I still think the DUP collapsed Stormont. It might have been better if they had (so little practiced are some ministers despite being a ‘natural party to government’, Sam McBride picks up the story:
This story unfolded in a largely empty House of Assembly just over a week ago and has implications for landlords and tenants of around 140,000 private homes.
Sinn Fein Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has introduced the Private Tenancies Bill to the Assembly, aiming to update the law in several areas where tenants’ rights have been neglected.
With the Assembly weeks away from dissolving, the bill is part of a glut of legislation being passed.
The villain of the play? People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll who tabled an amendment to cut each private tenant’s bill by 10% if the lease had been in place for more than six months (won’t hurt him in the May election with voters in West Belfast who had pickings from Stormont).
However, the minister urged caution, arguing that the way the amendment was drafted could bring down the entire bill on legal grounds. But what happened next was indicative of the political psychosis which haunts almost every corner of Northern Irish politics these days. Sam again:
… the Speaker rang the division bell for three minutes to allow MPs from all Parliament Buildings to come to the chamber — the next step in a contested vote.
As usual, he then posed the question again. This time something even more curious happened – Mr Carroll was again joined by others, apparently Sinn Fein MPs, but the DUP remained silent this time.
A DUP source said the party had decided that Sinn Fein and other parties were trying to wash their hands of the issue ahead of an election, knowing the DUP would vote against it, and so DUP Chief Whip Trevor Clarke, decided to “call their bluff” by asking DUP MPs not to vote to see what would happen.
The speaker asked the question one last time, and the scene repeated itself, meaning that with several “yeses” and no objections, the amendment had to pass. Throughout it all, Ms Hargey remained silent, although minutes earlier she had issued a stern warning against what her party colleagues were supporting. It was a weird scene.
Mr Carroll, a lone MP who had seen party after party line up to oppose his proposal, was stunned. In a statement, he said he was delighted but added: ‘Pressure will be needed from tenants and the general public for the Minister to commit to implementing these important measures.’
There was consternation in Ms Hargey’s department, where the minister had been told the amendment would render the whole bill illegal, although the basis for that opinion was not made public.
What followed is proof of the adage “where there is no politics, there is no politics”. On Monday (as the Minister had warned), the Private Tenancies Bill (since it would give protection where there was none) was in danger of collapsing since Carroll’s amendment the had put out of jurisdiction.
Paul Frew’s contribution is worth quoting at length:
Lest anyone have any doubts, there was no error at the examination stage. People knew exactly what they were doing. No one slept at the wheel, because everyone in the hemicycle had been working there for months.
The people in this room knew exactly what they were doing, so they would have to face the consequences, not only because they had worked on it months before, in and out of committee, but because the Minister for Communities had warned us , as she did today .
The minister said today that it is impossible to proceed as the bill stands and that housing campaigners are genuinely concerned.
The work of Housing Rights is commendable. When they saw the danger, they immediately contacted us. Some MPs have been contacted, even before the bill was debated, about issues with what the bill is now designed to do. They worked tirelessly to try to salvage the situation, as did officials from the Department of Communities. I give them credit.
The department was placed in an almost impossible position due to petty party politics, centered around West Belfast. This is ultimately what we saw play out in the House a few weeks ago. The minister said one thing, but her party did another. She said one thing and then kept silent, remained silent, when it came to the vote, while the party behind her shouted “Aye”.
Why were they shouting “yes”? For a 10% drop in rents and a freeze for three years thereafter, not exceeding the level at which rents currently stand. That is why the party opposite voted to support Gerry Carroll’s amendment. As I said at this point, I understand why Gerry Carroll moved the amendment. It is his policy; it’s in his political DNA.
I understand that. This is where he is in the political spectrum. This is probably where Sinn Féin also sits in the political spectrum. They were so frightened by the one member moving this amendment that they got so confused that the minister said one thing and the party did the other. Such a waste.
In general, there seems to have been a lot of energy released in the Assembly by the collapse of the executive (which on the face of it is potentially a good thing, or at least shows an appetite for it). democratic effort), but as we see in this episode rushing legislation can also be a bad thing.
It looks like an effort to get something in front of the electorate ahead of the May election: the only real explanation for Sinn Féin’s “provisional” desertion of its own minister and thoughtful legal advisers on the matter. Ditto for the climate change bill which is barely worth the paper it is printed on.
What is strange, politically speaking, in the panic among the deputies of the SF, is that it only affected one out of eighteen multi-member constituencies. Presumably they were counting on the DUP to vote with the advice of their own minister (and that of the housing needs lobby) and that would have been immediately forgotten.
But, for once, the DUP did not oblige them. Is there perhaps a little life left in the old Unionist dog?