Transparency and grass-roots democracy are core principles of the Green Party. As such, I was heartened to see that the Northern Ireland Assembly is running a series of public workshops to help the public understand how the Assembly works.
I only hope that these sessions shed light on some of the less than transparent practices that go on up here on the hill, and how they contribute to maintaining power in the hands of the few.
When people vote for a party and see its MLAs elected, they expect those MLAs to represent them and put forward their views. The basic premise of having a democratic Assembly is that all voices should be heard.
In my first term as an MLA, I accepted that as the sole representative for my party, my rights and privileges in the Assembly were limited. I accepted the rules of the game and did not use them as an excuse not to achieve change. I proceeded to pass the Children’s Services Co-operation Act and hold the Executive to account on issues such as welfare reform, equality and environmental protection. But I also determined to grow my party and see more Green MLAs returned to the Assembly.
At the end of May 2016, just after the election which delivered two Green MLAs, the rules of engagement were changed.
The powerful Assembly Business Committee reviewed how speaking rights in the Assembly were decided. Two options were considered. One effectively guaranteed speaking rights to parties with two MLAs, as was the case previously. The second was to reduce the role of two-member parties, meaning Green MLAs have the right to speak only after 52 other MLAs have spoken. DUP and Sinn Féin voted for this, and so it was carried.
This decision effectively allows the DUP/Sinn Féin to shut out a number of parties from debate.
Whilst new provisions enhance the speaking rights of the formal opposition, DUP/Sinn Féin can run down the clock on a debate, making sure alternative voices cannot speak, by using all of their speaking allocations.
The Business Committee meets in private and membership eligibility is unclear. In this case, all I know is that the DUP and Sinn Féin got together and changed the rules.
We were not even afforded the courtesy of being told of their decision, and their rationale has not been explained. This is surely against the spirit of open and transparent government.
The Assembly has the power to set the rules for every aspect of life in our society. There must be public consultation and scrutiny, and every decision is accountable to the Assembly. However, the rules which govern the Assembly itself are not written down and can be changed seemingly on a whim.
In conclusion, there is no real democracy in the Assembly. DUP and Sinn Féin can control who gets to speak and effectively shut out alternative voices. Rest assured the Green Party will continue to shine a light into the real workings and lack of transparency that exists in Government.
Steven Agnew MLA is Leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland