Nelson sails on regardless

Nelson McCausland
Image caption The SDLP and Sinn Fein wanted to ban Nelson McCausland from office for three months

It was the kind of hot tempered Stormont debate after which you might say there were no winners and no losers.

This wasn't quite right as advocates of the compulsory registration of landlords and schemes which safeguard tenants' deposits must have breathed a sigh of relief.

If the SDLP's motion excluding Nelson McCausland had succeeded then the Social Development Minister would presumably have had to immediately vacate his seat on the front bench.

In which case he wouldn't have been able to move his draft housing regulations.

As things stand, the no confidence motion failed to win cross community approval, so the North Belfast MLA moved on to regular business as if all that stuff about parades, sectarianism, civil disobedience and the rule of law had all been a bad dream.

The SDLP knew when they submitted this motion they were heading towards a brick wall. But Alasdair McDonnell argued that the principles at stake - respect for the rule of law and promoting good relations - were so important it was right to make a stand.

The DUP accused the SDLP of double standards over civil disobedience and their failure to condemn one of their own, Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood, for attending a paramilitary funeral.

The First Minister Peter Robinson described the attempt to exclude his minister as "disappointing and depressing" and claimed the SDLP and Sinn Fein were operating as a "sectarian tag team".

Nelson McCausland rejected any assertion that he'd broken his ministerial pledge of office, claiming the transcript of his comments on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan show backed his case.

For those who want to make their own minds up, here's the interview.

One of the more surprising contributions came from the DUP Junior Minister Jonathan Bell, who revealed Mr McCausland had been his babysitter decades ago (perhaps if he'd stuck to reading soothing bedtime stories to the people of North Belfast we wouldn't be in this pickle).

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Alasdair McDonnell said principles were at stake

The SDLP muttered about the absence of Sinn Fein ministers. But, putting that to one side, both the nationalist and DUP votes were fairly predictable. This meant most interest focussed on how other politicians would line up.

Alliance agreed with the nationalists that Mr McCausland had undermined respect for the rule of law.

The Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt found himself in a more difficult place sandwiched between MLAs who are senior Orangemen and others who disagreed with Mr McCausland's broadcast comments.

Although at his weekend party conference Mr Nesbitt had pledged the Ulster Unionists to be an anti-sectarian party appealing to everyone, he found himself sitting on the fence.

He told the Assembly that his MLAs would listen to the debate then make up their minds. In the end most of the Ulster Unionists sided with the DUP, with only the Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea and the South Down MLA John McCallister declining to vote either way.

The only unionist who voted with the nationalists was East Londonderry's David McClarty. Mr McClarty told me he wasn't impressed by all the whataboutery in the debate, arguing that two wrongs didn't make a right.

So Nelson sails on, like his namesake seeing no sectarian ships.

The SDLP is talking about taking the case to the new Assembly Standards Commissioner, as the code of conduct for MLAs also refers to respect for the rule of law and good relations.

As I reported last week, the new Standards Commissioner is Douglas Bain who remains one of Northern Ireland's seven Parades Commissioners.

He is therefore an author of the marching determination central to the McCausland affair. So a situation which was hypothetical last week looks like becoming real this week, and Mr Bain may have to approach someone else to carry out an investigation into Mr McCausland.

Whatever side one takes on the exclusion debate, its timing - just days before next weekend's big Covenant parade - has to be open to question.

As the exchanges grew ever more cantankerous you had to wonder whether the politicians' time would be better spent on the "quiet conversations" supposedly underway to resolve the marching dispute.