Crucial ‘veto’ claim now dropped by Arlene Foster, leaked DUP note shows as vote on key bill looms

Amid growing opposition outside the party, not a single DUP member has spoken out to question the party’s support for a bill which Arlene Foster’s former key advisor has warned would undo a central DUP policy.

By Sam McBride
Monday, 27th July 2020, 7:33 am
Updated Monday, 27th July 2020, 8:51 am
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are jointly attempting to rush the legislation through the Assembly by tomorrow
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are jointly attempting to rush the legislation through the Assembly by tomorrow

Today MLAs will vote on amendments to the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill which Mrs Foster and Michelle O’Neill are ramming through the Assembly at such speed that by tomorrow it is likely to need only Royal Assent before becoming law.

The bill, which emerged from nowhere just 24 days ago, would reduce the areas in which ministers’ power is constrained by the Executive as a whole.

Last night the Ulster Unionists and the TUV made clear that they would be voting for amendments tabled by UUP MLA Doug Beattie – but the DUP gave no hint that it would consider doing likewise.

Last night Mrs Foster’s former advisor Richard Bullick published an internal DUP briefing note on the bill.

Strikingly, the note did not repeat a claim by Mrs Foster and senior DUP MLA Christopher Stalford that people should be reassured because despite the bill giving more power to individual ministers, any three ministers could force a decision by another minister to be brought to the Executive where it could be blocked.

For more than a week, the News Letter has been asking the DUP to explain whether Mrs Foster stands over the claim or accepts that it is nonsense and the party has repeatedly refused to address the question.

The fact that Mrs Foster now does not appear to even be attempting to persuade her own MLAs on that point implies that she accepts there is no such power.

However, in a point-by-point rebuttal of the DUP briefing note, Mr Bullick said of the disappearance of the ‘three ministers’ claim: “Crucially at the time the bill was originally being drafted it is clear that the existence of this additional safeguard was the rock on which the new clauses were founded.”

From soon after he joined the DUP in 2000 until his departure in 2017, Mr Bullick was the key DUP backroom strategist and the man trusted with writing some of Mrs Foster’s most important speeches, including her address to the Assembly over RHI as her career hung in the balance in December 2016.

The briefing note which he published shows the party arguing that the bill just “clarifies” in legislation the post-St Andrews Agreement requirement on ministers to bring so-called ‘cross-cutting’ issues – which cut across another ministers’ responsibilities – to the Executive and that the bill was based on “extensive and senior legal advice”.

Mr Bullick said it “clarifies in the sense of re-writes” that provision, setting “a higher bar than previously existed, meaning fewer issues will be required to come to the Executive”.

The DUP note also argued that the bill just reflected the reality of what had gone on in past Executives. But Mr Bullick said that missed the crucial point that just because most decisions were not called into the Executive did not mean that the DUP did not value the power to call in any major decision.

Witheringly, Mr Bullick said: “One need not be a senior practicing lawyer to recognise that the argument made in the briefing note is directly contradicted by the facts”.

TUV leader Jim Allister said that if the amendments did not pass, then a petition of concern should be tabled to force a cross-community vote on the final stage of the bill tomorrow.

Recounting how significant the changes at St Andrews had been in the DUP’s persuasion of many party members that they should share power with Sinn Féin, he said: “It is precisely because the ramifications of this bill needed to be teased out in a proper committee stage that I voted against accelerated passage of this legislation. Sadly, I was the only unionist do so. Now, the horse has bolted.”

Mr Allister, who is on holiday because Stormont was due to be in recess at this point before voting to extend its sitting, said that he had given authority for Mr Beattie to cast his vote in favour of the amendments – something possible under the rules brought in by the Assembly to deal with the pandemic.

Writing in today’s News Letter, Mr Beattie said that his amendments are “measured and realistic”, and would help to “curtail the worst excesses of ministers who will use this bill to promote their own agendas for specific ideological aims”.

He said that it was “absolute madness” for the DUP to be endorsing a bill which weakens the control of the Executive over individual ministers.

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