Eleven DUP Assembly members defy advice of leader Arlene Foster

Row and confusion over new planning legislation causing headache for First Minister

Arlene Foster insists that no Minister can go on a solo run with a controversial decision under the new legislation. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire

Arlene Foster insists that no Minister can go on a solo run with a controversial decision under the new legislation. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire

 

Eleven of the DUP’s 27 Assembly members have defied party leader Arlene Foster by abstaining on a vote for new legislation chiefly designed to free up the planning process in Northern Ireland.

Senior DUP members such as former ministers Mervyn Storey and Michelle McIlveen went against the wishes of party leader and First Minister Ms Foster by refusing to support the The Executive Committee (Functions) Bill.

It was also reported on Wednesday that three senior DUP figures, former deputy leader Nigel Dodds and MPs Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson had advised Ms Foster to pause the passing of the legislation to the autumn but that she refused.

The Bill was comfortably passed in the Assembly on Tuesday afternoon with the support of other DUP MLAs, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance.

Its supporters argued it was necessary in order to address a 2018 court judgment relating to a proposed huge incinerator at Mallusk in north Belfast viewed as meaning every major planning matter would have to go before the Executive.

Ulster Unionist Party members, the two Green MLAs, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit opposed the legislation.

Practical measure

Ostensibly the Bill is a practical measure mainly aimed at easing the planning process in Northern Ireland.

It is designed, according to its proponents, to allow individual Ministers – particularly SDLP infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon – have more power to take individual planning decisions without having to refer them to the full Northern Executive.

It ran into controversy however when Richard Bullick, a former special advisor to DUP first ministers Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, warned that the detail of the legislation would undermine collective Executive responsibility by allowing Ministers take significant individual decisions without reference to the Executive.

Mr Bullick, who now works in the private sector, described the law change as “the most significant rolling back of the St Andrews Agreement and will significantly undermine the ability of the Executive to prevent Ministers acting without collective agreement”.

The 2006 St Andrews Agreement changed elements of the 1998 Belfast Agreement to limit the ability of individual Ministers to take decisions without referral to the Northern Executive. This was largely prompted by a decision by the late Martin McGuinness, when he was education minister, to abolish the 11 Plus educational transfer test – a decision that infuriated many unionists.

Mr Bullick’s central argument is that the new law could allow a repeat of such action.

Ms Foster however has rejected this interpretation of the new legislation, citing her own legal advice and insisting that any three Ministers can demand that potential controversial decisions be referred to the Executive for approval.

As the DUP has four Ministers, her argument goes, individual Ministers therefore cannot take “solo runs” on controversial matters.

Ultimately, whether Ms Foster or Mr Bullick is correct may have to be a matter for the courts.

Difficulties

But in the meantime the new legislation is causing difficulties for Ms Foster’s leadership and has resulted in 11 of her party MLAs refusing to heed her advice.

BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show added to that headache by reporting that three of the party’s senior members, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson had advised her to hold back on pushing through the Bill but that she refused.

The Irish Times made efforts to contact Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson and Mr Wilson for comment and also sought a response from the DUP. No response was forthcoming at the time of writing.

The 11 DUP members who abstained had to actively make their point by voting in the “aye” and “no” lobbies. They were: Paula Bradley, Thomas Buchanan, Jonathan Buckley, Joanna Bunting, Trevor Clarke, Alex Easton, Paul Few, David Hilditch, William Humphrey, Michelle McIlveen and Mervyn Storey.