Today at the Assembly

Local theatres have begun to rehearse their festive pantomimes, but after a long break, politicians at Parliament Buildings today stepped back into the Assembly chamber to put on their own show.

With more than 1,000 days to put their house in order and figure out how restore a stable legislative assembly, the matinee’s start time was put back an hour to 1pm while the Speaker’s office took legal advice.

A couple of sets of actors failed to turn up, with the Sinn Féin and Alliance benches remaining completely empty along with Greens and People Before Profit. On the way into the Stormont grounds, those MLAs participating would have passed numerous protest and counter-protest groups holding up banners, polystyrene letters and plastic foetuses.

The performance in the Assembly chamber was triggered by pressure from the main churches who on 30 September issued a statement encouraging the reestablishment of devolved institutions before 21 October.

For an issue that supposedly blurred green and orange lines, the DUP were doing all the shouting.

Three weeks and a recall petition signed by 31 unionists later, Robin Newton found himself back in the Speaker’s chair in front of a half full house, reprising a role he’s tried to give up but can’t shake off as no one can be found to take his place.

Today’s delay was triggered by a last minute rabbit that the TUV and DUP members pulled out of their collective sleeve, a wheeze supported by legal advice from the Attorney General – whom Paul Givan described as “the guardian of the law” – that would have allowed a Private Members Bill (the Defence of the Unborn Child Act 2019) to be rushed through all its stages if Standing Orders could be suspended. [A letter from Paul Givan to the Attorney General dated 20 June 2019 which includes a draft bill, then titled the Protection of the Unborn Child Act 2019, suggests that this last minute intervention came after months of planning.]

Like a rather mellow Wizard of Oz, Robin Newton helpfully indicated that there were two paths by which members could introduce this piece of as-yet untabled legislation today. But the successful election of a new speaker was fundamental to either option. He also opined that legislating in haste was ill-advised.

Paul Givan, Edwin Poots, Jim Allister and Arlene Foster raised points of order that pursued an alternative yellow brick road supported by the NI Attorney General John Larkin. His legal advice had been shared with the Speaker’s Office earlier this morning.

MLAs parried with the Speaker in a forthright exchange of Oh yes you will / Oh no I won’t as the DUP asked for a further adjournment to allow the Speaker to share his own Assembly legal advice – necessary “from an equality of arms point of view” according to the former First Minister Arlene Foster – and to have time to listen to the Attorney General who was “in the building”.

Newton quietly stood his ground with none of the histrionics one would have expected from a Commons speaker faced with a barrage of speculative “What if” questions preempting parliamentary situations that had yet to happen.

“This could have been dealt with at any point over the last thousand years” offered Colum Eastwood. His misspoken time period was both wrong and right.

Eventually, the DUP realised that the Speaker’s script was not going to be rewritten, and Paul Givan indicated that his party colleagues would take no further part in the pantomime that they had staged.

But not before a couple more political speeches were snuck in as points of order, something the Speaker tolerated and made no attempt to shut down. And after their leader spoke to underscore the life and death issue at stake, the DUP members filed out stage right.

At some point in the previous quarter of an hour, the SDLP members had also vanished from their benches.

Just eleven members remained in the chamber (10 UUP and independent Claire Sugden) as UUP leader Robin Swann rose to say that absent members “devalue democracy”. In light of today’s fiasco, he called on the Secretary of State to implement five party intensive talks to consider “if this place has any future”.

Those negotiations of course would be in addition to the intensive talks process that has allegedly been running throughout the summer, and indeed, most of the preceding 1,000 days according to successive Secretaries of State, so many, no one can remember all their names and the order in which they served.

Political theatre goers will be relieved that the UUP have kyboshed their own petition for the Assembly to sit again tomorrow to debate the pressures and challenges on key public services.

Somewhat ominously, Swann said “I don’t think tomorrow will be going ahead”. I didn’t think the effect of the collapse of the institutions was quite that bad …

Somewhat mercifully, the UUP unhooked the rope and allowed the curtain to fall on proceedings as the Speaker (hu)manfully read out his parts in the script to elect a new Speaker (no one was nominated) and Deputy Speakers.

It’s been called a stunt, a sham, a pantomime and an omnishambles. The hijacking of the order paper was certainly not that well thought out or ever likely to succeed.

Yet it passes for devolved politics in Northern Ireland. An attempt to legally shoehorn an unseen bill through an Assembly full of tumbleweed in a single day in order to frustrate aspects of Westminster legislation that would still have gone live tonight anyway.

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