Cries of `farce, shame, charade' as Robin Newton feels heat in assembly

Assembly speaker Robin Newton

ASSEMBLY speaker Robin Newton was left feeling the heat as members staged two mass walk outs of the chamber.

The east Belfast DUP member floundered under incessant questioning - one question really from multiple members. A question to which he had an answer, one answer, but not one that anyone, except the DUP, was willing to accept.

The first walk out came within minutes.

Cries of "on a point of order, Mr Speaker" echoed around the chamber meaning Mr Newton wasn't even given the chance to introduce proceedings. When he made it clear that he was not willing to take points of order, everyone but the DUP, Jim Allister and Claire Sugden left their seats.

The speaker agreed to a short adjournment, and probably had an idea of what to expect when members trickled back - all but two of Sinn Féin's members stayed away.

The points of order came after a few introductory comments, and Mr Newton struggled. The exchanges that followed were unforgivably cringeworthy.

Member after member rose to ask why, how he was allowing Arlene Foster to speak on behalf of the Executive Office when she did not have the backing of Martin McGuinness.

Mr Newton said he has received correspondence from Mr McGuinness that Ms Foster's statement did not come with his authority. He added that he had discharged his responsibility in recalling the assembly.

Ian Knox's interpretation of yesterday's events:

It got even worse from there when Mr Newton decided to stick to his script.

Explaining why he recalled the assembly, the speaker simply trotted out the same line about taking appropriate advice from officers and discharging his responsibilities.

These statements, or statement singular was broken only by the odd nervous smile, aside or moment of silence.

Carál Ní Chuilín said Mr Newton had come close to undermining the joint nature of Executive Office by allowing Ms Foster to proceed. Then UUP leader Mike Nesbitt asked for detail on which particular standing order was the statement being allowed to go ahead.

Both received similar answers from the speaker.

Alex Attwood was next. Same answer. Then Jim Allister. Same answer. Stephen Farry. Same answer.

He deviated from the script only slightly when asked by Naomi Long if members could expect standing orders to be changed "so that both the First Minister and deputy First Minister will answer questions for oral answer and will have an opportunity to make a statement on every issue that the Executive Office brings to the house in order that this be done in a consistent manner?"

Mr Newton's response of "that would not be an ideal situation" was greeted with some laughter, before he added, in an almost defeated and deflated whisper "we have discharged our responsibilities".

Eamonn McCann was among those who noted "the house is not operating as intended" adding: "Procedurally, it seems to me that we are now in la-la land and limbo land. Please can we stop this charade?"

Only Trevor Clarke, of the DUP, appeared puzzled by the questions to the speaker, claiming "members have an obsession here this morning with process" adding that Ms Foster's statement should proceed.

Mr Newton appealed forlornly for "other points of order" but members would not relent. Backed into a corner, the speaker ignored "further to that point of order" shouts to call on the first minister.

As Ms Foster rose to make her statement, the second walk out followed leaving the DUP leader to address her own party - with half the government and the entire opposition absent.

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