Northern Ireland

Speaker Robin Newton denies 'party political motivation' over RHI statement

Robin Newton
Image caption Robin Newton said he "acted solely on the basis of official advice" when he allowed his party leader Arlene Foster to make a statement without the approval of Martin McGuinness

Stormont's Speaker has defended himself against allegations of party political motivation when he allowed his DUP leader, Arlene Foster, to address the assembly on the 'cash-for-ash' scheme.

Robin Newton has written to all MLAs, setting out his reasons for permitting her to make a statement last month, without Martin McGuinness's approval.

Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness held joint office until he resigned on Monday.

Mr Newton said he took the impartiality of his role "extremely seriously".

The DUP MLA, who was elected Speaker in May last year, faced a walk-out protest by opposition parties over his handling of an emergency sitting of the assembly on 19 December.

'Deeply saddened'

The chamber emptied as Mrs Foster made a statement about her role in setting up the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which has left taxpayers with an unexpected £490m bill.

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Media captionMLAs walk out as Foster begins statement

Members complained that Mr Newton had undermined the principles of power-sharing by permitting the first minister to make a statement to the chamber without the agreement of the deputy first minister.

He faced calls for his resignation as Speaker and will be the subject of a no confidence motion when the assembly reconvenes on Monday.

In a detailed letter to MLAs, Mr Newton said: "I have been deeply saddened by allegations that I was motivated by any party political factors in how business was conducted on 19 December.

"I reject that entirely in the case of this or any decision I have ever taken as Speaker. The independence and impartiality of the role of Speaker is something I have taken extremely seriously."

He wrote that, five days before Mrs Foster's statement, the Speaker's office received a "valid notice seeking the recall of the assembly" which bore the signatures of both the first and deputy first ministers.

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Image caption Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster held joint office as first and deputy first ministers until he resigned

However, on the night before the emergency sitting, his office received an "unsigned email in the name of the deputy first minister" which stated that Mrs Foster's statement did not reflect the views of Mr McGuinness and that he was "withdrawing his agreement".

The Speaker said he received advice that the initial recall of the assembly was valid as both the first and deputy first ministers had agreed to it, but that Mr McGuinness could not then act alone to prevent the recall.

"What was done jointly by the first and deputy first minister cannot be undone unilaterally," Mr Newton wrote.

'Frustrations'

The Speaker insisted that he did not consult anyone from the DUP about the situation and had "acted solely on the basis of official advice".

However, he acknowledged that it had been a "very difficult day" and that "business could have been managed better".

"I admit that I was not prepared for the extent of the frustrations which were exhibited in the chamber from that point on the day."

Mr Newton also added that he was "disappointed that no recognition has been given to the role of the Executive Office in creating this scenario".

He said the first and deputy first ministers should not "lightly seek the recall of the assembly without ensuring that agreement is secured and maintained on the business to be transacted".

In November, Mr Newton apologised to the assembly for not declaring his links to the east Belfast organisation Charter NI, when he made an earlier ruling against an urgent debate on its funding.

The Speaker denied being an adviser to Charter NI, but he said he had offered it advice in the past.

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