Democracy finds its voice in election of a Sinn Fein Speaker

Liam Clarke - DebateNI

Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin outside Parliament Buildings. His election shows that our government is working
Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin outside Parliament Buildings. His election shows that our government is working

– 15 January 2015

The election of Mitchel McLaughlin as Speaker at Stormont is a good day for democracy here – it shows that political commitments can be delivered. That feeling needs to be built in the coming months.

It is not necessarily a matter of who is the best candidate. John Dallat and Roy Beggs who stood against Mr McLaughlin were also capable of the job.

It is more about political stability. As things stand, neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein can hold power at Stormont on their own. They have got to work together or they both lose. If we are ever to move to a system where one of the parties can go into opposition then the trust will have to be deeper still.

Five DUP members didn’t vote for Mr McLaughlin as they were asked to do by the whips. One, Maurice Devenney from Foyle, was too ill. Four others have as yet give no reason for their absence, though “constituency business” has been mentioned. They included Edwin Poots and Jonathan Craig (both from Lagan Valley) as well as two Upper Bann MLAs, Sydney Anderson and Stephen Moutray.

This left the suspicion that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote a Shinner in as leader of the house. It brought to mind Benjamin Disraeli’s maxim “damn your principles, stick to your party”.

The 19th century Tory statesman was speaking on the subject of free trade. He went against his natural instincts on the issue to preserve party unity and political stability.

Politics are like that. Democratic political parties are broad churches where everyone can’t get their way all the time and they split if they can’t act together on an agreed programme. Peter Robinson has been making such points for some time both about parties and the coalition at Stormont.

It would be understandable if these four men had some reluctance to vote for Mr McLaughlin and he will have to work to win their confidence. He too must deliver of his commitments to act impartially and in the interests of the whole house, not his own party.

His statement that the murder of Jean McConville was not a criminal act is in line with traditional republican thinking that nothing authorised by the IRA is a crime but it was deeply shocking to most people. In the nature of things it will come back to haunt him.

However he shouldn’t be quizzed on his opinion of Troubles murders to the point where it interrupts debates. That would be self-indulgent for paid MLAs to take up the time of the house like this, it would be destabilising and it would help nobody. The justification for Stormont is to provide government, not to act as a taxpayer-funded forum for recrimination and name-calling.

Mr McLaughlin’s conduct in the here and now is what matters. His decisions have already been questioned by Jim Allister of the TUV and they will be carefully monitored by the other parties. That is what a Speaker must expect. He also has a right to expect that, provided he is fair, he will be supported in his role by rival parties.

In his case the DUP, both under Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, had promised that Sinn Fein would get the post during this Assembly. They delayed it, but, especially after Sinn Fein moved on welfare reform, honouring it was a matter of state.

Parties who are in government together don’t have to like each other. But when they give they give an undertaking they need to honour it. Any suggestion that they won’t is deeply damaging to the party involved, which is why the four MLAs should think again.

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