Arlene Foster suffers unprecedented DUP backbench rebellion over bill to give ministers more power
Arlene Foster has failed to prevent the largest Stormont rebellion in DUP history, as the ultra-centralised party’s discipline has broken down over her attempt to ram through a bill to give greater powers to individual ministers.
In a sign of the First Minister’s weakened authority, 11 DUP MLAs actively abstained – by voting in person in both lobbies – this afternoon, despite the imposition of a whip ordering them to vote in favour of a highly significant bill.
The Executive Committee (Functions) Bill has come under fierce criticism from Mrs Foster’s former special adviser, and the former strategic brain of the DUP for most of the last two decades, Richard Bullick, who had described it as contrary to DUP policy and constitutionally “dangerous.”
The bill was jointly tabled by Mrs Foster and Michelle O’Neill. Ms O’Neill’s support for the bill elicited no surprise because it is in line with longstanding Sinn Féin policy.
However, Mrs Foster’s support for the bill – and her inability to answer some of the central criticisms being made by Mr Bullick – increasingly unnerved many DUP members, especially when it was revealed that Mrs Foster had based her support for the bill on an erroneous belief that any three ministers could call a major decision into the Executive, something which Mr Bullick highlighted was “nonsense”.
In the final vote before the Assembly rises for the summer, MLAs overwhelmingly passed the bill into law by 58 votes to 13.
However, both the scale of the DUP rebellion and the identity of some of the rebels was extraordinary and point to deep unease within the party over Mrs Foster’s judgement and attention to detail.
Of the DUP’s 27 MLAs, five are ministers and two are whips, meaning that they were bound by their positions to support the legislation.
That means that of the remaining 20 DUP MLAs more than half rebelled.
And among the DUP rebels were a party officer – the party secretary, Michelle McIlveen, and Paula Bradley, who has been supportive of Mrs Foster’s leadership.
Remarkably veteran North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey also joined the rebels – just 24 hours after he had been one of three DUP speakers in the Assembly arguing against UUP MLA Doug Beattie’s attempt to amend the bill to limit the power shift to ministers.
Speaking after the vote, former veteran DUP MLA Jim Wells - who as an independent voted against the bill - told the News Letter that it was “the largest rebellion in the party’s history at Stormont”.
The South Down MLA said that “it could be one of the most significant votes taken at Stormont in 20 years”.
Mr Bullick has argued that the bill directly contradicts the core DUP policy behind the St Andrews Agreement which was designed to limit the power of individual ministers and give the Executive an “expansionist” authority to block many of their decisions, a mechanism carefully constructed and then bolstered by case law in an attempt to prevent any repeat of Martin McGuinness’s unilateral abolition of the Eleven Plus in 2002.
The former DUP spad – who has not spoken out against the leadership since leaving politics in 2017 – said that Mrs Foster was weakening the safeguards which he and the then DUP leadership had crafted - and did not even appear to understand that she was doing so.
Speaking during today’s debate - for which Mrs Foster did not even appear - Mr Wells said that after 46 years in the DUP he knew the party’s internal machinery.
He told MLAs: “I know there was no consultation with the largest party in this chamber until yesterday morning. There was no discussion on it whatsoever until one member - one prominent member - pleaded with the chief whip to have a meeting and that was denied.
“It was only when several members of the party pleaded for a meeting that a meeting was held yesterday morning at half 10.”
Gesturing to the silent DUP benches, Mr Wells said: “Please feel free to contradict me if that’s not true”.
With no response, he went on: “Now, at that meeting there was a lot of concern expressed - as a lot of concern has been expressed to me from members right across the board...there was a very intense discussion but what happened was that assurances were given by those involved that legally this legislation was an enhancement of the St Andrews Agreement, rather than something that weakened the St Andrews Agreement.
“And on the basis of that verbal assurance, people have allowed themselves to be whipped to go into the lobbies to vote for something that they are extremely unhappy with - but are scared to say so.”
Today’s debate raised further questions about why the first and deputy first ministers insisted in rushing the bill through the Assembly in just 25 days from the point at which the legislation was published.
Their only argument for that speed was that major planning decisions had to be taken and the law was necessary to allow those to be taken without being open to legal challenge.
However, during this afternoon’s debate, junior minister Declan Kearney admitted that those planning decisions could not be taken regardless of whether the bill passed today because there will also have to be a change to the ministerial code, which will have to be voted on by the Assembly.
Mr Kearney told MLAs that it would be autumn before that could happen, meaning that it would be autumn or winter before those planning decisions can be made.
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford, Mrs Foster’s most loyal supporter in the Assembly, was dismissive of the warnings from Mr Bullick and others. He said that the bill was short and received appropriate scrutiny.
The South Belfast MLA insisted that the changes secured at St Andrews would not be undermined by the bill, which he said was “completely consistent with St Andrews”. He said that the government acted on legal advice from the Attorney General and the Departmental Solicitor’s Office. Referring to MLAs who have repeated conflicting legal opinions from Mr Bullick and other lawyers, Mr Stalford said they were free to do so but said: “If we question the validity of that advice, we are effectively saying that we should abolish those offices. What is the point of their existence, if we simply decide that we prefer the advice of someone else outside of [Stormont]?”
In an impassioned speech, UUP MLA Doug Beattie said it was a mistake to suggest that because the bill was short it had received sufficient scrutiny.
He said: “This bill is bad legislation, and there are people in the Assembly who know that it is bad legislation and are still going to vote for it. Shame on them.
“It has not been scrutinised to the level that it should have been. MLAs have not had the opportunity to question all the experts about it. We do not know the effects of the legislation in the medium to long term. No idea.”
Alliance’s Andrew Muir said that the bill was necessary to prevent the Executive becoming “the de facto planning authority for Northern Ireland”.
Defending the level of scrutiny, he said: “I think we’ve done enough thinking about things here in Northern Ireland; I think we need to start taking decisions”.
The SDLP’s Mathew O’Toole said that the bill was necessary to allow for major planning decisions. However, he said “that is not to say that this bill or the process surrounding it has been ideal” and accepted there were “legitimate criticisms” of the bill.
Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan said that he agreed with Mr Stalford that the issues had all been debated and they should move forward with making the bill law.
The SDLP’s Colin McGrath, chairman of the Assembly committee which spent just 11 minutes scrutinising the bill, said it was a “sensible” proposal which would “stop paralysis” in the Executive. He added: “Some might not like to cede a little power...I want to see action; I want to see activity; I want to see autonomy where appropriate”.
Green MLA Rachel Woods said there was significant uncertainty about what the bill meant or how some of the terms within it would be interpreted.
She asked why, if the bill as crucial and urgent as claimed by the Executive, it has taken seven months to come to the Assembly and had not even featured in the New Decade New Approach deal – despite the Executive argument that it had been necessary since a 2018 court decision.
She said there were “far too many concerns, and far too few answers” about the bill.
People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll said the bill was being pushed through “at breakneck speed”. He said: “What have the Executive learned from the RHI scandal? It would be too kind to say they have learned nothing; this Bill makes future scandals like RHI all the more likely.”
The full list of DUP MLAs who rebelled by abstaining:
* More to follow.
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