RHI scandal: Major rebellion as parties cast doubt on speaker’s ability

Robin Newton had been guilty of 'months of poor decisions' said SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
Robin Newton had been guilty of 'months of poor decisions' said SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

The speaker of the Stormont Assembly is facing a remarkable rebellion from among the MLAs he is supposed to govern, with the vast bulk of Opposition MLAs now voicing doubt about his leadership capabilities.

Robin Newton has faced intense pressure since chairing a shambolic special session of the Assembly on Monday into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.

Robin Newton

Robin Newton

Now parties representing exactly a third of all MLAs have openly asked him to quit, or at least stated that he should think about it.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (in charge of 16 of the Assembly’s 108 MLAs) had said on Monday Mr Newton should “reflect” upon whether he was the man to lead the Assembly.

On Wednesday he toughened his stance and explicitly called for him to quit after Christmas.

The News Letter then asked the SDLP (with 12 MLAs) for their position.

A spokesman responded that they had sent a similar letter to Mr Nesbitt’s, asking him to “consider his position”.

Leader Colum Eastwood said that “months of poor decisions” had “left confidence in, and the authority of, the speaker in tatters”.

The Alliance Party (eight MLAs) meanwhile said: “We have had a number of concerns over the impartiality of the Assembly speaker over the past number of months.

“He needs to reflect on this situation and determine whether he thinks he is capable of carrying out the functions of his role.”

The Assembly is supposed to be in recess for Christmas, but MLAs were last week told that they should prepare to attend on Monday, so that a statement about RHI from the first and deputy first ministers could be heard.

Much of the criticism of Mr Newton centres on his decision to allow Arlene Foster to deliver a statement to a specially convened session of the Assembly, without the approval of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

After it became clear that Mr McGuinness did not back the statement, MLAs of all political stripes got to their feet to question on what basis proceedings could continue.

It was put to the speaker that the rules of the Assembly allow it to be recalled if there was a ministerial statement, not merely a “personal one”.

It was also pointed out that, under the Good Friday Agreement, the office of first and deputy first minister is a joint one – and so it was claimed that allowing Mrs Foster to give a statement without the backing of her partner ran contrary to the whole principle of power-sharing.

In response the speaker repeated, at least eight times, that he had “discharged my responsibilities” on the matter – an answer which failed to satisfy MLAs.

He said since the first and deputy first ministers had exercised their powers jointly to recall the Assembly, “any revocation of that act must, similarly, be undertaken jointly”.

Mr Nesbitt noted that the speaker had declared that in the absence of an agreed statement from the first and deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness (or some other unspecified person acting on his behalf) could make a different statement of his own.

In his letter to Mr Newton, (written on Tuesday and circulated publicly on Wednesday) Mr Nesbitt said this decision “risked undermining” the joint nature of the Executive Office, representing “a grave error of judgment”.

He concluded: “On that basis, and bearing in mind other incidents that do not require rehearsal in this letter, I regret to say you have lost the confidence of the Ulster Unionist Party.”

In response to the fact the so many parties – led by Mike Nesbitt’s UUP – have made their lack of confidence in him public, the speaker himself was tight-lipped.

A statement from him, issued via the Assembly, said: “The Speaker intends to reply directly to Mr Nesbitt in the New Year.”

When the put to him that it was not just Mr Nesbitt who was dissatisfied with his performance, but also the SDLP and the Alliance Party, no response was received.

Mr Newton is a DUP MLA for East Belfast, but the role of speaker demands that he abandons his party mantle when in the speaker’s chair.

The News Letter asked Sinn Fein, the DUP’s partner in government, whether it had confidence in Mr Newton, but no statement was recieved at time of writing.

In a letter seeking to explain his decision-making on Monday, Mr Newton said a scenario whereby the leaders jointly recalled the Assembly, but then failed to agree a joint message to tell MLAs, was “clearly not contemplated” by those who had drawn up the Assembly’s rules.

He said it can fall to speakers to make “difficult judgements” about how to proceed.

Mr Newton was under fierce scrutiny last month over his links to UDA-connected (and taxpayer-funded) group Charter NI.

It was revealed that in the weeks before he became speaker he had tried to obtain PSNI money to fund the organisation.

Mr Newton later apologised for having blocked an Assembly question about Charter NI, without having declared his interest.