Enterprise Minister Bell defends brief return to office

Jonathan Bell broke the DUP boycott to secure the passage of credit union legislation
Jonathan Bell broke the DUP boycott to secure the passage of credit union legislation

Jonathan Bell has defended his decision to break the DUP’s boycott of Assembly business to secure the passage of credit union legislation – a day after Health Minister Simon Hamilton refused to break the boycott to respond to questions about a crisis in cancer waiting times.

Mr Bell was on Tuesday morning reappointed by Peter Robinson as Enterprise Minister for a few hours so that he could secure the second stage of the Credit Unions and Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Bill and the further consideration stage of the Insolvency (Amendment) Bill.

The only debate was on the credit union bill, which aims to allow a modest expansion of credit union activities, with corporate bodies allowed to join credit unions and will remove the current requirement on industrial and provident societies to only offer services to those over 16 years of age.

The bill itself received widespread support around the chamber, but there was considerable criticism of the minister’s actions in constantly resigning from office.

UUP MLA Adrian Cochrane-Watson sarcastically told Mr Bell that it was “life and death legislation” and added: “I am not sure whether the 373,000 people on the waiting lists for our hospitals would be as excited by the performance of the Assembly today.”

The SDLP’s Fearghal McKinney said that Mr Bell “should be embarrassed, and I am embarrassed for him”.

Mr Bell hit back: “I will spend a minute responding to the many minutes of criticism. Shamefully, nobody mentioned the murder of Kevin McGuigan when those criticisms were made. Those who think that citizens can be murdered on the streets and that, with the PSNI assessment, we can carry on with business as usual are deluding themselves and not serving the interests of jobs and employment in Northern Ireland.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said of the DUP tactic: “With each resignation and reappointment their policy is seen to reach a greater level of absurdity.”