Role of the Speaker
The Speaker is the Presiding Officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He is also the Chairman of the Assembly Commission, the body corporate of the Assembly, and the Chairman of the Assembly Business Committee.
The Speaker must be an elected Member of the Assembly. He is selected as Speaker under Section 39 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on a cross community basis. Once elected, the Speaker continues to hold office until the conclusion of the next election for Speaker unless he resigns.
Authority and impartiality of the Speaker
The chief characteristics of the office of Speaker are authority and impartiality. In debates, all speeches are addressed to the Speaker and his choice of Members to speak is not open to dispute. In giving a ruling or preserving order in the Chamber, the Speaker must be heard in silence. No Member may stand when the Speaker is standing. Comments on the character or the actions of the Speaker may be punished as breaches of privilege. The Speaker cannot be criticised in a debate or by any form of proceedings except a substantive motion.
Members must be confident of the impartiality of the Speaker and this is achieved through the operation of a number of conventions. He does not participate or vote in any debates in the Assembly, he does not become involved in party politics, nor does he comment on Northern Ireland political matters or on issues of Government policy. When speaking on behalf of the Assembly, the Speaker confines himself to matters relating to the operation of the Assembly. Similarly, he will only make statements to the press on factual or procedural matters relating to the Assembly.
The Speaker’s duties fall into two main categories: first, those which are specified in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Standing Orders of the Assembly and, secondly, those which fall into the broad category of representational duties.
Powers and Duties of the Speaker
The powers and duties of the Speaker are derived from the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and are incorporated into Assembly Standing Orders. The Speaker has a scrutiny role in relation to the competence of legislation prior to the first and final stages of a Bill. He is also required to forward copies of all Bills to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. He selects amendments to Bills for debate at the Consideration stages and on the completion of all stages of a Bill, sends it to the Secretary of State requesting Royal Assent.
Written notification of the resignation of the First Minister or Deputy First Minister must be given to the Speaker, as should written notification of the appointment, resignation or dismissal of Ministers, Committee Chairs or Deputy Chairs. In the event of a vacancy occurring in the Assembly’s membership the Speaker must inform the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland.
Other duties of the Speaker include the administration of oaths and presiding at meetings of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission. In addition, he has a number of representational duties, which are outlined below. The Speaker receives visitors to Parliament Buildings, including Heads of State, Ambassadors and senior politicians from Britain, Ireland and overseas.
The Speaker has the primary role in maintaining and developing the links the Assembly has established with the Westminster legislature and with the other devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, as well as with the legislatures of the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, the Republic of Ireland, Europe, Canada, Australia and the USA.
He represents the Assembly at the Conference of the Regional Legislative Assemblies of Europe (CALRE), which meets annually to enable the various regional legislative Assemblies to discuss issues of mutual interest. He also attends, on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a biennial conference held to allow the Speakers of the Commonwealth countries to meet to discuss issues and developments relating to the operation of the various Parliaments and Assemblies. Through his role as President of the Northern Ireland Assembly Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Speaker is involved in many activities to maintain links between Members of the Parliaments of the Commonwealth countries.
The Speaker also hosts a range of events designed to promote an understanding of the Assembly as an institution and to develop links with the wider Northern Ireland community.