Politicians unite for Spence family tributes

Edwin Poots
The Health Minister Edwin Poots led the tributes in the assembly

The week's proceedings at Stormont couldn't have started on a bleaker note, with representatives of all parties rising to express their sympathy to the Spence family of Hillsborough.

The tragic loss of three lives in a slurry tank accident on the family farm - including the death of one of Ulster's finest young rugby stars - shocked politicians across the board.

The DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots led the tributes.

The Lagan Valley MLA is a farmer himself, and knows the Spence family. His voice appeared to tremble as he tried to find the words to describe the impact of this weekend's awful incident.

After half an hour of tributes, the mood in the chamber remained sombre, as both the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster and the Employment Minister Stephen Farry moved on to last week's devastating job losses at Larne firm FG Wilson.

The Stormont Business Committee has come in for some flak for not being swift enough responding to current developments in rescheduling its debates.

The Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt says he would willingly give up his party's pre-arranged debate on the commemorations of the Ulster Covenant in order to discuss the lessons of the Caterpillar corporation's decision to shift much of its workload from East Antrim to China.

Alliance's Stewart Dickson has criticised both unionist parties and Sinn Fein for arranging debates this week on orange and green politics, rather than the economy.

Besides the Ulster Unionist Covenant debate, this week MLAs are expected to discuss a DUP motion calling for an Irish government apology over the troubles, and Sinn Fein motions on parades and bringing tourist visas into line north and south of the border (an issue which in fairness does have an economic aspect).

The comeback from the Business Committee may be that, via what are known as either "Matters of the Day" or via a "Ministerial Statement", the politicians do get a chance to react to unfolding events.

However, these opportunities are more brief than a full blown debate and therefore don't deflect widespread criticism that the Assembly is out of touch.

In the past the Stormont Correspondents' Association has suggested that, during their regular question times, ministers should take a number of topical questions on events of the day, just as the Prime Minister does during Westminster question time.

Topical questions would make Stormont exchanges more up to the minute, rather than perpetuating the current divide whereby politicians all too often emerge into the Great Hall to answer queries about whatever is in the headlines, then disappear back into their chamber to talk about something which featured in the news several weeks ago.

So far, however, ministers have fought shy of taking this step, no doubt because they fear being bowled a difficult delivery by an opponent without any warning.

Corporation tax

In the short term, they might find this safe course of action more convenient, but in the long term the downside for the Assembly is appearing out of touch.

Of course there's another discussion to be had as to whether the MLAs' collective wisdom on the economy would provide a single extra job.

It's easy to talk about the need for Northern Ireland to attract high value added employment and to develop a knowledge economy (see I can talk in jargon too). It's quite another to come up with an original idea and a viable business model that will deliver what's required.

For the record, the Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster again expressed her sympathy for the families of the FG Wilson workers, announced that Invest NI is pushing ahead with a support programme for individuals interested in starting their own businesses and pledged to push ahead towards a conclusion in her discussions on corporation tax with the Treasury.

She told MLAs a reduction in the local rate of corporation tax would result in 50,000 new jobs being created by 2031.

Mrs Foster criticised her old colleagues in the Ulster Unionists for, in her words, putting out "mawkish and grotesque" statements about the economy.

Then she came in for some criticism herself from another old colleague, the TUV's Jim Allister, who accused the minister of "thrashing about, talking a good talk" whilst presiding over economic decline and "chasing a rainbow" regarding corporation tax.

So within an hour or so, the sombre unanimity of the cross party tributes to the Spence family had given way to the rough and tumble of politics as usual in the chamber.