Queen's Policy Engagement

Why the Speaker’s Advisory Group at Stormont Should be Brought Back

Dr John Coulter examines the case for a reforming of the Speaker’s Advisory Group at Stormont as a first step to restoring the power-sharing Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Why the Speaker’s Advisory Group at Stormont Should be Brought Back

With Direct Rule almost inevitable, perhaps those parties committed to restoring devolution at Stormont should consider a workable solution which successfully laid the groundwork to the restoration of a devolved parliament following the previous lengthy period of suspension in 2002.

That was the year of the notorious ‘Stormontgate crisis’ when police raided Sinn Féin’s Stormont offices amid allegations of a republican spy ring at Parliament Buildings.

In October 2002, the then Labour Northern Ireland Secretary of State John Reid and Prime Minister Tony Blair decided to reimpose Direct Rule. Ironically, there had been two one-day suspensions of the Assembly in 2001. There was also a temporary suspension of the Assembly from February to May 2000.

The 2002 imposition of Direct Rule lasted until 2007 when the late Rev Ian Paisley and the late Martin McGuinness implemented the power-sharing Stormont Executive, heralding in perhaps the most stable periods of devolution in Northern Ireland.

If Direct Rule, no matter how it is dressed up politically, is coming down the tracks for Northern Ireland, how can the process of devolution be restored? Put bluntly, the tactic is glaringly simple – bring back the Saggers to save Stormont!

Saggers? ‘What?’ I hear you say. ‘Is this some secret neo-Masonic cult dreamt up in secret meetings in the corridors of Westminster?’ you might ask. The Saggers was a nickname given to a group of Assembly members who comprised the Speaker’s Advisory Group, which kept Stormont afloat when the Assembly went into suspension during the David Trimble era in 2002. The Saggers were all MLAs from the Stormont Commission, which is the Assembly’s inner circle – often regarded as an unofficial inner parliament within the Assembly.

My father, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, was an Ulster Unionist MLA for North Antrim from 1998 until his retirement in 2011 and served on the Stormont Commission from its inception until his retirement.  He served, too, as the UUP ‘Sagger’ during that 2002-2007 Direct Rule period so this specific observation on the potential role of the Saggers in getting Stormont restored is penned from personal experiences of watching the Saggers in action.

These Sagger MLAs considered material and documents, then made a series of recommendations which were given to the Assembly Speaker, who in turn passed them to the Northern Ireland Secretary. The Saggers team also linked up with very senior Northern Ireland civil servants. It sounded on paper like a complicated system, but in practice it worked smoothly and paved the foundations for the return of devolution following the St Andrews Agreement in 2006.

Tactically, it kept the Stormont project alive and prevented the Assembly from being dumped into mothballs like its original 1972 predecessor. Even Sinn Féin gave support to the Saggers’ work. Indeed, all parties represented on the Stormont Commission worked together very effectively on the Saggers project.

That’s why it is now so vital the Saggers be re-activated if the current Northern Ireland Secretary is forced to formally suspend Stormont again as relations between Sinn Féin and its DUP partner hit rock bottom. However, the cynic may be forgiven for asking, if the Saggers were so effective in creating a transition from Direct Rule back to devolution, why was it not on the political agenda following the collapse of Stormont yet again in January 2017?

What pundits and the public now have to realise is that the DUP faces some very difficult policy and potentially electorally damaging decisions regarding same-sex marriage, abortion, an Irish Language Act and legacy issues.  As a disciplined political movement, Sinn Féin is much more mature at bringing its voter base with it when difficult decisions have had to be made in the past, such as entering a power-sharing partitionist parliament at Stormont, and changing party rules so that it could potentially enter a coalition government at Leinster House following the expected Dáil general election later this year.

The DUP, as the main party within the pro-Union community, does not enjoy the same voter discipline. How would the Christian Church vote be affected if the DUP agreed to same-sex marriage, or a more liberal approach to abortion? How would the Loyal Orders, such as the Orange, Black and Apprentice Boys, react if the DUP agreed to a stand-alone Irish Language Act given the Orange’s very public opposition to such an Act? The DUP publicly may wish to see a restoration of the devolved institutions, but Direct Rule would avoid the party having to take some potentially electorally damaging decisions.

If the Westminster Parliament voted to introduce same-sex marriage, more liberal abortion laws and an Irish Language Act to Northern Ireland, the DUP could spin the view that it was London which brought these measures in, not a Stormont Executive. Privately, a period of Direct Rule would allow the DUP to side-step these three tricky pieces of legislation for the party.  Sinn Féin also needs to realise it needs to retain Stormont if it wants to become a minority government partner in the next Dáil. If Sinn Féin wants to convince the Southern Irish electorate that it has the maturity to run the Republic as part of a coalition government, then what better way to prove this to key floating voters than by agreeing to bring back Stormont. The republican movement has finally realised that the only route to Irish unity lies through Dublin, not Belfast or London.

The DUP isn’t privately worried by a Stormont collapse as its MPs take their Westminster seats so they can do deals with British Prime Minister Theresa May. The DUP view on the seven Sinn Féin MPs is simple as it is blunt – as Sinn Féin still operates its 1905 abstentionist policy on Commons seats, a dead fly would have more influence in the Commons chamber votes.

Sinn Féin has a massive image stereotype to overcome if Dublin TD Mary Lou McDonald is to emerge as Tánaiste after the South’s general election this year. Banging the anti-austerity drum may get Sinn Féin a few extra TDs, but it won’t propel Ms McDonald into that office.

But if Sinn Féin can save Stormont using the Saggers, it will help convince Southern voters the party can be trusted in government in the Republic as well. And what a mountain Sinn Féin has to climb to get those voters to move on from the past. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil spin doctors only need to pose the following blunt questions:

  • Would you vote for a party which snubbed thousands of republicans who went off to fight Kaiser Bill in 1914?
  • Would you vote for a party which organised the doomed Easter Rising in Dublin while those thousands of republicans were being slaughtered in the trenches?
  • Would you vote for a party which brought the wrath of the Black and Tans upon the Irish people in the War of Independence?
  • Would you vote for a party which didn’t accept the Treaty and condemned the island to months of slaughter as republican butchered republican?
  • Would you vote for a party which pussy-footed with Hitler’s Nazi scum during the Second World War?

If Sinn Féin wants the keys to the Tánaiste’s office, it must first use the Saggers to unlock the Stormont logjam. It worked in 2007; it can work again in 2018, but it may require a short, sharp dose of Direct Rule as an interim political remedy.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 


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Dr John Coulter is a lecturer in journalism in the further and higher education sector. He has also been a working journalist since 1978. He is a former weekly newspaper editor and currently writes analysis articles for national newspapers and magazines. Follow John on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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