Mike Nesbitt: Ministers subvert democracy when they bypass the Assembly

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt MLA. Presseye pic
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt MLA. Presseye pic

There is no question that Tuesday was a bad day for democracy in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

First and foremost, when the Executive has something important to say, the Assembly should be first to know, and Executive ministers have been admonished in the past for rushing to the media, instead of giving their peers their place by making a statement on the floor of the chamber.

It is now clear this will not happen with the most important document the Executive will publish this mandate, the Programme for Government (PfG).

Even if the Draft PfG were to be published today, the eight weeks of consultation that follow will take us beyond the start of Christmas Recess, and if they stick to the schedule of the Executive agreeing the final PfG by the end of the calendar year, the Assembly will be the last to know.

It also makes life extremely difficult for the Statutory Committees, who shadow each Executive Ministry with a statutory duty to “assist and advise” Ministers.

The Committee of the Executive Office (formerly the Committee of OFMdFM) traditionally compiles and analyses responses from all the statutory committees.

It will now be very difficult to do that within the timeframe.

It is yet another example in a long list of disrespectful actions which show contempt for the devolved institutions. However, it tops the list as it is the Programme for Government where the Executive details its commitments for the next four and a half years.

Furthermore, it was a bad day for democracy with the Executive clearly assessing the Nolan Show is a better platform than the Assembly Chamber to reveal correspondence about discussions on Northern Ireland’s future prosperity.

The DUP chose a radio programme to reveal the response from the Prime Minister to the letter which the first ministers sent last August regarding Brexit.

This was doubly disrespectful, given that the Assembly had debated Brexit the day before and the letter had been received on Friday last.

A reasonable person might conclude that that debate was the ideal opportunity to inform the Assembly of the UK Government’s response.

But maybe the First Ministers were embarrassed the PM sent separate, but identical letters to Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness, reflecting the Executive’s inability to present a united front on Brexit.

A divided house has no leverage in negotiations, something that will soon come home to roost.

Then, later on Tuesday, the Executive attempted to close down Opposition Day.

The Sinn Fein Health minister’s attempt to muddy the waters before the debate on the deterioration of cancer services was a shocking diversion tactic.

It is totally unacceptable to seek to play politics on such a serious issue which affects so many of our citizens.

In fact, it is a disgrace, especially given the fact Tom Elliott MP revealed that almost half of emergency funding allocated to tackle waiting lists was spent on other priorities.

This Executive is on the run from the issues most important to the people of Northern Ireland and prefer to stick their heads in the sand.

The DUP and Sinn Fein may wish to hide behind their new spin doctor, but we will work with the SDLP to ensure the Opposition will make sure that they have nowhere to hide their many shortcomings.

• Mike Nesbitt MLA is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party