Not since Michael Stone’s abortive ‘performance art’ attack on Parliament Buildings in 2006, in an attempt to kill myself and Martin McGuinness, has the Assembly chamber cleared more quickly.
Monday’s session of the Assembly was called to order at 11am by the Speaker. He was met by a barrage of ‘points of order’ as one MLA after another, beginning with Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, challenged him on the nature of the Assembly meeting; its legitimacy under standing orders; and the right of the DUP leader Arlene Foster to speak at all given that Martin McGuinness had made it clear she was not speaking as First Minister and with the approval of the Executive Office.
Carál also warned of the potential damage to the integrity of the Office of First and Deputy First Minister if the joined-up nature of that office was breached in the spirit and the letter by the DUP leader making a statement to the Assembly.
The Speaker repeated again and again his mantra that he was acting within standing orders – without ever saying which orders he was referring to. After 30 minutes of this the DUP Chief Whip got up - said it was time to move on and the Speaker obliged by calling Arlene Foster. At that everyone else in the chamber left – including Jonathon Bell the former DUP Minister whose allegations of corruption and abuse of the Renewable Heating Initiative scheme have fuelled (sorry for the pun) the current crisis.
The DUP was left on its own - speaking to itself. DUP MLAs even went through the charade of asking Arlene questions after she finished her remarks.
The arrogance displayed by the DUP is typical of its approach to most issues. Monday’s episode only served to bring the political institutions further into disrepute in the eyes of most of the public.
The DUP has a long record of trying to walk over the rights of others. They are in the Assembly because they have no choice. If they want to hold public office they have to share power with Sinn Féin. For our part Sinn Féin is in the political institutions, sharing power with them, because we want to. At a personal level even the most hardline DUP politician knows that the old days are gone and some in private will be friendly and on good terms with the rest of us. But that’s where it’s kept – in private.
Remember Ian Paisley was dumped because it was felt he was too friendly with Martin McGuinness.
Every day therefore is a battle. The DUP still actively block key elements of the Good Friday and subsequent agreements.
Sinn Féin is for a united Ireland. The DUP and unionists are opposed to this.
Sinn Féin is opposed to austerity measures and conservative politics. The DUP embrace these.
Sinn Féin is for a Bill of Rights. The DUP are against it.
Sinn Féin opposed Brexit. The DUP supports Brexit.
Sinn Féin believes in marriage equality. The DUP don’t.
Sinn Féin is for an Acht na Gaeilge and for the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement around legacy and truth issues. The DUP oppose these. They support the British government’s national security veto.
They usually present their opposition to all these modest measures in an offensive and provocative way.
The DUP has been particularly disrespectful about the Irish language and Irish medium education. And to add to the difficulties the British and Irish governments humour them.
However, despite our differences with the DUP Martin McGuinness and our Ministerial team work hard every day to ensure the stability of the political institutions. Good work is being done by the Assembly and especially by Sinn Féin Ministers and MLAs.
The current crisis is not about orange versus green. The scandal around the RHI was created by the DUP. The crisis that has grown from it is their responsibility.
Internal manoeuvrings and intrigues within the DUP have brought all of this to a head. The allegations of serious corruption, irregularity, abuse, and fraud in the working of the Renewal Heating Incentive scheme by the former DUP Minister Jonathon Bell have outraged citizens. Mr. Bell has accused his former colleagues of keeping open a scheme that could well cost the taxpayers of the North over 400 million pounds. This would strip away essential financial resources from government departments at a time when the British government has already slashed the block grant.
A motion to exclude Arlene Foster was put on Monday’s Assembly agenda by the SDLP and Ulster Unionists. It was rooted in the legislation that established the institutions in 1998 and consequently it required cross community support to pass. In other words the DUP would have to vote for it to pass.
Did the opposition parties really expect that like Turkeys voting for Christmas the DUP would support their motion? Of course not. This motion was playacting by the opposition parties. It was about giving the pretence of doing something when in reality they were doing nothing. The opposition motion was always going nowhere, except into the dustbin. Worse it was allowing the DUP off the hook in respect of the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme. It didn’t mention the scheme or set as an objective any attempt to recoup taxpayers money.
Over last weekend the Sinn Féin leadership and Assembly team met in Derry to discuss our approach to Monday’s Assembly meeting. We agreed our own amendment to that proposed by the opposition parties. The Speakers office would not accept it on the Monday but it will now be the substantive motion at the top of the agenda on the first day the Assembly returns.
What does it seek? The First Minister to stand aside to facilitate an independent, time-framed, robust and transparent investigation and until a preliminary report is presented; to recoup taxpayers money; and to determine whether corruption played any part in the process.
It is a balanced, sensible proposal which deals with all of the issues in dispute around the creation of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme.
The public is right to be concerned with this scheme and the allegations surrounding the DUP’s handling of it. The scheme was set up without costs controls and there were ample opportunities for such controls to be included throughout the life of the scheme. These opportunities were not taken.
Martin McGuinness asked Arlene Foster to stand aside while an investigation is taking place. He outlined to her his serious concern that the credibility of the political institutions is being undermined. He told her that that’s what he would do if he were in her shoes. Peter Robinson did that. She has refused.
Martin has asked her to reflect carefully over the Christmas and New Year period about the next steps in this crisis. For that’s what it is – the most serious crisis to threaten the political institutions in the last ten years.
Understandably many nationalists and republicans, and some unionists, are appalled by the behaviour of the DUP. Given the offensive way that DUP Ministers behave it is little wonder that some want revenge. But revenge is not a policy. Politics is too important to be left to politicians.
If you want marriage equality? Then campaign for it. If you want Irish language rights? Campaign for them. If you want a Bill of Rights? Make your voice heard. If you want legacy inquests and British files made available to victim’s families? Join with them in demanding it.
Monday’s antics by the DUP in the Assembly have seriously damaged its credibility and that of the Executive and of the First and Deputy First Ministers office. The DUP’s actions are not acceptable and this issue is not going away.
Finally, can I wish all of you Nollaig Shona Daoibh go léir.