Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Ministerial Code for Dummies

The Ministerial Code for Dummies 

The Business Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday debated a motion to exclude the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, from holding office for a period of three months.

The motion was proposed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party and supported by Sinn Féin.

The short motion stated: 

That this Assembly, in accordance with section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, resolves that the Minister for Social Development no longer enjoys the confidence of the Assembly and that he be excluded from holding office as a Minister or junior Minister for a period of three months because he failed to observe the terms of paragraphs (cd) and (g) of the Pledge of Office and the sixth paragraph of the ministerial code of conduct, in that he failed to promote good community relations and did not condemn actions which were contrary to the rule of law in his public response on 25 August 2012 to the sectarian behaviour of the Young Conway Volunteers flute band on 12 July 2012 and their illegal violations of a Parades Commission determination. 

The fundamental weakness in this resolution is; that the Ministerial Code which is provided for under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 ; has no accompanying clauses attached; which provide for sanctions against violations of the code.

It is not very often that I find myself in agreement with Jim Allister about anything, but his contribution to the debate is worth noting.

 Mr Allister:” Even if there were merit in the motion and it were carried by a majority in this House, the reality is that it has no effect.  That, therefore, points up a greater issue than the subject of the debate.  It points up the fact that this House effectively has no control over some Ministers, whatever they do.  That is because, although there is a ministerial code and mechanisms for dealing with complaints of alleged breaches under that code, no mechanism exists that is foolproof and effective to deliver penalty for any breach of the ministerial code by a Minister from either of the two largest parties.  Under the arrangements of the 1998 Act, the two largest parties have a veto on any motion of censure even if it carries majority support in the House.  That is why this is a pointless exercise and why it points up a greater problem that needs to be addressed.

If anything positive and worthwhile comes out of this debate, it should be that that difficulty in the 1998 legislation is addressed.  Of course, the SDLP was the craftsman of that legislation, and it honed, drafted and helped to prepare it and very much has ownership of it.  However, in today's terms, a veto was written in for the DUP and Sinn Féin where any censure of their Ministers was concerned.  Yes, an SDLP Minister could be censured.  Yes, an Ulster Unionist Minister could be censured and removed from office by the House, because they do not have a political voting payroll that is sufficient to block such a motion or a veto in a cross-community vote.  However, the reality is that a Sinn Féin or DUP Minister is secure from that.  That is wrong, just as the motion, in its focus, is wrong.” 

Question put.

The Assembly divided:

Ayes 47; Noes 49.


Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Byrne, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Ms Fearon, Mr Flanagan, Mr Hazzard, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Ms McCorley, Mr McDevitt, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Ms McGahan, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Ms Maeve McLaughlin, Mr Mitchel McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maginness, Mr Maskey, Mr Molloy, Mr Ó hOisín, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Mr Rogers, Ms Ruane, Mr Sheehan.

Mr McClarty.

Mr Agnew, Mrs Cochrane, Mr Dickson, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Lynch and Mrs McKevitt.


Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Ms Brown, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr Clarke, Mr Copeland, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mr Frew, Mr Gardiner, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Ms P Bradley and Mr Humphrey.

Total Votes         96     Total Ayes          47     [49.0%]
Nationalist Votes         37     Nationalist Ayes 37     [100.0%]
Unionist Votes   50     Unionist Ayes     1       [2.0%]
Other Votes        9       Other Ayes         9       [100.0%]

Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the BBC Northern Ireland reports today that … “research, conducted by commercial property agency Lisney, said 23% - or almost one in four shops in Belfast - are now lying vacant.”