Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pascal, four party responses, Wordle and a case of inverse proportionality

I’ve oft agreed with the words of Pascal:

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

It might be slightly cruel, but the situation can be summed up ...

There was this thing, with a panel, except they were all too busy to attend and take their places behind the table ... except one. Oh, and the public turned up in good numbers. But the other thing was more important, so most of the panel stayed at it. And no one else took their places.

You may wish to skip this post ... but if curiosity gets the better of you, I conducted a quick experiment in political engagement around lunchtime today when I fired off the same email to the various parties who failed to show up on the panel at the Assembly Roadshow in East Belfast last night.

Have you a quick comment on how last night your party balanced (1) the importance of the Justice debate and division at Stormont versus (2) your agreement for an MLA to appear in front of the members of the public (voters) assembled a mile down the road in the Park Avenue Hotel for the Assembly Roadshow?

As one of the fifty or more people assembled, am I right to be disappointed that your party couldn’t sacrifice one MLA to come down and join Dawn Purvis on the panel, perhaps before returning to Stormont for the division?

Given that they could see each other’s email addresses in the To: line and knew that the responses (or lack of) might be blogged, I expected most would reply. And at the time of posting, only Sinn Fein haven’t replied. Alliance replied with a direct quotation from Naomi Long; the other parties replied with a comment from their spokesperson. A big thank you to those who did reply.

As a mathematician who wishes he’d done more statistics, the intriguing thing for me is that the length of time taken to reply was inversely proportional to the number of words used to reply. Which means if Sinn Fein do ever reply, it’ll have to be pretty terse not to break the trend!

  • (UUP) 43 minutes, 265 words
  • (Alliance) 54 minutes, 260 words
  • (DUP) 82 minutes, 210 words
  • (SDLP) 137 minutes, 113 words
  • UPDATE Mon 28 Sep - And just over five days later ...
    (SF) 7368 minutes, 204 words - which broke the trend!

Putting the four responses through Wordle.net nicely summarises their content.

Wordle: Northern Ireland Assembly Roadshow party responses - www.wordle.net

Much of what the parties said was very similar. The UUP and SDLP both pointed out in their statements that they had contributed to previous roadshows. Both these parties felt the scheduling of the roadshow against the Justice debate was “unfortunate”.

All four parties felt that the Justice Bill was important:

  • (UUP) “a particularly significant piece of legislation”
  • (Alliance) “legislating last night on a major issue”
  • (DUP) “clearly very important to the community and the DUP”
  • (SDLP) “ultimately most important debate of this Assembly year”

Other than wanting to send panellists, only one party articulated any importance of the roadshow:

  • (UUP) “an important role in maintaining contact between the Assembly as an institution and the voting public”

Did it catch them out?

  • (UUP) “The length of time taken by the debate did catch us unawares. The Business Office’s indicative timings had set aside a mere 3 hours for the Bill.”
  • (Alliance) “Because the speeches are not time limited it is virtually impossible to predict how long the session will last, and it was not impossible even at 8 o'clock that members could have voted and then gone.”
  • (DUP) “This was scheduled to be quite a short debate, which would have freed up MLAs later in the evening. However, it quickly became apparent that the debate was going to run into the evening and there would be a division at the end.”

So why did everyone have to stay?

  • (SDLP) “… given the importance of the Justice Bill and its negative implications for the core values of the Good Friday Agreement, the SDLP Assembly Group took the decision to impose a three-line whip for the whole debate, not just for the division … defending the principle of inclusive democracy enshrined in the Agreement with all the resources at our disposal has got to be the priority for the SDLP.”
  • (UUP) “MLAs absenting themselves from a crucial debate and only turning up to vote would not, in our view, represent an adequate approach to this particularly significant Bill. It was important for MLAs to be present in force to hear the various contributions and to weigh the arguments.”
  • (DUP) “the DUP had many members who wished to participate fully in the debate … Simon Hamilton MLA was scheduled to participate in the Assembly Roadshow but also wished to be a participant in the Justice Bill debate. He was unable to speak in the debate on the Justice Bill until after 7pm, but participation in the debate is not simply confined to making a speech, but in making and taking interventions to and from other speakers as well as participating in the division at the end.”

Could pairing not have freed people up?

  • (Alliance) “When we realised that this debate was not going to conclude in time, we tried to put pairing arrangements in place; however, the added complication was that most of the people on the panel were also active in the debate.

    Danny Kennedy and I are Chair and Vice Chair of the OFMdFM committee which will handle the committee stage of the Bill, and therefore had to be there for the Ministerial response, Alban Maginness is SDLP Justice Spokesperson, Francie Malloy as deputy Speaker was deputising to allow the Speaker to go to the Roadshow and Simon Hamilton is on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee which is dealing with justice, so we not only needed pairs but alternates from each voting group.

    When that was agreed at just after 8.20pm, we were then advised that it was past the point where they would be able to make it.”

It was such a good explanation, I didn't shorten it!

And for their final punch lines:

  • (UUP) “While we apologise for the absence of an Ulster Unionist MLA last night, we trust that the public and responsible commentators will recognise the highly unusual circumstances, evidenced by the fact that the Assembly did not rise until 12:50am.”
  • (Alliance) “I have written to the Speaker, asking that they avoid scheduling Roadshows on sitting days as the unpredictability of the timings will leave them a hostage to fortune. It doesn’t happen often but it shouldn't really be allowed to conflict at all.”
  • (DUP) “The Assembly is sometimes criticised for not giving scrutiny to legislation passing through. Whilst this was merely a piece of enabling legislation it did receive detailed scrutiny and debate and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly the legislative process should be a key priority for all Members.”
  • (SDLP) “… defending the principle of inclusive democracy enshrined in the Agreement with all the resources at our disposal has got to be the priority for the SDLP.”

Lastly, Hansard has caught up with last night’s proceedings up on “the hill”. For all the interest in the {significant | important | major} {debate | legislation}, can you guess how many of the 108 MLAs (well, 104 MLS if you subtract the speaker and the deputy speakers) were in attendance and voted in the division just before 9.45pm?

Answer: 80.

And the rest sure weren’t down sitting in the Park Avenue Hotel!

snippet from Hansard showing Justice Bill voting (c) Northern Ireland Assembly Commission 2009

6 comments:

Mark said...

Heh. "responsible commentators". Do you feel suitably chastised? ;)

Michael Shilliday said...

12 of the 18 UUP MLA's voted in the division. David McClarty chaired a portion of the debate and could not therefore vote, but was at the debate as he contributed to a later debate. Sir Reg is in the USA on Ministerial business, and Michael McGimpsey was I think similarly engaged. I also know that some of the remainder have been ill this week. That accounts for nearly all of our MLAs. The SDLP seem to have had 12 MLAs there, remove there deputy speaker and Minister that leaves two not there.

The DUP and Sinn Fein can speak for themselves.

Alan in Belfast said...

Post about politics - comments within minutes. Post about anything else ... comments in a day or two!

Alan in Belfast said...

@Mark - knowing who wrote the "responsible commentators", I'm sure it was slightly tongue in cheek!

Anonymous said...

Can 50(ish) people out of a potential electorate of about 40,000 actually be described as "good numbers"??

That's about 0.125% of the eligible electorate there to hear them.

Alan in Belfast said...

In the spirit of completeness, I should report that Sinn Fein did get back today.

As I’m sure you will be aware, Francie Molloy, who was selected to represent Sinn Féin on the night, was himself in the Chair during the debate on the Justice Bill; this was to facilitate the Speaker, William Hay’s attendance.

As Sinn Féin currently have no MLA elected to the Assembly in east Belfast, as deputy Speaker, Francie was selected to speak authoritively [sic] on the workings of the Assembly.

It was of course unfortunate that so many reps were unable to attend the event but I have no doubt that people do in fact appreciate the fact that the debate was ongoing and therefore did inevitably restrict the availability of members. My understanding is that the Road Show is in the process of being re-scheduled for another date.

We are disappointed that we were unable to send an MLA to take part on this occasion, however Sinn Féin is committed to ensuring opportunities for greater engagements between ourselves and the general public; that is why we took the lead and now annually organise ‘Town Hall’ meetings throughout Ireland. It is also why we send representatives to the Assembly Road Shows.

We look forward to taking part in the re-scheduled Road Show for east Belfast.