose of giving evidence” or “to produce documents in his custody or under his control”. That power is backed up by similar provisions in Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and in the Assembly’s Standing Orders.

Yet, remarkably, 15 years after the creation of this Stormont Assembly, not a single committee has ever used its powers to compel witnesses.

Recently, the social development committee threatened to use the power to compel a document about an internal civil service inquiry into DUP Spad Stephen Brimstone, but backed down when only part of the document was produced.

That stands as a weak and fairly embarrassing contrast to the way in which Rupert Murdoch – one of the world’s most powerful men – was summoned against his will to Parliament to account for the actions of some of his staff during the crisis over phone hacking.

The NAMA scandal is an enormous challenge to Stormont, with the potential to cripple its legitimacy with the public. It is unlikely that all of those involved in this complex situation will voluntarily give their full cooperation to MLAs.

But it is also an opportunity for a heretofore timid Assembly to show that it has teeth – and that it is prepared to bare them.